Whether you are amid a pandemic or on the rising slope of an economic boom, your prospecting strategy shouldn't change. Some of the internal parts should, some tactics might, the message and offer, yes, but the fundamentals stay consistent throughout. Yet, when a crisis hits, panic takes over, the mind leaps to worst-case scenarios, and business development tumbles off the rails. Not good now and indeed not good for what comes next.
Let's start at the beginning. The five objectives for cold prospecting are
- Create awareness of your agency and the problems you solve
- Show how your agency can solve their problems
- Demonstrate your difference
- Develop trust and authority
- Facilitate the next step
Is there any reason why these objectives don't apply now or anytime? Some might argue that it's inappropriate to be selling when the whole world is in panic mode. Others say the message should shift from promotional to empathy and reassurance. In the second week of the lockdown, one of my agencies had three different brands on their list with little or no online sales channels that they sold e-commerce engagements to —shame on me. The point is this, regardless of market conditions, marketers have needs that only agencies can solve. These three different brands were panicked yet determined not to be left behind in the resulting e-commerce surge. They weren't looking for empathy or reassurance. They needed a solution and fast. If you change your prospecting strategy they might not know you can help them.
These five objectives are linked to the sales cycle, which is typically six months to years for ad agencies. When the marketplace is turbulent, the sales cycle may shift. For example, right now, some have delayed agency decisions until they get a clear sense of what the future looks like. In contrast, others have accelerated their search to be proactive in the current chaos. There has been a lot of discussion about brands who ramped up their marketing during the last recession and came through it as the biggest winners. Regardless of marketplace conditions, there are three cycles to align prospecting activities.
At any given time, statistics show that about 5% of prospects are looking to hire an agency now. They probably have already vetted candidates and likely in the final selection stage, but history proves some can still be swayed. I've been on both sides of that coin. One agency made it to the final round, and out of the blue, a new contender showed up and ultimately won. At another agency, we stumbled upon the final stage of a pitch, convinced the marketer to give us a shot, quickly submitted unconventional ideas, and won. It can happen, albeit rare at best. If it does, your five objectives happen practically all at once.
The next cycle includes those marketers who are in midterm agency planning mode. Today, they may see the economic crisis as an opportune time to change and reset for what comes next. They are in the initial search mode. They ask colleagues for recommendations, look up agencies they have heard or read about, or search using specific criteria like healthcare agency or southeast influencer marketing agency. Statistics show that a marketer will get about 60% through their search before anyone knows they are looking.
Your five objectives have to play out within their process and midterm time frame to get attention, get consideration, and move to the top of the list when they decide it's time to meet, or request a proposal, or award a project. This will be a slow or fast process depending on when you successfully connect and is playing out in these market conditions for many agencies right now. The fundamental process of finding a new agency doesn't change.
The most prolonged cycles occur with prospects who don't have any immediate plans to change but ultimately will. Today, some may consider an agency change as risky or too disruptive. They are head down in the business at hand and won't be interested in learning about new agencies. At some point, they will, and when they do, you'll want to be one of the first in line. When to start prospecting is the key—events such as budget cycles, new product launches, incumbent contract period, leadership change, often provide a point in time to work backward from and begin a prospecting program.
These five objectives don't change with the times, but strategy and tactics may. A market crisis like today does influence the regular cadence of each cycle and the resulting opportunities for agencies. In the last three months, we've seen an uptick of marketing leader changes. We all know what that means – agency changes are soon to follow. You can bet those new execs are making their list and checking it twice – right now.
On top of that, budget cuts, staff layoffs, and consumer uncertainty are likely to cause additional roster changes. Last year's agency might not be the best resource for what the marketer needs now or can afford. When things return to some normal, there will be a rush to spend marketing dollars primarily on lead gen and acquisition. Some incumbent agencies who survived the first waves of change could be tossed aside for others who promise more customers faster.
Finally, the tactics you use may evolve or change, but the fundamentals remain the same. Agencies who relied on networking events, schmooze fests, tradeshows, are out of luck for at least a year or more. Virtual events have yet to prove useful unless you buy sponsor placement, and even then, it is questionable. Podcasts, webinars, and live streaming have proven beneficial if you attract the right audience, but we know how hard that is. Email, social media, and video platforms are performing well. Regardless of channel, the biggest challenge, as always, is the first objective, agency awareness.
All this means you must have a prospecting strategy that directly supports the five objectives and is aligned with each of the three sales cycles to maximize results in good times and bad. I try to divide my time by spending about 20% on short-term, 60% on the midterm, and 20% on long term prospecting while shifting time against the highest potential opportunities of the moment.
This crisis has also impacted the prospect list. It requires additional time to research new contacts because of the turnover we've seen. I'm spending a lot more time on Winmo and LinkedIn's Sales Navigator these days, as well as other sources. In fact, for the first time, I crushed my internet data limit this month—time to level up.
Effectively working three different prospect cycles can be a lot of work for any new business pro. I get time-saving help from my Ad Agency Prospecting Platform by SharpSpring and can scale my efforts 10X or more. I have it configured to automate many tasks in each cycle, freeing up time to work on prospect research, content development, relationship building, proposals, and pitches. You can learn more about how I use these tools to expand and scale my efforts in the post: Do these 3 things right now. You can learn how my Ad Agency Prospecting Platform saves time and increases scale in this post: Should marketing automation be in your toolbox.
Good luck, and stay optimistic!
These are uncertain times, yet no better time to get an outside objective analysis of your business development program. I am always open to discussing my favorite subject – ad agency business development. If you like this post, sign up for my new business newsletter. Find me on LinkedIn for daily tips, observations, and insights. Feel free to reach out at any time. #LetsGrow!