Making a start: What you need to know about employing a new business agency.

Employing and deploying a new business agency is no small investment. It’s obviously a commitment financially, but it’s also a big commitment of time: both in what you must give to the process for it to succeed and how patient you need to be for the process to yield results (it’s widely acknowledged that - barring the odd splendid fluke - any new business efforts require many months of ‘faith’ before any wins hove into view). If someone tells you otherwise, they really want you to sign a contract (and probably one with a six-month notice period).

The two questions we get asked the most from potential clients are: how long does it take to get started, and what do we need to do to prepare? Brilliantly, the answer to the first question is entirely reliant upon the client’s reaction to the second.

House in order
Probably the hardest part of the kick-off process for a new client is the culling of much-loved creds. This deck will probably have evolved over months and years to include:

  • Photos of each and every staff member past and present (probably against the backdrop of a brick wall – am I right?).

  • At least ten case studies (each a multiple page entry with some serious narrative – but not always any kind of commercial outcomes or results).

  • Plenty of self-serving pages about when the company was formed, why it was formed, where it was formed, how it was formed, and the history of the fireplace (basically stuff that no one ever used to pick an agency).

  • Welcome pages, goodbye pages, a page before the case studies saying CASE STUDIES (you know, just in case no one can follow your ground-breaking presentation style).

Anyway, you get the point: creds are pretty much always too long, too long-winded, and exactly the kind of size that leaves email systems chewing on them like a cow with a pack of wine gums. Some clients welcome a ruddy good creds beating, others will cling on to every one of the 26 pages clogging up their chances of success.

So… once we’ve established that your cold channel creds need to be slim and impactful… what’s next?

Target acquired
So, you’ve done the smart thing and bought yourselves a shiny new business cannon (if I do say so myself) so where do you want to point us? You might be surprised to learn that some entirely amazing agencies have got to this part of the process only to say: “Oh gosh… we don’t really know; some big brands… or something… maybe?”

Please know what you want – you’re now paying us so make it worth your while by knowing what it is that we’re going after for you. Please don’t say “something like Nike or Apple” (unless you really think it’s a realistic target) and please don’t say “more FMCG”. Understand your own successes, understand what you did so well, and now let’s find some more excellent (specific) targets for you to unleash us upon.

Release the hounds
Ok, so we now know what we’re saying about your company (by mirroring the language of the now-excellent creds) we have creds (result-oriented and tight as a squirrel’s headband) ready and able to email, and we also know where our efforts are to be focused. Thank you. We’ll be back to you shortly with the first of your well-qualified, super-focused new leads. You’re welcome.

When agencies outnumber opportunities.

Agencies from across the marketing spectrum are pretty bad at selling themselves. I don’t want any of them to become salesy, pushy “Wolf of Wall Street” types, employing hideous tricks and tactics. There are ways to be more compelling – more interesting to the decision-maker with too many options.

Agency decision-makers get dozens of approaches a month. Many get dozens a week. They receive endless creds documents. The nice ones read most of them. The less patient ones filter them out based on a few simple criteria. Some don’t read them at all.

Many of the things that agencies talk about are things that a decision-maker would use to exclude them as an option. Location, size, years in business. These can all be positives, but not very impressive ones. They can more easily be reasons to exclude. Marketing bods at companies can choose from many agencies. In our experience (and we’ve been doing this for 15 years*), they choose based on two things: the outcomes you can cause for your clients and the company you keep (your client list).

If you’re at a big outdoor event and there are 25 food stalls, you don’t look at all 25 and choose the one you will eat at. You exclude some first: “Well, I don’t fancy a burger, I don’t want to eat fish and chips while I’m walking around and I hate hot dogs”. Before you know it, you’re left with a few options. These are the ones that you now consider on merit. This is how marketing people whittle lists of agencies down. They exclude first. Often arbitrarily.

The opening chunk of your creds, website or proposal is crucial. It sets up the way the prospective client views the rest of the presentation. An incredible number of our clients started out with creds that opened with something like, “Based in Hexham, our team of 22 amazing people have worked on the most brilliant design projects for 18 years!”. Or maybe bullet points that illustrate the same thing:

About us

- 22 People

- Office and studio in Hexham

- Founded in 1998

- Fluent in Design and branding

Four boring facts that tell a potential client almost nothing. Imagine for a moment that your prospect last used an agency with 8 people, founded just three years ago, based in London. It went well. The outcomes were pretty good. Suddenly you’ve got nothing in common with this decent agency they quite liked. Now, everything you say is through the lens of someone who sees you as rather unlike the last guys. Maybe they liked that their agency was in London. Maybe they liked their small team. Maybe they liked that they were fresh and full off new ideas. Or maybe they liked them for a more important reason: It went well. The outcomes were pretty good. This is what you should lead out with.

