When agencies talk about their new business needs, they often say they need someone with a ‘big rolodex’. Even though no one actually uses rolodexes anymore, we all know what they mean. They want someone who already has relationships with their top prospects - who comes walking in with a list of friends in high places he can easily put in front of the agency. While it’s true that the quickest way to an introduction is through a trusted friend or colleague, the myth is that one person can have the contacts that are right for your agency. I’ll give you an example, which would be laughable if it weren't so heartbreaking. One very large and well-known ad agency had a struggling office that it wanted to help. Senior executives knew a guy with a ‘big rolodex’ who committed to getting the agency into some top level meetings right away. All he needed was $60k for three months of introductions (up front). Done. But when he actually met with the business development team in this office, he discovered that the companies they wanted to talk to (based on their experience, cases and capabilities) were not companies where he had friends. He couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t want to meet with his friends who admittedly worked at great places. After three months, he wasn’t able to set up a single meeting with the companies they wanted, so he walked away $60k richer, and the struggling agency got stuck with the bill. The lesson here is two-fold. One: A good new business person doesn’t need a rolodex. She just needs an ability to talk to your top prospects about the problems you solve in a way that will make them care. Two: Be very leery of a person who promotes his or her ‘rolodex’. In my experience they are mercenaries who have no formal sales training and no real process beyond taking their buddies out to lunch (on your tab). Good new business people don’t sell their relationships. They make them.


    Research into how companies buy services from other firms reveals that the perceived 'risk' for the buyer increases during the sales cycle, culminating at the end of the process right before the agency is selected. This makes logical sense if you think about it. In the beginning of the review, the prospect is determining the capabilities he needs to solve his problem and roughly how much it will cost. In later stages he is evaluating a variety of agencies against each other to see who has the combination of capabilities and skills to solve his problems. But at the end of the process comes the big gut check. Could I lose my job for hiring this agency? This is the point in the process where the more established, ‘trusted’ provider gets another look, even if the favorite agency is the scrappy newcomer.  For example, I worked with a digital agency recently that wanted to get into the pharma vertical. They had no pharma experience or case studies, but their leadership had personal experience at other agencies. They lamented that they always got invited to pitch and would often make it to the finals before losing to a healthcare specialist. The simple reason was that the client couldn't be fired for hiring a pharma agency. This is also the predicament for new agencies who are competing with more established competitors. A good way to combat this scenario is to develop vertical-specific solutions that address the common problems of the vertical, so you look ‘tailor-made’ for them. Focus on the common pains this vertical experiences and how your agency combines its services and capabilities into solutions that specifically address these pains, using analogous examples from other verticals. Detail the various processes you will take them through to solve their problems (which reduces perceived risk since they know ‘what they’re getting into’ if they hire you), and develop vertical-specific collateral to use in your outreach.  And most importantly, of course, is to get there first! Develop a relationship and sell something small (low risk) before the big RFP is ever written.


    When I was on the client side working for a B2B tech company years ago, I was tasked with finding an agency that could redesign our identity system globally and develop our first ad campaign for the trades. It was my first B2B job, so I wasn't very familiar with the agencies that would be right for us. And I was asked to focus on New York agencies when I lived in Atlanta, so again, I wasn't sure who would be ideally suited to the unique challenges we faced. When I researched companies online, I discovered something that I continue to see to this day. Agencies of all kinds (consumer, B2B, creative, design, direct, PR, digital and social agencies) do a terrible job communicating the problems they solve for clients. Instead we use our web sites and capabilities materials to focus on what we 'sell' and what we 'make.' What we 'sell' is our departments or services. For example, we sell analytics. We sell creative. We sell strategy. We sell media planning and buying. We sell design and production. These are our departments. These are silos within our agency that we combine to solve problems for our clients. But these are not the problems we solve for our clients (which is the only thing our clients really want to discover when they visit our site). What we 'make' is advertising in some form or another. We make collateral. We make PR programs. We make integrated campaigns. We make digital campaigns. Or whatever. These are our products. We often tell our clients they need to be less product-centric and more customer-centric, but we rarely take our own medicine. During this review many years ago, I noticed that one agency stood apart from the rest. It was Siegel+Gale, which opened its site with a flash movie (okay, it was 2001) depicting the common problems B2B companies experience as they grow their brand. They listed all the problems we had, and they linked their case studies to these problems. They were immediately the front runner in my mind, and we went on to hire them. If you want to make your site more customer-centric, develop a catalog of the common problems you solve for your clients and align your cases to these problems so your prospects can search by their problem. Interestingly, Siegel+Gale still does this on their site today. Kudos for being ahead of the curve and truly customer-centric. http://www.siegelgale.com/business-challenges/


