An agency is no different than any other business. It exists to make a profit. As such, business development or sales is no different than other company – in theory. In practice, it is much different. It’s a complex, rapidly evolving, fragmented marketplace and agencies have very little time or resources to manage the complexities. It’s an irregular unpredictable sales process, a process that often plays out in extremes; from they called out of the blue and asked for a proposal to a protracted 12-month pitch, endless negotiation, contract, price and scope revisions, before a win or loss. Is it any wonder agency business development is so different?
Some of the complicating factors
- Long sales cycle – the average contract is three years
- Immense local, regional, and national competition – as many as 15,000 U.S. agencies, thousands more agency-like companies, and growing 5% per year.
- Huge audience – over 180,000 marketing executives and marketing decision-makers
- Very little differentiation among agencies – very difficult to compare, contrast, and conclude
- Complex sales process – subjective, political, incumbents, multiple decision-makers
Despite these factors, the real difference is the agency is not equipped to manage business development properly, nor is its marketing plan adequately designed for the marketplace. I asked senior-level agency people what they think are their most significant barriers to sales success. The top three are weak positioning and differentiation, no awareness, and lack of agency resources and time. You can see others in the chart below and this post about the survey results. And get more details from the survey. These three are fundamental for any business sales effort. So that’s it. We have the answers. Problem solved!
Not so fast. Admitting the problem is the first step. Solving it is a whole different matter. Every agency is different in many ways but shares common challenges and barriers, as shown above. I’ve written about these topics at length and have highlighted a couple of key posts for each to help you improve your agency business development.
Weak positioning and differentiation
How to find your agency differentiation. The benefits of differentiation are wide-ranging. Once you renew yours, your business development approach will become better focused. You’ll have a clear idea of what kinds of content to produce, how to complement it with your case studies, service offerings, capabilities, etc. and be able to narrow in on what kinds of prospects will be more likely to value what you do. It’s not perfect but good enough to increase your odds and improve your go-to-market process.
Ad Agency differentiation is the hardest thing of all. The bottom line, no matter what your differentiator, you have to be willing to put all your energy and effort behind it otherwise it will languish and fade, leaving you right back where you started. Make it integral to everything you do and get the entire agency behind it. Be an industry leader. Be the subject matter expert. Post, blog, tweet about it often and everywhere. Speak about it at seminars and networking events. Demonstrate it in everything you do. Prove its magic in your work and your clients’ successes. If it isn’t synonymous with you and your agency, it will come across as pure hype. As they say, you have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
So many ad agencies, so little difference. Differentiating your agency is such a common yet elusive thing. It gets even harder as the industry changes. Many marketers agree that the industry has changed more in the last two years than in the past 50. Evaluating your agency from an objective viewpoint is hard too. Finding the time to go through the process on your own is a big commitment. Hiring an outsider to help makes it manageable, faster, and more effective.
Where have all the prospects gone. Is your message about services and capabilities? Prospects are trying to capture more share as their competitors remain cautious. They are looking for solutions, not capabilities, results, not processes, new and old ideas that drive results fast to take advantage of their agility and initiative. Messages about growth, customer acquisition, beating competitors, and novel ways to solve age-old problems are more appealing. Innovation, new ideas, unexpected tactics, better positioning, are the solutions aggressive challengers are seeking. If you can get their attention to things that will help them grow, your services and capabilities will be a foregone conclusion.
Does LinkedIn work for new business? The bottom line, a coordinated strategy between social and prospecting will benefit the agency in multiple ways. First, it will remind and reinforce messages to your prospects and many other potential prospects. (at the same time it will build awareness across the spectrum so that when you run job postings, the number and quality of candidates will increase) It will reach more potential prospects than any other tactic to build awareness, understanding, and relevance, complementing, and reinforcing your 'Why.' And it will help create a sense of omnipresence; This agency is in my mailbox, in my LinkedIn feed, working with top brands, and solving real marketing challenges. I'm not saying it has to be all business, but it should be a lot more. The icing on the cake – it's free to exploit! All it costs is your time and creativity, the former you have little of, but the latter you have in abundance.
