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Agency New Business Playbook
How do you win some new business for your agency? With our agency new business playbook, that’s how.
I must have been asked this question a million times. It’s about the biggest topic on most agency leaders’ minds; just after, why are our margins so low, and how much does a glass of Rosé cost at Cannes Lions?
There’s no shortcut to new business success. It’s a professional discipline, and I doff my cap to those working full-time in biz dev.
But, if your agency is too small to have a biz dev expert on the team, how will you generate enquiries, opportunities and growth?
If you’re stuck for ideas, here are some thoughts on how to ramp up your lead flow. Some of them are simple, and you’re likely already on it. Others take more time, money and deep thinking to get your head around.
Hopefully, there’s something here for any agency to get their teeth into. They’re not all expensive ideas; I know you’re not made of money. After all, you’re running an agency at a time when the economy is screwed, and your costs have gone through the roof.
But before we launch too far into the realms of lead generation, you need to step back and start by defining a set of marketing objectives and a strategy.
You know, the crucial step of planning that comes before the doing of marketing stuff.
So here are steps 1-5 to get you going:
1. Market analysis
Think about what’s going on in the markets you want to target. Is there a lot of growth, M&A, high-profile successes or failures? Is the market dynamic or static, growing or stagnant? How much is spent on marketing and communications by the big brands? How many players are there of a size that would work with a small independent agency?
What other agencies are playing in this space? Is there demand for another SEO, PPC, PR etc. agency in this industry?
Remember, there are 20,000 other agencies just in the UK, according to urban legend. Don’t jump in and play in a red ocean, or you’ll get eaten.
Or, if you’re already deep in the red, where are the little slivers of blue water that you can start to build a position in?
Get to know the markets you want to target well. You will need to be, and be seen as, an expert at solving the challenges of the clients you want to target; get to know their worlds.
2. What’s your vision for the agency?
Yes, you must define a big, hairy, audacious goal that everyone is excited about. Or, to put it another way, you need direction so that your team and target customers know what your agency is all about.
I’ve written about the importance of a vision before but take my word for it; you’ll need some direction if you want to motivate your team and interest your target audience.
3. Define some objectives and a strategy.
With an ambitious and inspiring vision in place, it’s time to work out your steps to achieving your vision. You will need some objectives but don’t be a plonker and make them vague and ambiguous; be clear and make them SMART.
Next, think about how you will achieve those goals, i.e. it’s time to define a strategy. You don’t need a McKinsey consultant or an MBA from Harvard here; just map out some simple stuff.
For example, you might choose a target of £1m in revenue from SaaS start-up companies in the next 12 months.
Your strategy is how you will achieve that target.
So, for example, you might decide to create a brand platform with some compelling thought leadership around how SaaS players can grow their subscriber base using the bullseye framework. Or something along those lines.
4. Nail a strong position and set of messages.
If you use weak, pitiful language like, we’re an award-winning full-service agency that likes to work with our clients as partners, you’re deep into the red ocean madness. Reaching your objectives will be harder than beating Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon (maybe that should now read Carlos Alcaraz).
Get someone awesome to help you define a competitive position and some meaningful core messages for your target audience.
5. Define your ideal customer persona.
Note I mentioned your target audience there. Marketing planning can only be complete with a deep look at who your customer is, commonly referred to as defining your ideal customer persona, or ICP.
It’s the final piece of planning before you jump into churning out comms. Don’t get started without first mapping out what he, she, or they care about and the challenges they need to overcome.
It would help if you validated your positioning and messages with your ICP before you go large with your communications. This validation could be market research calls with target customers or stakeholders.
Now you have a vision, objectives, a strategy based on market analysis, and a positioning statement with clear messages aligned with your target audience.
In a nutshell, you’re ahead of the pack.
I guarantee most of your competitors will have yet to complete any market analysis, and because of this, their competitive positioning will be feeble.
What’s next in the agency’s new biz playbook, then?
Hunting and farming.
Hunting is about getting fresh new leads into the business, going out and catching that wildebeest that’s galloping across the plain, and bringing it back to the cave for your family to eat.
Farming is about tending to your crop and aiming for the best yield, a.k.a. growing your existing client accounts.
They are two separate disciplines. Please don’t mix them up. But do make sure you do them both.
Hunting is where the hungry sales pro gets their kicks. Farming is the skill of a good account director or client services pro.
I will focus here on hunting since client service is such a massive topic in its own right.
Catching the Wildebeast
For those of you counting, there have been five steps to get your biz dev effort up to speed so far. Let’s get that number up to 15.