    I’m often asked by my agency clients what to do about procurement when performing outreach to large companies. Most agencies would prefer to avoid procurement if they had the choice (although few do nowadays). In fact, in industries like healthcare where procurement has a lot of power, some agencies feel like it’s futile to even prospect in the vertical at all. I disagree, and in fact, I feel procurement is a critical target of your outreach efforts within large companies, but they do require some finesse. Here are a few rules of thumb. 1) Identify the right procurement person and consider their background and what they are hired/fired for (most of this information can be gleaned from Linked In). Just like every other prospect, they have key performance indicators they are trying to reach and barriers or obstacles that get in their way. What are they trying to achieve in their job? How does your agency help them meet their objectives and overcome their barriers? Here’s an example in the healthcare vertical, which has been reducing costs by consolidating agency relationships over the past few years. In this instance, its procurement’s job to figure out which agencies are best suited to these consolidated models. Perhaps your agency has had a lot of success implementing new, more streamlined models of working with large companies (in healthcare or other verticals). Procurement would probably be interested in learning how you did it and what tools, technologies and processes you employed. Offer to share it with them on a one-on-one call. 2) Let them know your intentions on the call. You want to work with this company, so don’t be shy about asking them how to do it, especially if you are sharing valuable information with them. What’s their review process? When will they be reviewing agencies again? What are their evaluation criteria? What can you do now to be included in the next review? Procurement can be a valuable resource for insights and information if you are open, cordial and respectful. 3) Don’t let them become a bottle neck. Let’s be clear. Procurement is important but not as important as the marketing team. You will still need to drive desire for your services with the marketers themselves, so don’t let procurement block you from this important outreach. You don’t need to ask their permission. Just be discrete, and work on parallel paths. That said, I would definitely recommend letting the marketing team know that you are also talking to procurement (and following their protocols). It will make it easier for them to speak with you if they know no rules are being broken. It’s a dance, but it’s worth it. There’s no quicker way to shut down prospecting efforts inside a large company than to ignore procurement, which they don’t appreciate very much. So, include them instead and differentiate your agency in the process.


    In my last post, I talked about the need to do strategic outreach to your top prospects at least twice a year to get them to speak with you. To recap, the key to this approach is to offer to share knowledge with them about specific problems you are helping your clients solve. This will lower their defenses and make them more likely to take thirty minutes out of their day to learn more about your agency. This post is about what to say once you get them to agree to this call. First, let’s talk about what NOT to say. The last thing you want to do is spend thirty minutes talking about your agency. In fact, you want to spend very little time talking about your agency, and when you do, it should be two or three sentences that are fact-based, not hyperbolic. The reason is that 1) the prospect doesn’t care about your agency and will consider it a waste of his/her time to hear about it, and 2) you need to get the prospect to tell you where it hurts, and talking about your agency will not accomplish that. A better approach? After two or three fact-based sentences about your agency, use the time to talk about the common problems you solve for your clients – which is what you promised to do anyway. Romance the pain of your clients and the impact these problems are having within their organization, which helps the prospect identify himself/herself. You have a one in four chance of closing the business if the prospect admits pain, but you only have thirty minutes, so give them a menu to choose from. ‘Most of our clients are struggling with these three challenges, x, y, z. Do any of these resonate with you?’ Focus on the challenge they share with you, and spend the rest of the call exploring the impact of this problem within their organization (ask quantifying questions). Share how you have helped others address it including the process you used, the unique aspects of your approach and the results you achieved. Leave at least five minutes at the end of the call to talk about next steps, which typically involve sharing your solution in more detail with other decision makers within their organization (and how they can buy it). Gain agreement to do that and follow up in writing with specific dates for this call. Simple, simple, simple! And for goodness sakes, don’t use a deck!!! Nothing kills a chemistry call like a deck. Have a conversation, and save the decks for a presentation. P.S. If they don’t share a pain, it will be hard to sell them something (right now), so end the call and agree to track their business for the future.


    One thing I highly recommend to my agency clients is a routine by which your top prospects are invited in to speak/meet with you twice a year. I call it a ‘campaign’ for your agency, and it’s a good way to stay on the radar of your top prospects while also positioning your agency as a valuable, strategic resource - and possibly picking up a project in the process. There are a few critical success factors with this approach.

    1) Have something interesting to share. This is often the hardest part for an agency because, unlike consulting firms, we typically focus on doing client work without taking the time afterward to assess ‘what did we just learn through this process that we should share internally and with top prospects?’ It could be a ‘How To’ from an important case study (the client can be masked) or a bit of learning amassed about a particular topic that has broad appeal or within a specific vertical you’re going after. It could be some kind of consumer insight that you've gained through some kind of proprietary process. Generally speaking, it just needs to be something that even people who are not looking for an agency right now would consider a good investment of their time to learn about.

    2) When inviting prospects to speak with you, whether via email or phone (preferably both), remind them that you are tracking their business, and prove it by referring to something specific about them or their business. This will help to break through the clutter and also predispose your prospects to your offer. It’s a little more work than a mass email, but not only will it increase your conversion rate, it will also separate your agency from the pack over time. Remember, prospects don’t care about your agency, they care about themselves, so they remember the agencies that also care about them.

