As we look ahead to September and a new sales and marketing window, I’ve been reflecting on the challenges facing agency leaders who are struggling to grow, or in some cases, to simply maintain consistent revenue.
There are some familiar themes that have been cropping up in my conversations over recent months which made me question, why do we continually underinvest in agency sales and marketing? And why do we undervalue our new business and marketing talent?
I’m going to try to unpick some of the problems here and offer some solutions, but would welcome your thoughts, so do get in touch if you’d like to discuss.
What do we actually mean by new business?
The barrier to growth or reliable revenue generally lands at the door of new business. And here lies our first problem. What do we actually mean by new business?
The answer to this question may seem obvious, but to fix the problem, and find a sustainable solution, we need to dig a bit deeper.
Do we mean new business as an activity, a resource or an outcome? It’s a wishy-washy catch-all term, and in my experience, a bit of a dumping ground for people’s bad experiences. This ambiguity isn’t helpful. So let’s leave that term aside for the time being and think about what we are trying to achieve.
If our objective is to increase our revenue through client acquisition (we also need to discuss developing existing clients, but let’s park that for another day) then we need to define our audience and to be clear about our proposition to that audience. How we then take that proposition to the market, is where it starts to get muddy.
Agency revenue need vs prospect business need
Typically, the agencies I talk to have a good track record of converting inbound referrals.
But first thing to remember about referrals is that they generally happen at the point of the prospect’s need and that this, together with the implied trust and credibility that comes with a referral, allows us to shortcut what would otherwise be a lengthy period of courtship.
As wonderful as this is, it can skew our thinking and lead us to set unrealistic expectations as we scale our effort and increase our reach to move beyond referrals, to attract and engage (cold) new prospects.
The process of attracting the right prospects, identifying their needs, building trust and credibility, nurturing the relationships until the point of need, then converting them into paying clients is a multifaceted one that requires a robust strategy and a plan which employs a range of different skills and tactics.
I find it easiest to think of this activity as growing and nurturing a network rather than ‘new business’.
It sits at the top of the sales funnel and is all about building profile and awareness with your audience, starting conversations, listening to the market, understanding prospect challenges, offering insights, support, and learning the needs and buying cycle of prospects. All the while we are doing this we are building trust and credibility, so that when the prospect reaches their point of need, we are already on their consideration list.
This is where the consistency comes in. It’s not something we can just switch on when there’s a dip in revenue, it’s an engine that needs to be whirring in the background and needs resource to keep the engine running.
There is no single unicorn hire to fix this
So we come to the question of resource. Some of these skills you may already have in your agency, some you may not. Most agencies are practiced in the ‘end of funnel’ opportunity conversion, they have expert practitioners who will lead the process of creating proposals and presenting solutions.
Meanwhile, the range of missing skills and resource tends to be:
Content / asset creation
CRM / email marketing
Depending on the size of the agency, the scale of ambition, and the shape of the strategy and plan, some or all of these may be required. For some agencies it will make sense to hire in-house, for others they can supplement with specialist freelancers.
However this resource is organised, signing off the budget line for hires does not mean handing over responsibility. As an agency leader, new business will ALWAYS be your responsibility and the whole agency needs to understand the strategy and plan, and how they can contribute.
Lastly, critical to success is getting measurement right. One of the most common problems I encounter is agencies bailing out of sales and marketing activity too soon, or dismissing new business talent, deeming it to be a failure having applied the wrong measures.
This happens because we are confusing top of funnel, brand building and early engagement activity with those precious end of funnel, ready to buy referrals.
This gives us a misguided expectation of contacting a prospect out of the blue to find them ready and waiting with a rebranding / NPD / web redesign brief in hand, when the reality is that we need to factor in a much longer lead time and conversion metric. A cold outreach to revenue timeline and conversion ratio is very different indeed to the inbound referral to revenue timeline and conversion ratio.
With marketing activity, we might set KPIs for network growth (LinkedIn or newsletter subscribers) and engagement. Last year lots of agencies tried webinars as a way to plug the networking and events gap — but the first webinar is not a failure if it doesn’t automatically lead to a brief or a sale, the success is in the numbers of prospects who registered, those who attended and those with whom you can carry on the conversation. Every single sign up or attendance is simply the first step in a new relationship.
Likewise, for those agencies employing a new business exec who is there to open doors with new prospects and nurture conversations, measuring their success on revenue, isn’t going to be helpful as they have little or no control over conversion. Instead, set KPIs that are within their control and play to their skills, such as numbers of qualified meetings or identified briefs.
However you do it, think carefully about what is realistic and achievable and be sure to measure activity, not just results.
So yes, the sales and marketing effort is a complicated dance between identifying short term revenue opportunities whilst playing the long game and laying the groundwork for future client relationships.
It takes investment, patience, an agency-wide commitment and an appreciation of a far broader set of skills than just ‘selling’.
Let’s not forget, we are an industry of creative thinkers, innovators and problem solvers and the plethora of available platforms and channels means there are now endless opportunities to create compelling, content and campaigns to inspire and engage your prospects. Instead of thinking of new business as the problem, let’s become our own client. Let’s assign a budget, a timeline and apply our brilliance to the brief in hand.
Keep trying, keep innovating, keep measuring and refining, keep networking, keep initiating new conversations. Whatever you do, just don’t stop.
If you’d like to understand more about what this means for your agency, please get in touch to find out more about consultancy, training and mentoring.