Can you grow your agency with a blog? Like all the tools at your agency’s disposal, a blog is yet another. It is not the Holy Grail of business development like some would have it. It is one of many things to consider and evaluate for the time, cost, and effect. You should analyze all the things you can invest in and objectively determine the best tools for your agency. For example, blogging takes a lot of time and shows marginal if any benefit while a beautifully executed case study also takes time but has more practical uses and a greater return. Attending networking events requires time and follow-up, but the chance of interacting with actual prospects is high. You get the point. Make a list of all the tools. Assign a value to quantify the cost (time and money) and the result (prospects and clients). Rank them from best to worse, take the top few that you feel most passionately about and leave the rest alone or minimize your involvement. Don't look for the silver bullet or magic bean. Commit to a smart strategy and do the hard work.
Lack of agency resources and time
Why agencies struggle with new business. When you manage your BD efforts as if you were one of your clients, you will stay on schedule – you can’t move your client’s deadlines. Stay on budget – you can’t ask your client to pay more. Innovate, excite, and delight – you do everything you can to make sure your clients are happy. Embrace the challenges head-on, solve the problems, overcome the obstacles – that’s how you make your clients satisfied. That’s how you make your new business efforts more successful – for everyone. That’s how you go from chaos to a high performing and consistent new business program.
Ad agency new business is a balancing act. The good news; if you have a well-defined new business program with strategic planning of time and tasks, and tracking data to support it, it’s much harder for the agency to steal precious time by taking you off task. The simple tool called NO backed up with data that shows what it takes to be successful is a powerful weapon against time sucks. And, a great way to prove you know what you are doing and the things you choose to do are in the best interest of agency growth. I know, I know, it’s a lot easier said than done, but it is a lot better than letting someone else derail your work because you don’t know what your next task is.
7 things you can control in business development. No matter how you run business development; a dedicated person, a team, shared among leadership, outsourced, implementing these seven mandates will keep your program running no matter what challenges you face. The age-old adage, out of sight, out of mind is as true today for business development. If you aren’t on your prospect’s mind, you’ll never get up to the plate. If you don’t stay on your prospect's mind, you’ll quickly be forgotten.
Getting business development help. There is not a one size fits all solution. Even though most agencies share common challenges, each is unique regarding their needs and resources. And those needs and resources change over time. In my opinion, the ideal scenario is to start or restart a focused business development initiative with a consultant first. He or she can develop an approach and process that is customized to your agency, refine it, and then train and hand off a proven program to an in-house person or team. Once it is up and running with a pipeline to manage, a new BD person can take over without interrupting the flow of new opportunities or future prospects in your pipeline.
Make You your best client
Finally, make your agency your best client. If you treat your agency as your best client and manage it in the same way you do all your clients, the income will not only pay for the staff time but also achieve your growth goals. And, the workload will be factored into the overall agency in the same way you do every client making into much more manageable, predictable, and less likely to cause widespread panic when new opportunities arise. Don’t be wrong-minded like many other ad agency owners and treat new business as an afterthought. Be your best client in every way and watch yourself grow.
If you want to have the greatest impact on your business development, start with these three barriers. The rest will be relatively easy to solve once you get the first three in order. Considering the lack of resources and time, it is critical to dedicate that precious time on the things that will have the most impact in a disciplined and systematic way. You know how challenging the first three are but don’t underestimate the impact your time and effort will have on your ultimate sales success.
I’ve got a lot of advice on how to make your business development efforts more effective and would enjoy sharing what I know. If you like this post, click the thumbs up, so I’ll know and then sign up for my new business newsletter. Find me on Twitter and LinkedIn for daily tips, tricks, and insights. And, please share your new business advice, successes, and failures. #LetsGrow!