    3) Let them know you’ll be setting up these calls with a select set of companies in a two week period and would like to include them. Let them know it will be a thirty minute, one-on-one phone call, and if you don’t hear back, you’ll go ahead and send them a meeting request for one of the open time slots. This serves several purposes. It suggests that they are a part of a select group (which they are!), making them feel special. It creates a sense of urgency (ie. limited time offer), and it gives them an easy way to take the next step (because you will take the next step for them). In my experience, marketing execs are often too busy to get back to you even if they are mildly interested, so make it easy for them, and you will be surprised how many people accept your request.

    4) For those who don’t respond or decline your request, thank them, let them know you will continue to track their business and then try them again in the spring with a new shiny lure. 

    What happens on these calls is the subject of my next post, but sharing knowledge, insights and learning on a bi-annual basis is a best practice for a strategic, next generation agency, so make it a priority for 2013. Have a Happy Thanksgiving everyone!


    I love process. I’ll admit it. I’m a total dork about it. The reason I love process for sales purposes is that clients want to know your success is repeatable. They don’t want to think that you hit on a great idea randomly ‘this one time at band camp.’ They like to see that you have a way of solving their problem that you’ve done before (which also makes it easier to sell). Now for the bad news. Every agency’s process is identical and treats every problem as if it is the same. They all go something like this – ‘first we find out your objective, then we get the insight, then we develop the big idea, then we come up with the tactics or touchpoints, then we implement, and then we measure.’ Not only does this illicit a big ‘no duh’ from your prospect along with an audible yawn, it also communicates that you don’t know the answer to his problem - when you actually do. This is a critical idea here, so stay with me. I was recently working with a large and venerable marketing firm that has been in business for over twenty years. They had done a few things over and over again for the vertical we were analyzing, including launching new products (literally hundreds over their history), repositioning older brands and stimulating trial. These were the three big problems their clients had brought them time and time again, but the process they showed to prospects was the same old, broken down, ‘one-size-fits all’ process their competitors were trotting out in a pitch. If I’m a prospect, why would I pay more for your agency if you’re going to use the same process as everyone else? And why don’t you already know the answer to my product launch problem? If you’ve been doing this for twenty years, haven’t you institutionalized some best practices? Haven’t you formed a specific ‘product launch process’ that is tailored and specific to my needs? Shouldn’t you already have a good idea of the tactics that will fall out of a product launch strategy (even if they vary based on my objectives, my audience and my budget?). This is what your prospect is thinking when you show them your generic process slide. Trust me on this, take your one-size-fits-all process slide out of every capabilities deck you use. Do it today. Do not pass go. Next, look at the problems you’ve been solving over time and develop custom processes for each solution based on what you actually did. Come up with the common tactics for that strategy (what worked the best over the years? what has worked best ‘post social media’?) and the variables associated with those tactics, so you have some packaged institutional knowledge, not just a process. This is what your clients want to buy, and it’s a powerful way to differentiate your agency from the pack and also get a prospect to speak with you outside an RFP exercise.


    I hate to rant, but after receiving my fifth frantic call/email from a recruiter this week looking for a Business Development ‘hunter’, I feel compelled to comment. There are a lot of macro reasons why hunters have become important to the ad industry, the first being the industry’s overall maturity, which creates high commoditization among agencies. Secondly, it’s a fragmented industry with new types of agencies popping up every day that didn’t exist five years ago, so there’s a greater need to create name recognition with prospects. Thirdly, every agency is rushing towards the same Holy Grail that includes social, digital and data – even if they don’t have those capabilities today – which creates ‘me, too’ messaging in the marketplace. If we all say we do the same thing, how is a prospect supposed to know who to hire unless someone is helping them navigate the maze? When you take this reality and combine it with the fact that there are shrinking advertising dollars in the US to go after, you have a veritable pre-requisite for a hunter inside every agency, no matter how big or small, young or old. But guess what? We don’t train and nurture hunters in our business. We don’t even call them sales people. We call them ‘business development’ people, and we often place folks there temporarily when the agency loses an account. That’s probably why there is no sales training for these people. We give them RFPs to answer and pitches to project manage, but we don’t teach them how to go out into the marketplace and sell in a strategic and consultative way to cold prospects like nearly every other B2B industry does. That’s probably because the senior executives at the agency have had no formal sales training themselves. They may be intuitively good sales people, but they have never institutionalized their approach so they can train others. Certainly, some executives who’ve worked long enough in our business build a ‘rolodex’ of contacts, making them the defacto new business expert in the agency. But this is not a sustainable model for our business as it becomes increasingly competitive. It’s time senior leaders evaluate the myriad B2B sales strategies available to them (I like Solution Selling – www.spisales.com) and train their business development team on the fundamentals of selling, so we can create the hunters we are so desperately seeking.