If you’re the agency that increased shirt sales for Fullofit Shirts by 23% online, then that’s page one. If you’re the agency that raised staff retention for Slipless Gripmats plc by over 40%, then say so, early on. If you’re the agency that created a brand that staff and customers genuinely loved for Landwell Airways then make that the lead story. Your location, years in business and number of staff can go to the last page. Imagine blowing a potential client’s mind with your incredible results, then at the very end leaving them thinking, “All this from an agency way out in Hexham! Wow!”. It’s remarkably powerful to confound expectation.

And now all you have to do is make the rest of your story readable. A simple truth about sending out a creds PDF is that people are savvy to the size. They look at the file size. Above 5MB and they’re already planning to ditch it early. They’ll glance at the page count. 23 pages? No chance. This is a prospect in the cold-channel. They don’t care about your creative prowess. They don’t want to read a book about you. They don’t want to spend more than a couple of minutes on this. We’ve found that a page count of fewer than 10 pages is important. Single digits = readable. You are not trying to secure the deal remotely, just to create the next step. Tailor it. Make the filename refer to the prospective client if you’re sending it. Mention their name on the title page. People like this as much as they hate receiving something generic.

In cold-channel business development, you’re going to fail more than you succeed. 75%+ of wins go to a referral, or the incumbent. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a strong cold-channel campaign. It does mean you shouldn’t have a poor one. Make every word, picture and page of your creds count. Make it about the prospect, not about you. Focus on their commercial goals. Leave aside your patented processes. Don’t crow too loudly about awards. If someone hires you for twelve months, the thing they’re buying – the thing you should be selling – it whatever it is that they’ll have in month thirteen that they didn’t have in month one.

*See, you don’t care how long we’ve been in business. That didn’t make you want to hire us. But if it DID, call Steve now on 01708 451311. Just don’t tell him that was your reason.

What you can get from Sponge NB

Everything we do is done to find you new clients. We do the obvious things (I’ll list some of them below) and we do some less obvious things (I’ll list some of them below). We cost the same as hiring a full-timer and you get a fully-functioning business development department.

THINGS WE'LL DO

-    Research your prospects properly before contacting them.
-    Research you properly before contacting anyone for you.
-    Make really smart, non-salesy calls. Ask questions on those calls. Listen a lot on those calls. Not make too many of those calls.
-    Write readable, snappy, professional emails. Individual ones. Not some bulk-mailer “look, we’ve discovered Mailchimp” email/newsletter that any prospect deletes immediately. 
-    Consult properly for you. We have a vastly experienced project manager and sales trainer to make things work well. We have an ex-Global Marketing Director and Copywriter here, so your written communications are remarkable. We're not bashing out calls here.
-    Build sensible, well-managed databases. Refresh them often. Update them constantly.
-    Report honestly and usefully. 
-    Never enshroud our efforts in meaningless stats, graphs and numbers designed to provide false reassurance and keep the project running, even if it really needs reviewing/improving/sacking off. If it needs fixing, we’ll say so. Loudly.
-    Make sure you never think “I wonder what Sponge are up to?”. Speak to you regularly, but concisely. You don’t have time for fluff. You do have time to know what’s working and what’s not.
-    Conduct a really enjoyable and informative briefing day. We don’t need to learn “what you do”. If that’s not clear on your web site, we’ll be helping to make sure it becomes clear. We want to know your people, culture, language, highs/lows, hobbies, least favourite client. The stuff we’d know if we worked there.
-    Offer the benefit of our owner Steve’s experience – 15+ years of agency business development.
-    Find opportunities worth having. If it’s a meeting, one with an agenda, where we’ve asked about budgets. We average a couple of those a month for clients (that’s a historic number, so it might not be what you get. Some very large clients have seen fewer, some clients have seen far more).
-    Help you follow up those opportunities. Not pester, just keep up to date with.
-    Offer training if you want it. You might not need it but we can help polish even a decent business developer’s approach.
-    Give you a chunk of code for your web site so we (and you) know which companies have been on your web site. 
-    Think of smart things to make things happen for you. For example, we found a way to increase the number of senior marketers at larger companies with whom we could secure conversations. It takes an hour or two and you can then use it every day forever. 
-    Sell you actual things we’ll really do - however fuzzy - rather than impossible promises. Whatever you think of our web site, our size, our clunky logo, our address or our team photos, give us a call and you’ll only ever be sold the things we do every day. No inflated outcomes, no crazy KPIs . Honesty. 
-    Celebrate the wins we find for you and genuinely beat ourselves up when we don’t win. Our culture is to give a hoot. 

