If you are saying that at this time of year, it will be a tough year indeed. The truth is, almost every agency gets to that point every so often. It may be that your biggest client took all your time, attention, and personnel away from business development, or you have yet to be able to hire a BD replacement. Perhaps you've been fortunate to have a long streak of referrals or multiple clients in fast growth mode, leaving no one to mind the lead gen. Whatever the reason, it's a terrifying place to be when the pipeline dries up.
What do you do when you hit the new client desert? Don't panic. It's a natural part of the agency lifecycle. Don't procrastinate, either. You've got to start doing the things necessary to turn the tide. Considering the long sales cycle for new clients, you must prepare immediately for whatever short-term opportunity is in the market and begin authoring strategies for long-term prospecting.
At this juncture, you have two choices. You can pull the best minds at your agency into a new business committee and fast-track the planning and execution of a new business program. Use a committee rather than assigning it to one individual so that you can split the work to ease the burden. And the result is the best thinking from a collection of ideas, approaches, and more diverse perspectives. Or you can hire one of many kinds of new business consultants and firms. Doing it in-house is ultimately the best for the agency, but not for a restart, a fresh start, or speed to results. Hiring out gives you the expertise you need at the agency, objectivity, a more comprehensive understanding of the market, and the credibility of a consultant.
If you do it yourself, you must address three critical facets to achieve success. The first and most challenging is agency positioning. It is harder to do when you are on the inside looking out. The second is your target audience. The third is a winning prospecting strategy. Our industry has seen significant changes in the last many years. Your brand and positioning will likely need to catch up or be more relevant to the needs of your prospects today. To attract new clients, you must talk about solving the challenges most important to them today, not three or five years ago.
Your positioning must also consider your competitors and the influx of new and alternative resources. You need to know how you match up with the competition and where there is an opportunity to stand out. Your positioning also needs to be updated to the needs and wants of the marketers you seek to engage. Pre-pandemic, brand building was a critical need. Today, with a looming recession, efficiency, doing more for less, and results are top of mind.
Your new business committee must weave all these factors into a fresh new agency persona that will be more interesting and valuable to today's marketers. And it must set you apart from the other options your prospect has. It must position you as the best choice for today's challenges and a strong leader for whatever comes next. They must test it, seek outside reaction to it, and make sure it's clear, meaningful, and appealing, not to them but to your target audience.
Once your agency is refined, updated, and positioned for today, that positioning must be pulled through your prospect-facing materials. Your website, capabilities, case studies, pitch decks, outreach, newsletters, ebooks, bios, culture, LinkedIn, and other social media you use must express it. As we know, marketers will do their research before initiating any contact with a potential new agency. You must ensure that every point of contact is on brand, consistent, and reinforces the new messaging.
Your new business committee must take a good hard, honest look at what kinds of companies are more likely to need and value your services. Those may be different from your current client roster. You may not want more clients like those you currently have. You need to be realistic about what kind of company will value what you do and, as importantly, what kind won't. Ultimately you want to spend your limited time prospecting the most likely opportunities.
Defining realistic prospects is another complex task to do internally. I recommend you initially begin with a narrow focus—perhaps a single vertical or two. Starting simple will allow you to get traction, prove your approach, and sustain your execution consistently. Once you start seeing early wins and build momentum, you can expand into other verticals or service offerings. The fastest way to derail a business development effort is to take on so much that you can't accomplish your goals.
Another important consideration is the proper sizing of companies for a higher probability of prospecting success. Calculate the dollar value of your average or typical engagement. If it is half a million annually, you will have a harder time convincing a potential new client that you can handle their two-million-dollar budget. Or that you have the staff to support a complex or labor-intensive execution. Conversely, if a marketer values a small team and you aren't, it may be a tough case to make. When you first begin or restart prospecting, focus on the tightest alignment with your audience. Once you see success, you can broaden the criteria and experiment in different ways.
Like any marketing campaign, it begins with a strategy. The new business committee needs to develop a prospecting plan and define the tactics best suited for that strategy. Of course, the objective is to win new clients. What is the best approach to do that? You must build awareness, shape perception, and demonstrate value and differentiation. You can then build trust, authority, and leadership while communicating shared values, purpose, and culture.
If it's the healthcare industry, the best tactic may be to seek meetings with decision-makers at their conferences. If it's the CPG category, sharing provocative research on millennial purchase behaviors will be effective. One approach will require travel and sponsorships, while the other might require email tools and a research partner. Any of these will have multiple moving parts and time and money requirements. No matter what you choose, the most important thing is to execute consistently. New agency opportunities can be predictable, i.e., a new CMO hire, but for the most part, unpredictable. Success comes from being known or, better yet, being top of mind whenever the need arises.
The number one reason agencies aren't successful with business development is execution. They struggle to find the time or expertise to execute their plan effectively. This is extremely important when choosing your tactics and who is responsible for implementing them. It is easy to become overwhelmed when a big client project comes in, a new client has significant start-up needs, or staff shortages and hiring challenges keep them shorthanded. You can't let your clients down, so you must let your new business efforts down.