    While at Cannes this year, I had the good fortune of speaking with one of the heavy weights in marketing right now, Bonin Bough, former head of Digital and Social Media for Pepsi and now head of Global Media and Consumer Engagement at Kraft. We talked about how hard it is for new or up-and-coming agencies to make introductions to senior-level people like himself, and he said that he is always open to a speed date. For him, that meant a 15 minute video chat on Skype or Airtime with the agency to review what they’re doing that’s innovative and exciting. I love this idea and have always believed that marketing decision-makers owe it to themselves to stay up to date on the innovations happening around them. How else will a marketer expand his knowledge of what agencies are doing to solve the problems he has? Unless he really starts his day reading AdAge and Adweek. Please. But the challenge, of course, is that senior marketers are extremely busy, and most agencies waste their time by talking about their agency in generic terms or highlighting their capabilities, which are the same as everyone else’s. The key to gaining the attention of the people that matter is to understand the business problems they are likely experiencing and offering to share how you are solving these problems for other clients in new and innovative ways on a quick video conference call. To get their attention, consider sending a link to a video that gives a sneak peak of the solution you’d like to share. Make the video personalized, underscore the pain the client was experiencing before he found you and highlight the business transformation your client experienced as a result of your efforts. Offer to share details on how you solved the problem on a fifteen minute call with an emphasis on knowledge sharing.


    I’m pretty sure the only reason I have a thriving business is that the average person is terrified of cold-calling. I can understand where they are coming from. No one wants to be hung up on. It’s hard not to take it personally, and I have been there myself, so I get it. But there are so many ways to make cold calling easier. The first way is to hire a third party to do it for you (shameless plug?). But seriously, it is often more credible for a prospect to hear ‘Hey, you might want to check these guys out’ than to hear ‘Hey, check us out! We're awesome. I promise’. The second way is to have a clear and proven solution to share with them (capabilities = boring). The third way is to identify a company and an individual that is most likely experiencing the pain you have alleviated. The fourth way is to make your approach intelligent, personal and empathetic. So many sales people aren’t smart or strategic about their approach. They don’t reference relevant things about the company or anything specific about the person they are calling on. With all the resources available to us today, it’s inexcusable not to know the business challenges the company is facing or the bio of the person you are calling on. What are they hired to achieve within their company? What could they be fired for? Where are they likely trying to go next in their career? And if cold-calling still terrifies you, call early in the morning and leave a compelling voicemail. Don’t make it vague (I HATE to receive mysterious calls that appear to be from someone who knows me, asking me to call them back with no explanation). Explain clearly why you are calling along with a next step that YOU will take (NEVER ask a prospect to call you back – you call them back). Follow up over email with an executive summary of your agency’s offering or (better yet) a specific solution you’d like to share with them on a thirty minute phone call. Always make the next step clear and simple. You’d like to set up a phone call with them to share how other companies have solved a specific problem using the agency’s solution. And if you’ve emailed and called a number of times with no response, consider sending a meeting request. In my experience, even prospects who are very interested in your solution are simply too busy to check their calendars and get back to you with a date/time to talk, so give them one! You may be surprised how many people will accept and/or propose a new time. And if they decline, find out why! Often, it’s an issue of timing, but if it’s really not a fit in their opinion, you want to understand where they are coming from and make a note of it for the future (when you try someone new in their organization!).


    In my last post, I talked about how, once the RFP has been released, it’s very difficult to exert control on the buying process, which is an important aspect of closing the sale. The reason control is important is that you want to guide the vision of the solution with the prospect so that your agency’s approach or capabilities are favored. When you get there too late, you miss that opportunity, and chances are, another agency has shaped the vision for you. That’s why you want the chance to speak with the key decision-makers leading the review (or else). If you get that opportunity (a big ‘if’), you want to use that time to reshape the vision by confirming the capabilities they think they need to solve their problems and then exploring whether or not they could use a few more capabilities (that you offer) to solve the problem even better. You can use the RFP as a jumping off point because their needs are clearly outlined, and from there you can get creative to consider what other services or capabilities they could probably use that your agency offers. Once you re-engineer the vision (with your agency as a key ingredient), your ability to sway the final decision is much higher. But truth be told, most of the agencies I’ve worked with historically never got this far. We simply couldn’t bring ourselves to play hardball in the RFP process and demand access to the decision-makers (or else). It was simply too risky, so we ended up caving and pitching even though we knew we were the ‘underdogs.’ We tried to present our unique differentiators during the pitch process, which isn’t a bad strategy, but it's hard to make up for the lost control, which is why it's so important to get there before the RFP is released.