If you’re doing well in your business development endeavours, call us. Don’t’ wait until things are going badly. We can’t wave a magic wand, nor will we be likely to find really quick wins. If things are going badly, we can help you plan the right next steps. When things are comfortably plateauing, or growing nicely, we’re in a great position to help grow your company using a sensible, sustained approach.
 

How did Business Development get such a horrible reputation?

Whether it's the band of Business Development Agencies (of which we're one), the endless Business Development freelancers or the super-keen in-house new business person, the choices an agency's MD has when choosing the right business development route are fraught with danger (in terms of more than just the money it costs - when it doesn't work out, it costs time and nudges an agency's plans back further and further).  There are many reasons a new business effort can fail, but there's one that is easy to solve and makes a big difference. It's a big part of the reasons than business development has the reputation it currently "enjoys". 

What is it?

Targets. Well, inappropriate targets. Too many Sales Managers, company bosses and Business Developers believe that the numbers game is how results are achieved. There are rooms full of talented, intelligent people being bellowed at, instant-messaged or emailed the same sentiment: MAKE MORE CALLS! I worked for a large membership organisation where 150 calls a day were demanded. That’s at the lower end of things. One of the Sponge NB (my Business Development Agency) team worked in a role where 300 calls a day was the task that greeted them  as they approached their desk. Hardly the sort of thing that’s going to result in motivated, enthusiastic workers. Numerical targets are of course the simplest way to measure a salesperson’s success. If they’re generating direct sales, selling memberships (or any other transaction) there and then on the phone, then counting the numbers at the end will of course tell you whether they sold a lot or a little. The problem is that they are unlikely to have achieved anything because of an arbitrary "higher is better" target. Intelligent, motivated business development people strive for more whether a target is there or not. They don't look to meet targets, they look for outcomes and then find the route to that outcome. 

The owner of a new business uses enthusiasm, relevant questioning, malleability of proposition, confidence, speed of speech, tone of voice and willingness to close. That's on every call, email or contact with a prospect. It barely matters how many times a day that happens, but what's certain is that "as many times as possible" isn't necessarily the right approach. Entrepreneurs finding their first few clients do things like "clear their head". They make time to research and understand each prospect. They build relationships with prospects until they don't really like calling them prospects (I've never thought of the little band of people I stay in touch with and show a genuine interest in as "prospects"). The progression from lead, through to client can often go via "friend" in some cases. Retrospectively that'll look just like "sales", but the term seems to sully the relationship that's there. Nonetheless, "sales" is what happened.

There's a problem - that can't happen 150-300 times a day. And so "prospects" don't hear the sort of approach that comes from someone actually giving a monkeys about them or their company. That awful approach will be the 10th one of the day. What chance do you think you've got?

But Business Development Agencies, freelancers and in-house Business Developers want to show the Agency boss that they're busy, so they smash out 150+ calls, filling reports with things like "Left a voicemail, calling back on Tuesday", as if that's any sort of outcome.

Targets need to be longer term and focused on outcomes. There's no point worrying about call stats beyond a fairly conservative number. We once resigned a client who called our Account Manager three times to find out how many calls they'd made since the last time they'd called her. It sounds extreme, but it can be seen in a great many agency owners. Targets are there to guide and then measure, not to destroy enthusiasm and morale, or to decide in isolation whether something/someone is working out. If the very targets you've put in place lead to irritated prospects and business developers, then what chance do your calls and emails have? 

Many people talk about "winning without pitching". It's essential to have an outbound sales effort, but it doesn't have to look like "pitching" often does. Sales shouldn't be adversarial - it should be conversational. Your outbound endeavours are tougher to convert than referrals, incoming leads or "little black book" wins, so make each approach count. If everyone's approach was well researched, properly qualified and as interested in what a prospect wants as it often is in blowing its own metaphorical trumpet, sales wouldn't have the horrible reputation it has.

3 interesting ways to find new business leads.