So, what can you do to catch some wildebeest, then?
Here’s a list of ideas to get you thinking. They are not solutions. I don’t know your business, sales skills, or attitude to biz dev. Some will suit you, and others won’t. But if you’re looking for ideas, look no further.
Remember, they are only ideas. You can take them, use them in part, in full, or create entirely new marketing tactics. Aside from budget and the law, the only real limitation is your imagination.
So let’s crack on with our agency’s new business playbook.
6. Identity Refresh
Looking at agencies is like wading through a sea of custard soup sameness for client-side marketers. Ensure you don’t look, sound and feel like the 50 other agencies you are up against in your competitive set.
Get yourself a distinctive look and feel based on the positioning you defined earlier. This includes all the obvious assets: logo, colour palette, tone of voice, and brand narrative.
Be brave. Be bold. Be distinctive. Stand for something.
Look at Mellor & Smith for an agency with a distinctive look and feel and really clear messaging. I love their ‘underdog brands need underdog thinking’ messaging.
7. Fix Your Website
With your brand spanking new identity designed, it’s time to upgrade your crappy Wix website. I know you have one, and you probably tweak it regularly.
But honestly, what does it say about your agency?
I interviewed marketing procurement professional Tina Fegent recently. Tina buys agency services for a living and quipped about how often she can look at an agency website and come away wondering what they do or how they can help.
Show some guts and let your positioning shine. Go bold or go home. And remember to optimise your site for the search engines, i.e. SEO.
Now SEO is a vast subject, and there are many better places to learn about it than here, so I’ll move on.
8. Content Marketing for Agencies
Your website is only the start. You now need to get some attention on it, so top-of-the-funnel stuff.
You thought you were an agency. That’s bullshit, I’m afraid. You are also now a media company, and content is the name of the game. It’s your best bet for showing your ICP how you can help them to overcome their challenges and achieve their objectives.
Content with some personality also demonstrates expertise, shows off your thought leadership and delivers an insight into what you will be like to work with.
[Edit: I heard Sir John Hegarty suggest we need to think of content more as entertainment to set us apart from the 99.9% of content that is dull. I love this idea. Don’t get lost in the crowd].
You’ll need to create some compelling ideas to engage your ICP. I like Katy Howell from Immediate Future’s take on this. Listen to my interview with Katy here.
Katy is a ninja at creating valuable content for her target clients and using those assets to start conversations.
With content marketing, you need three ingredients to be successful (on top of everything written above):
A. Some quality content that is valuable to your ICP
B. Channels for getting your content in front of your target audience
C. A system for managing engagement
What format should your content be in?
Here are some of the simplest to most expensive tactics, many of which can and should be front and centre on your website:
- Infographics (does anyone still read these?)
- Email newsletters
The best advice here is that whatever format you choose, make a plan, be consistent, show up regularly with high-value ideas, and you will get noticed.
And don’t follow the field of dreams philosophy, i.e. if you build it, they will come. You will need to promote the hell out of your content across all your outposts, including some paid media. This includes getting an email newsletter going to distribute your content and staying in your prospects’ inboxes.
9. Blogging Works
I’m a sucker for a good blog post.
Why do you think I have written this 2,891-word agency new business playbook for the leaders of small marketing agencies?
Can you guess who my ICP is? If it sounds like you, get in touch here.
If you have a website, setting up a blog costs next to zero. Just get it done and populate it with value. Answer the questions your prospective clients always have early in the sales process.
Why a blog?
It’s an easy way to show some thought leadership, demonstrate expertise and opinion, attract eyeballs to your website, share valuable content; and the list goes on.
Don’t think. Just do. Okay, ignore the don’t think bit there. Obviously, you need a content plan before you start smashing out words on your keyboard, or if your copywriting skills are a bit lacklustre, prompting ChatGPT.
Remember the point about optimising your site for search engines from earlier? If properly optimised, your blog and all of your content marketing will be great for attracting The Google.
10. Personal Brand
I know. Every single one of you just rolled your eyeballs.
And really, I’m not going to try and teach granny to suck eggs (as an aside, where does this crazy phrase come from?).
There are three primary reasons for creating a personal brand for your senior agency leaders:
A. To demonstrate the personality of your team and give clues for what you’ll be like to work with
B. To distribute all the lovely high-quality content you’ve spent time and money creating
C. To identify and target prospective clients – guess what? They are all also on social media
Let’s cut to the chase; unless you are a social media agency, you can focus your efforts on LinkedIn.
Instagram, Facebook, X (formerly Twitter) and others aren’t worth the effort to sell agency services to marketers. LinkedIn is the place to be and to be seen.