    If, as I have asserted in earlier posts, a client knows who he wants to hire before the RFP is released, and he hires that agency 85% of the time (this is based on research across all industries, not just the ad industry), does that mean you shouldn’t respond to RFPs at all? Is it best to avoid them altogether? Based on solution selling best practices, there are times when it makes sense to pursue an RFP, but it’s not for the reasons you might think. It’s not because the agency has experience in the category or a bullet proof case study. Nor is it because the capabilities needed by the client perfectly align to what the agency does. Nor is it because the prospect is cool or interesting or a favorite brand of one of the agency executives. Certainly, you can make the case for pursuit based on these things, but none of them matter if you got there too late (meaning the RFP in your InBox is your first meaningful communication with the company). At that point, the only thing that matters is the agency’s ability to influence the process after it has begun. If you can do that, you may have a chance to tip the scales in your favor, at which point, pursuit might make business sense. So, what does that look like? As everyone knows, once the RFP is released, there are strict rules around engaging with the key decision-makers. In fact, you may not even be told who those decision-makers are. You may only have direct contact with a search consultant, a lower level coordinator or (God forbid) a procurement person. If that’s the case, tell that person that the agency doesn’t typically pursue RFPs unless you can speak with the three people most impacted by the decision on the client side (one-on-one, not as a part of a ‘cattle call’ with all the other agencies). You require a personal, thirty minute discussion with the decision-makers. My next post will talk about what should happen on that call should you get it (which is a long shot to be sure!), but if you can’t get that call, your ability to influence the outcome of the review is quite small, and as referenced earlier, your chances of winning are around 15%. I understand that some agencies will take those odds, and often an RFP/pitch exercise is good for the agency for other reasons. But if you’re trying to increase your win rate as an agency, just like in Poker, you need to fold more hands than you play – by a wide margin.


    When I worked for large agencies that had been around for a long time, I often heard that we didn’t need to prospect because ‘everybody already knows who we are’ or ‘we’re already included in all the major pitches’ or ‘our problem isn’t awareness, it’s conversion.’ While these statements were all true, they were still short-sited for a few reasons. First, while a marketer may be vaguely familiar with your agency (maybe they know you’re big, you’ve been around forever, and you have a good reputation), he still won’t know what problems you’re solving for clients today (and how it’s relevant to him), which is the most important thing for him to know as we’ve discussed. Secondly, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, statistics show that marketers have an agency in mind before the RFP is released (and they choose that agency 85% of the time), so the fact that you are included in a pitch is not a success factor in and of itself. Often agencies lose pitches for the simple reason that they weren’t going to be hired to begin with. And finally, in my experience, most agencies are not doing today what they want to be doing tomorrow. In other words, they get RFPs for the stuff they’re known for but not what they really want to be doing. Perhaps they’re a creative agency that wants to be doing more digital work, or they’re a web development shop that wants to be considered for the entire digital ecosystem. Or maybe they’re known for direct marketing but would rather be considered for brand assignments. Repositioning yourself in the hearts and minds of your top prospects and getting into ‘column A’ for a pitch takes a well-balanced diet of thought leadership, PR and social media along with good, old-fashioned one-to-one selling.


    One important thing to remember as you begin your agency’s prospecting effort is that prospects don’t care about your agency. I know that sounds harsh (and it often goes over like a lead balloon when I remind my agency clients), but it’s the truth. Prospective clients are worried about one thing, and one thing only, their problems. “How am I going to help my company make its quarter? How am I going to make sure customer service delivers the experience we’re talking about in our advertising? How am I going to make sure my local markets stay on brand? How am I going to get smarter about media attribution? How am I going to differentiate our new product in a crowded category? How am I going to ensure that my social strategy aligns to my brand campaign and my CRM initiative?” These questions vary by what the person is hired for, of course, but you can bet that “I wonder what Agency X is up to right now!” is not one of them. As we’ve covered in previous blog posts, the first way to ensure you’re saying something relevant to a prospect is to think about what you do in terms of problem/solution (not capabilities). The second way is to package this information into an offer your prospect can’t refuse. How? In your outreach, highlight a problem one of your clients experienced (make sure it’s a problem your prospect is also likely experiencing) and offer to share your knowledge with him about how your client solved this problem. That’s right – how your client solved the problem – not your agency. Prospects brake for knowledge, particularly when it appears to be coming from their peers (other CMOs, not your agency - sorry). The fact that it was through your agency’s brilliant strategy isn’t important at this point (and it’s implied anyway). Regardless of how much you saved the day, your client should always be positioned as the hero, not the agency. This is true if you’re sharing a case study on a cold call or in a final pitch. It’s like that hot guy in school who downplayed his looks and gave his mom all the credit. Didn’t you find him way more attractive than the other hot guy who talked about himself all the time? The ad industry is a mature market. We all have the same capabilities, more or less. And if we don’t, we say we do. You won’t differentiate on your capabilities, but you will differentiate on the problems you solve - and on your delivery - if you remember it’s not about you.


