No matter how you get there, agencies will eventually have to generate new clients through proactive means. Maybe you've been fortunate to have a network of friends who keep sending referrals. Perhaps a campaign you did went viral, achieving fame notoriety, press, and the phone wouldn't stop ringing. Or your new ECD came with a long list of adoring past clients. It's common for agencies to start out with an abundant pipeline but eventually, that dries up, and it's time to prospect.
When you think about prospecting, the first thing that comes to mind is relentless cold-calling, dialing for dollars, phone bullying, and call bombing. A lot has changed in the world of prospecting, but the fundamentals remain constant. Prospecting aims to introduce your agency to a new marketing decision-maker and build a relationship that results in a new client. Easy-peasy.
Of course, there is a lot more behind that statement to make it work but for the sake of brevity, let's go with it. This act of introducing your agency can take many forms with different strategies and tactics. One approach I've seen work successful and consistently at high-growth agencies is the P.R.O strategy, prospecting, referrals, and organic. Agencies that do well are executing equally in each of these channels and consistently adding revenue to the bottom line.
Many agencies say they do all three. High-growth agencies treat each channel with its own strategic approach, relentless execution, consistency, and accountability—as if each channel campaign is an agency client. They have a well-defined organic strategy that all account leaders follow and are measured against. They have a well-defined referral strategy, and everyone in a leadership role participates with regular networking, pre-produced tools to make referrals easier, and reciprocates with relevant opportunities for them. When all three are done well, one-third of new revenue generally comes from each.
The most common tactic agencies use is cold prospecting, and is also the hardest. It's an essential tactic for scale, entering new categories, introducing new services, playing out the percentages of opens, clicks, meetings, and applying historical performance to forecast conversion rates. When agencies execute a strategic, consistent, fully supported prospecting program, they enjoy a strong pipeline and predictable short- and long-term forecasting. Agencies that start and stop their prospecting, let contacts languish, or delegate the work to junior members end up hating the process, questioning the results, and panicking because they have no new leads.
Prospecting has been proven successful for agencies and virtually every other industry. Like any endeavor, you must do it well and consistently to reap the benefits. It isn’t just dialing for dollars. It is a coordinated campaign that includes outreach and keyword targeting, social media support, retargeting, PR, blogging and posting, and other complementary activities. All of the elements you build for your client’s lead gen campaign are the same things you need to do for your agency.
Agencies generally hate working their network for referrals. Many are good at staying in touch or irregularly reconnecting, but few have a strategy and process for turning those contacts into referral sources. I often hear things like, I don't want to bother Josh, or they know me and will refer me if the opportunity presents itself. This may work from time to time, but the adage has some truth: out of sight, out of mind. But this will never work unless a process in place, milestones are set, and accountability is monitored.
Agency leadership needs to have a strategy for the team to deepen connections and increase referrals. They should develop a regular reoccurring process to nurture relationships, add value to the contact where possible, and provide tools and content to update contacts about the agency, its current work, new clients, and new hires, to stay top of mind. And subtly remind them about making a referral when they suspect one of their contacts needs help. Agency leaders should connect with their friends and colleagues on LinkedIn and then look over their connections to spot potential opportunities and ask for introductions. Make it easy for them. Draft the introduction, such as an email where both are copied, or a LinkedIn message, or a script for a phone call.
Organic growth should be easy pickings when a client knows you and trusts you. But it's not. There are other factors at work against your agency; politics, turf wars, personalities, fear of losing control, and many more. Add to that the complexities of large, distributed organizations and complex org structures, and the process can seem futile. I often hear there is nowhere to go; the client won't introduce me, and they have other agency relationships that won't budge.
There are ways to improve organic growth beyond 'being on the lookout for new projects. A strategy that evolves good detective work by the people on the front line, asking the right questions, networking in the hallways, asking for introductions, proactively recommending alternative solutions, and reporting back to the agency. Agency leadership should have regularly scheduled internal discussions with the account lead about what they have seen, heard, and assumed to develop next steps and other action items to continue making progress. Too often, these meetings are infrequent or not at all. The collective wisdom of senior leaders often spots opportunities or possibilities that otherwise go unnoticed. The agency has to integrate these activities into its workflow to ensure things get done, milestones are met, and individuals are held accountable for progress and, ultimately success.
We don't have time
I know what you are thinking. We don't have time for all this. We'd rather leave it to the BD leader. And that means the agency is choosing to leave up to two-thirds of potential new revenue on the table. It is time-consuming. It does push people out of their comfort zone. It requires initiative and determination, but it can be less of a burden with strategies in place, proper agency support, inspiration, best practices, and lessons learned from the team.
There are two big takeaways here. The first is to make a plan for your PRO and then work the plan, relentlessly. Agencies are great at making plans but so often fail in the execution. There are a lot of reasons for that. One big reason is the lack of time, which brings me to the second takeaway; agencies must allocate time for participants to execute their growth strategies. Too often, agencies rely on extra time, after-hours' time, or borrowed client time to execute. Or they spend all their time on one channel. No matter how good the plan is, without adequate time built into people's day, I mean hardwired and managed, the results will be disappointing.
If you'd like help to develop a high-performance business development program, let's talk. There's no better time than now to rethink and reset your efforts. I am always open to discussing your challenges and offering my opinion on possible solutions. If you like this post, sign up for my new business newsletter. And find me on LinkedIn for daily tips and insights. Feel free to reach out at any time. #LetsGrow!