You and your senior team must be active on LinkedIn, sharing great content, commenting on others’ posts and being visible.
There is a lot of great advice on using LinkedIn for lead generation, which I won’t repeat here.
Listen to my podcast with Rajen Mistry on personal branding for some more ideas.
11. Public Relations
With a solid story and great content, it’s time to lean on other people’s audiences. You probably don’t have a massive reach with your content yet.
The best way to reach a large audience without a significant media budget is good old-fashioned public relations. You know, influencing those who influence your ICP, so we’re talking trade publications and online influencers in your niche.
You can do this in several ways, but here’s a simple plan:
A. Research the media your ICP consumes, including print, online, podcasts etc
B. Start consuming those publications and get to know what they care about
C. Begin to engage those journalists on their socials so they get to know you who are
D. Be consistent and persistent, always thinking about how you can add value to their audience
Your goal is to get some coverage in trade publications or mainstream press if appropriate. You could also aim for a guest appearance on a podcast or a speaking slot at a meetup or conference.
There you have it, a very simplistic approach to gaining some traction with the media landscape that reaches your ICP.
Hot on the heels of speaking opportunities at conferences, I want you to think about running your own events too. I’ve seen some excellent simple event executions, so don’t think you need to take a booth at MAD//Fest or rent a yacht at Cannes for the annual advertising junket – although you can if your budgets permit.
I’ve recently been attending a simple, bi-weekly event on Zoom called the B2B Marketing Shizzle (EDIT recently renamed to Great Shouts), featuring a guest speaker and Q&A in 30-minute bite-sized sessions.
The founder, a fractional CMO called Ed Davidson, has built an audience of 100+ marketers in just six months. That’s pretty good, given it has only grown through word of mouth. Ed has yet to spend a penny on marketing or content creation. Great work.
Another example is Joe Glover and The Marketing Meetup team, who have created a positively lovely community of more than 40,000 mid-level marketers and agency owners from all over the world off the back of a simple Meetup.
Events come in all shapes and sizes. Find one that suits your ICP and your budget, and get going. If it means joining the FSB or a local chamber of commerce, then crack on, as they come with bucketloads of networking opportunities. There are no barriers to entry.
I’m a big fan of awards. Actually, that’s bullshit. I’m really not.
There are so many awards that it’s hard to know which are worth entering; this is especially true for smaller agency teams with little to no experience in writing a winning entry.
I recently read an excellent article from Chris Hirst (author and ex-agency CEO) about awards rarely being worth the effort and cost, and I’m broadly in agreement. When searching for and hiring an agency, are awards genuinely valuable for client-side marketers? Maybe. Perhaps if the awards are celebrating marketing effectiveness.
That said, an award can be good for team morale, so do your research. If you can find one that’s reputable, respected, and doesn’t cost the earth, go for it.
Don’t spend thousands on it, though, and definitely don’t enter the awards with categories like Marketing Agency of the Year for the South East Region of the UK. These awards have no depth, are about making money for the organiser and are valueless.
I’m often amazed at the awards I see agency owners accepting. Some of you spend more time showing off appearances at awards ceremonies than demonstrating excellent marketing work. Don’t do this. Clients really don’t care if you are The Female Digital Marketing Leader of the Year for Southern England, or some other superficial awards.
They really shouldn’t be a big part of your agency new business playbook.
You know I said there are 20,000 agencies in the UK. Well, guess what? They’re not all competing with you. Very many of them will be offering complimentary services to the same ICP.
Say you do digital advertising for travel companies, but you don’t do SEO. Look for SEO agencies working with travel companies that don’t do digital advertising. Can you see how that might make an exciting partnership?
You might even consider buying that agency if you have the resources.
Last but not least, get a proper referral scheme going. If your clients are happy with your service, get them to support your growth.
You’ll need great relationships with your clients, some excellent case studies and an NPS smashing the +50 mark first. Once you have those in place, get your clients to refer you to their friends and family.
Most agencies grow through referrals in the early days and working through their black book of contacts. It’s essential, but don’t make it your sole focus. It will not be enough.
So there you have it, our agency new business playbook for small independent marketing agencies.
If you’re doing all the above well, your agency should grow, but there’s no guarantee. Hopefully, there are some ideas here to get your creative and strategic juices flowing.
Oh, and there’s a lot more to think about when you start getting leads and opportunities coming your way, such as lead qualification, to make sure you’re pursuing only the most suited clients.
Biz dev for agencies is a specialist skill set that takes expertise, time, and commitment, and I wish you every success.