    After you have defined your solution sets, you’ll need to think carefully about the process you used in each scenario, and the deliverables you provided, in order to develop a pricing strategy. As I’ve mentioned, agencies often spend a lot of time developing one, uber process that is meant to be applied to every client challenge instead of excavating the processes they’ve already used and codifying them for future use, which is a much better way to ensure consistency (and profitability). If you’ve solved a sticky problem once, you should arguably be able to solve it faster and better the next time. But that’s only true if you’ve documented the steps you took and shared them internally to create a knowledge center for the future. This is actually what most clients think we do, but we all know that we often don’t because we’re on to the next fire. If you recall, I mentioned a digital agency in a previous post that had solved a particularly vexing problem for event marketers. When we looked at exactly how they solved the problem, we laid out a strategic process with a specific deliverable at the end that we could then price for new prospects. While the cost to execute the strategy varied based on the creative and technical elements the client ultimately decided to go with, the strategy component was fairly similar each time. And in fact, it’s critical to put a price to the strategy or at least a range (even if you don’t merchandise it in your materials) because it helps to move your prospect from interest (‘You’ve solved this problem before?’) to action (‘How could you solve it for me? How much would it cost?’). In other words, it moves the prospect down the sales cycle. And ideally, there’s a small piece of your strategy that you can ‘give away’ in order to stimulate trial. For example, in the case of the event marketing solution, we could actually offer a small part of the evaluation process for free so the client could get a taste of our services and further prove the need for our solution to his company. Note, this doesn't just work for small agencies. A global branding firm could easily develop a 'merger/acquisition' solution based off of their previous experience and sell it to companies going through this process. 


    Once you have a clear picture of the discrete solutions you have developed for clients over the years along with the repeatable processes you used in each case, you are ready to proactively sell these solutions to similar companies experiencing the same pains. You can let the marketplace know about your services in new ways such as search and social media (which I will discuss in a future post) and good old-fashioned one-to-one selling, but in every case, you’ll need specific materials to help you. Capabilities decks won’t work. Decks are for presenting, and no one wants to click through thirty slides to find out how you can help them solve their problem. What you need is a quick, two-page solution sheet that encapsulates the problem, your unique solution, your process, your deliverables, a few facts about your agency and a client example that includes real business results. They don’t have to be on paper – the substrate doesn’t matter, and in fact videos are highly recommended – but it doesn’t hurt to have written PDFs that you can attach to email or download from your site. These sheets should be a quick read without a lot of hyperbole about your agency. You know how realtors use effusive language about properties online? Don’t do that about your agency. Spend that time painting a picture of the pain for the buyer and the implications to the business if that pain isn’t addressed. Then transition to how your agency uniquely addresses this pain in a holistic way. Your materials are not meant to sell your agency per-se, although prospects will be thrilled that you are actually talking about their problems and not how great your agency is. And developing attractive and compelling solution sheets is critical to getting out of the RFP business anyway, because now you have something to proactively sell. In my next post we’ll talk about ways you can creatively price your solutions to stimulate trial.


    As you probably noticed on my home page, statistically speaking, prospects know which agency they will hire before the RFP is released. And 85% of the time, that agency will be hired at the end of the process. This is based on twenty years of research across all industries by the good folks at Sales Performance International (http://www.spisales.com/). Why is this? It has a lot to do with the way companies buy. Let’s go back in time 8 or 10 months before the RFP is released. At this point, someone in the organization is feeling a pain, something their current partners aren’t addressing or can’t address. But this person isn’t talking about it yet, and he or she doubts anyone can address it. Perhaps she has tried to address it in the past and couldn’t find a solution, or it was too expensive. Fast forward a little bit. The pain is becoming more acute. She is starting to talk about the pain and acknowledge it as a real problem with others in her department. Other people in the company are starting to agree. Fast forward again. The organization as a whole recognizes that this is a problem, and they begin to evaluate the capabilities they will need to overcome this problem. They evaluate these capabilities using agencies they already know. One agency is identified as having the majority of the capabilities they think they need. Perhaps there is a past relationship with this agency, either personal or professional, or perhaps they are already doing a project with this agency. The agency may even be consulted to support the development of an RFP. That agency takes the position of ‘column A.’ Other agencies are evaluated but only as a way to get more bids. The RFP is released. The agency in ‘column A’ is hired. The only way you can get ahead of this process is by getting there early enough to become the agency in ‘column A’. All other RFP exercises are a waste of time in my view – unless you can influence the process, which we will talk about in another post.


    A key question to consider before your agency begins any prospecting effort is ‘What are we selling?’ What do you mean, what are we selling? We’re selling strategy! We’re selling creative! We’re selling analytics! Remember, we already established that these are your departments, and prospects aren't buying your departments. Well, we’re selling results! While trite, this gets closer to what you are selling, but it’s still not right. To reiterate, you are ultimately selling solutions to client problems, with solutions defined as a ‘means of solving a problem.’ So, as a first step, evaluate the problems you have solved for clients over the years. Pull together all your ‘greatest hit’ case studies and consider the problem the client hired you to solve in each scenario and the unique way you solved it. What was the client’s ‘whole problem’ in each scenario? What capabilities did you bring together to solve the whole problem? What about your solution was unique? What was the exact process you used to solve this problem? What did you learn by solving this problem that could help you solve it again for someone else? Even large agencies won’t have more than four or five problems they have solved once they bucket the cases by client pain (pain that aligns to what the client is hired and fired for – so, the major pains). These ‘solutions’ form the back bone of what you can now proactively sell to other companies with similar problems. But you might need to think creatively. Here’s an example. A full service digital agency based in Europe was opening an office in the US and wanted to begin prospecting to Fortune 500s. Their services and capabilities were at parity with their competitive set, and the world certainly wasn’t interested in hearing about the capabilities of another digital agency. But! They had solved a particularly vexing problem for event marketers in a unique and differentiating way using digital technologies that other event marketers would recognize as valuable (and hard to get from their current digital agencies). We turned it into a solution, and it became the first thing we sold. Importantly, the agency was able to break through in a cluttered market by thinking creatively about the problems it solved for clients.