The ebb and flow of resource demands are a natural part of agency business. Clients will always be your first priority. You must manage your prospecting around those peaks and valleys. It is crucial to start small and scale in baby steps. Equally as important is managing the process through the peaks and maintaining accountability. It is so easy for that sudden crunch to become one of many reasons no one is doing new business. Managers and executives must be committed to keeping it going throughout.
There are many different tried and tested prospecting tactics, from emailing to conferences and blogging to social media. Some are specific to certain industries or segments, while others apply to a broad spectrum of audiences. The new business committee should define and prioritize the best and least expensive tactics to reach their target audience. In this case, the least expensive refers to the expense of money and time. Email is considered one of the best-performing tactics. LinkedIn as well. PR is also. Retargeting too. Conferences, networking, speaking engagements, trade association events, and many more are common tactics. The challenge is deciding what will work best, given the resources, time, and money the agency is willing to invest.
Hire An Outside Consultant
If you hire it out, you have a lot of different choices. Here comes my shameless self-promotion. Who could say it better than the Agency Arsenal—Want to 10x your agency's performance? You should consider working with a consultant who has seen your agency's situation a hundred times before. Hiring a consultant for your agency will save you months (years even) of trying to figure it out on your own. You can see whom they recommend here: https://theagencyarsenal.com/best-agency-consultants-coaches/
There are many opinions about hiring a consultant, pro and con. The business of consulting does not have the best of reputations. There is plenty of snake oil selling. I can't tell you how many stories I've heard from agency owners who did not get the results they expected. I knew one owner who hired a less expensive consultant and got no benefit after nine months. He then hired a more expensive one with an admirable reputation expecting the fee would buy good results, but it didn't. Extremely frustrated, he hired one of the most costly consultants he could find but alas, no new clients. I hate hearing those stories, but I knew it wasn't the consultants' fault in this case.
Today, there are more options for agencies than ever. Unfortunately, most of them are scams. I've investigated a few and can tell you that if they sound too good to be true, they are. Their approach is more like selling a commodity in a fast turn, short sales cycle process—quite the opposite of an agency relationship sale. If you think it's possible to get a hundred leads in your inbox every week, or twenty-five meetings a month, or go on a cruise and meet hundreds of marketing decision-makers looking to hire right away, you are in the wrong business.
Consultants or companies who offer straight-up lead gen do not address the root cause of an agency's business development woos. In theory, they generate enough leads to overcome the underlying issues that keep new clients away. A lead gen company could be a good solution if an agency first fixes its core issues. I say 'could' because there are many factors to consider when choosing a lead gen company, too many to cover here.
The Benefits of Working With a Consultant
I have been working as a consultant for the past 7+ years. Before that, I worked as CMO or new business executive at various agencies. I've been a DIYer and have hired consultants. I can say with high confidence that these are the true benefits of hiring a credible consultant.
Experience – they have been doing the work day in and day out for many agencies, covering many problems unique to the agency world. They likely have seen and solved your problems. Working on the leading edge of client development, they are more knowledgeable about the challenges and opportunities in today's market.
Speed to market – they have been through the process many times and have optimized the steps to improve the outcome and the time it takes. That includes positioning work, prospect strategy, prospect list building, and winning new clients. And the benefit of being solely focused on the tasks and accountable to the process without being sidetracked by client demands or held up by internal speed bumps.
Objectivity – the value of a professional opinion unencumbered by preconceived beliefs, internal constraints and influences, situational paralysis, and echo chamber effects, cannot be underestimated. That, combined with an intimate knowledge of agency prospects, brings a level of expertise not available from within.
Accountability – when done internally, agency staff have a lot of other responsibilities and often get distracted by client demands or problems, leaving the new business process sidelined. A consultant has no such distractions and can ensure tasks are accomplished according to the schedule and results are achieved with sole accountability if not.
Cost savings – This might take you by surprise. Depending upon your agency situation, a reasonably priced consultant may cost you about the same as a mid-level BD FTE. Add to that the cost of benefits, space, equipment, and other expenses, and you can see how it can be less. Add the increase in new client revenue, employee morale, and agency value, and the equation tips the scales.
I have worked with many agencies that have tried and failed to fix their pipeline issues themselves. The first thing they say is that they should have known better. The second is how much time (and new business) they lost trying. The third is that they are worse off today than before they started. Albert Einstein had a point. We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. I have also worked with agencies that did an excellent job themselves, but those are the exceptions.
If your pipeline is empty, you've got to act fast. In this uncertain economy, the risks are high, and the tension is thick. However you do it, don't delay.
Are you debating which approach to take? Are you considering a specific consultant or firm? Need a sounding board? Let's talk regardless of whom you are thinking or where you are in your planning. I promise an honest, objective POV no matter which path you take. Check my calendar and find a time most convenient for you. Remember to sign up for my new business newsletter if you aren’t already. Find me on LinkedIn for daily tips and insights. #LetsGrow!