    Once you paint a picture of your buyer and her ‘whole problem’, it’s time to start thinking about how you solve her whole problem in a way that is unique from your competitive set. As you know, the advertising industry is very mature and thus highly commoditized. You can’t throw a rock in any major city in America without hitting some kind of marketing firm or ad agency. Even digital agencies have been around for over fifteen years now. What I frequently find when I work with agencies is that they spend a lot of time nuancing language around their value proposition that is essentially identical to every other agency in their category. They are crafting category benefits instead of considering how they uniquely deliver those benefits to clients. 

    A good thing to think about when you’re undergoing this exercise is the four quadrants of differentiation. The quadrants bucket your offering by degree of uniqueness (vertical axis) and degree of value to the client (horizontal axis). The bottom left is the crap quadrant. This is the place you should park any part of your story that everyone in the agency knows is total bullshit; the stuff that hasn’t demonstrated any value to the client and isn’t particularly unique. This could be the fact that you’ve been in business for thirty years or the fact that you created a new ad unit back in the 90s. Nobody cares. The top left is the cool quadrant. This is for those groovy tools and processes that you created (and quickly trademarked) that sound awesome but have not demonstrated a lot of value to your clients yet. The bottom right quadrant is for the commodity capabilities or processes that everyone in your category offers. Admittedly, they may offer a lot of value to the client, but they aren’t different than your competitive set and thus, not worthy of promotion in your materials. Most of the things agencies think are differentiating end up here. The top right, the sweet spot, is for your true differentiators. This is for anything that is truly unique from your competitive set that also demonstrates significant value to your clients. These could vary by target audience, competitive set, vertical or geography, so it pays to think about this in a segmented way. What I often find is that when agencies undergo this exercise, little nuggets of uniqueness emerge that they may never have considered before – a capability, a process, the way they package their services or the way they price it. And if nothing differentiating emerges (which sometimes happen), you will need to consider how you will innovate the business before doing any outreach.


    A critical part of solution selling is understanding your buyer in great detail. It’s not enough to say ‘the VP of Marketing.’ You should think about this carefully and empathetically. Developing a set of personas will help you identify your prospect universe and sell to them in a much smarter way. First, start with the kinds of companies you typically sell to. Are they large companies in the Fortune 500? Are they under $1B in revenue? Are they under $500M in revenue? These distinctions will have massive implications on the way the marketing organization is organized, the number of resources they have internally, their marketing budgets and the pain they are experiencing. Are most of your clients in specific verticals? Are they in certain geographies? What are the titles of your clients? Who typically hires you, and who else is involved in the decision? Regarding your typical buyer – what is he hired to do within the organization? What could he potentially be fired for? What is he concerned about day to day? Aside from the day to day metrics he is trying to reach, what is his aspiration within his organization? How is he trying to transform his company? What is holding him back? How are you supporting this transformation through your service offering? How could you evolve your service offering to help him even more? 


    As I referenced in my last post, the only thing a prospect (or client) cares about is the problem she has. She has zero interest in learning about your agency’s history, capabilities, case studies, new business wins or new hires. So, before agencies consider investing in prospecting, they should get much smarter about the problems they solve. In my experience, most agencies solve only a handful of problems – again, and again, and again. Most argue that every scenario is different, but when I group their case studies by ‘client problem’, I quickly see that most can be grouped together in big buckets. This is step one. Group your cases by the marketing problem it is solving – for your client. Think about it in their terms. What was the pain they were experiencing when they hired you? How did that pain manifest itself within their organization? What metrics were they missing as a result? How did it reverberate throughout the company? How were other departments effected? What capabilities did this company need to change its situation? How did you help them solve this problem? What combination of capabilities did you bring to them? What process did you use to determine the right strategy? What steps did you take, and what were the deliverables at each step? How did your departments come together to solve this problem? And what was unique about your approach relative to your competitive set? This is the beginning of your solutions set.


    The final mistake agencies make when they sell themselves is promoting their process. While I am a big fan of process because clients DO like to know that an agency’s success is repeatable, the problem is that most agencies create one ‘catch all’ process to apply to every client problem. And often that process is identical to every other agency in their category. Everyone has some kind of input process that yields a strategy that is then executed and optimized in whatever channels they manage. The input process will also be eerily similar, although everyone will call their tools proprietary and have a special name for them. Not only is this not a differentiating approach, but one process for every client would seem to indicate that every client has the same problem, which we know isn’t true. If the client has a problem with customer retention, you would look at different inputs to understand the problem than you would if the client has an acquisition problem. And even an acquisition problem can be broken up into many different scenarios. Is it a product launch? Is it a mature product or service that is being repositioned? Is it an old product in a new market? Is it a conversion problem in a particular channel? All of these scenarios would require a slightly different strategic process. This is where the discussion should begin for your agency. What key problems are you solving day in and day out, and what bespoke processes are you using to solve each one?


    Another common mistake agencies make when presenting themselves is selling their departments. If you look at any agency web site today (or creds deck), you will see a lot of time spent sharing their laundry list of services that align to their departments. The integrated agency might list Strategy, Creative, Media , Digital Marketing, Print and Broadcast Production, etc. The digital agency might say Strategy, Creative, Technology, Social Media, Emerging Platforms, etc. The media agency might say Planning, Buying, Analytics, etc. I’ve seriously analyzed all of the top agencies in their various categories, and I have not found a single one that doesn’t do this. Why is this a mistake? For the same reason that the client isn’t buying your creative product, he is most certainly not buying your departments. While you can argue that your prospect wants to tick the box on your service offering, what he really wants to know is - can you solve the problem he is having. It reminds me of the phone company that wants to sell you wireless, landline, internet and cable as separate products when you really just want a unified communications solution that doesn’t force you to distinguish between all those things. Clients have a set of problems that they need to solve, and that’s the only thing they care about. Why do we make it so hard for them to find out the problems we solve?


    For most of the 20th century, I think agencies would say they sold a creative product. It’s all about the ‘work,’ and everyone would talk about the ‘work’ and commit to selling more great ‘work’ for the agency. I’m often amazed at how much my early career looked like an episode of Mad Men, complete with inner-office romances, but it truly was that simple for a long time. The client had a problem, and the agency would go through its elaborate process to come back with a bespoke solution that naturally had creative ‘work’ associated with it, and the account teams would make sure to stay close to the client over the years and solve every issue that might come up with more creative ‘work.’ The problems with this scenario are many. Let’s set aside the fact that today’s complicated, consumer-driven, multi-platform environment makes selling creative ‘work’ vastly oversimplified. The real problem with this assumption is that it is product driven, it’s not client driven. It focuses on what the agency makes and not what the client buys.


    Growing up, my dad, who was a sales executive at a large insurance company, would tell me that I was ‘born for sales’. This is probably because I could lie convincingly without losing eye contact, but either way, I didn’t like the sound of it. A salesman was someone in a bad jacket who tried to strong arm you into a car you didn’t want. I was way more refined than that. So, it worked out perfectly that I got a job in business development at a very young age in the advertising industry. What a perfect job. You don’t have to ‘sell.’ You just had to shine the agency up like a jewel for capabilities presentations and craft flowing prose for RFPs. Oh yeah, and you had to stay up all night for weeks researching the industry, setting the strategy and harassing people for their ‘slides’ so the team could rehearse enough times to demonstrate natural chemistry. I had a lot of sleepless nights and weekends back then. But even if we lost the pitch (that we often spent $200,000 on in time and hard costs), we never questioned the fundamental process that we followed. The business development function was, by its very nature, a pitch machine, and everyone was okay with that. But by the time I turned 30, I realized how much I hated running a pitch machine. I realized I wanted to sell something.

  • The 85/15 Rule

    I always liked direct marketing because it had numbers to back it up. It had quantitative rules and laws like the ‘80/20’ rule to help you understand what part of your customerbase was truly valuable. So, I was stunned to discover a little statistic about RFPs back in the late 90s in a book about sales. One of my clients was a technology company that trained its sales teams on solution selling, and out of curiosity, I picked up the book (The New Solution Selling by Keith Eades, I highly recommend it). The book noted that across most industries, 85% of the time, the client already knows who it wants to hire before it releases the RFP. Put another way, 85% of the time, the company it wanted to hire before the RFP was released was actually hired at the end of the process. This struck me as somewhat incredible at first. There was no way that stat could possibly be true, right? There’s no way that the myriad RFPs we responded to were somehow rigged? But the more I thought about it – going through every pitch I had been a part over the years – I started to think it was possibly true. Whenever we had a previous relationship with the prospect (whether we had actually worked for them, or someone at the agency knew them, or we found out the CMO loved one of our campaigns, etc.), we won. When we didn’t have that advantage, we lost. Just as an aside, while I found this to be a huge epiphany, my friends at my technology client thought I was looney tunes. OF COURSE those statistics were right. That’s why you have a trained sales force selling your company every day. I thought to myself, why hadn’t the advertising industry ever considered this?

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