1)      The competitors of those in the trade press

The news you read about a company wanting to appoint an agency is toxic to your new business endeavours. Firstly, if it’s in the trade press, it’s old. The best case scenario is that every agency on the planet has contacted the prospect. Most commonly though, the lead is now cold. Leave them alone and focus on the competitors of the company in question. If one company in a sector is used to outsourcing, then many of its competitors will be too. They’ll also be aware of the review and might be considering their own marketing support.

 
2)      The brands your team would like to work on

When we conduct our briefing days with new clients, one of the things we do is talk to the team at the agency and talk about dream clients. Once we’ve got Apple, Innocent, Audi and Nike out of the way, some really interesting ideas often emerge. It stands to reason that brands that your team feel enthusiastic about are the ones they could help write an amazing pitch for. And if you win the business, they’ll love working on it. No downside.

 
3)      The Top 10 of everything

Walk around your office and list everything (and I mean everything). For example:

-         Phone
-         Desk
-         Radiator
-         Blinds
-         Light switches
-         Fluorescent tubes
-         Doors
-         Door furniture
-         Squash racquet (hardly used)
-         Carpets
-         Copper pipes
-         Sink
-         Bin

All of these have manufacturers. Most of them are in sectors rarely approached by agencies. Find the top 10 of each (I’m not telling you how – you’re supposed to hire us) and then consider whether they’re marketed effectively. It’s a little trivial, but it’ll get you away from having new business planning sessions where you decide that FMCG, lifestyle and food and drink are the best sectors to target because they're famous. 

Four ways to get more from your new business agency

New Business Agencies sometimes screw up. We have. They all have. Quite a lot of the time though, if things aren't working it's not just their doing. It's a bit of both of you. Supporting your new business agency's endeavours is essential. There are things they know that are always helpful to trust them on. Like this:

1)      Don’t make them describe you in a particular way.

Just because you’ve decided to call yourselves a Brand Empathy & Ideas Generation Agency doesn’t mean that your prospects or clients would ever think of you as that. Worse than not thinking of you in your chosen way, there’s the simple fact that if someone needs what they call a creative agency and goes looking for one, they’re not going to immediately see that you might be able to solve their problem. If you have your new business person calling or emailing people who control marketing budgets, then encourage them to find out what the person might be looking for. If it’s “creative” then you’re a creative agency. If it’s “ideas”, you’re an ideas agency. Many of our clients over the years have insisted on a specific description and we’ve learned to say “no” because it does no good.

2)      If they ask for a short credentials document, give them a short credentials document. Do it on time.

Agencies love to talk about themselves. Clients speak to lots of agencies over time. Do the sums. Do you imagine that they want long presentations from every new agency they encounter? The chances are that after a couple of conversations and the mention of an upcoming brief, your new business legend (for that’s what we are) will need to send over some sort of document to move things along a bit. Unless they’re asking for specific examples, send them a short (9 pages maximum) description of your agency. Make sure the majority of it tells the prospect what they will get (which is different from what you do). Leave the dull bits (where you are, how long you’ve been in business) until the end (if they’re not interested by then, who cares where you are?). Actually, just read my article on the excellent Econsultancy – it’s at
http://econsultancy.com/uk/blog/11207-agency-creds-they-re-all-as-bad-as-each-other and it’s marvellous.

3)      Don't keep asking how many calls they've made.

I know you want your money's worth, but unless you've hired a phone-jockey to blitz a list, killing names off as fast as possible in the hope that they'll trip over something, they need time to do other things. Your new business person needs to be doing research, refining data, clearing their head with the latest football news, working on your proposition and myriad (which originally meant 10,000, but here just means "lots of") other things.

4)      Support them from the start.

Look, I know that hiring a new business agency is scary stuff. We’ll ask for a level of trust that in the early months is fairly un-earned. While some new business agencies will abuse your trust and have you spending valuable studio time putting together documents that will be seen by a temporary receptionist at a company with fifty quid to spend, this is (or should be) rare. What is worse – far worse – is stifling their ability to win you new clients by slowing them down. We often have to promise a terrifyingly fast turnaround on some detailed credentials documents to squeeze a client into a pitch. When they trust our word and support us, it invariably leads to a far more productive project. Our most successful client of 2012 obviously trusts us implicitly, but the key thing they did from the start was trust us, sight unseen. We’re good at this and I hope our competitors are too. Don’t get in the way.

This might all seem like common sense, but often the temptation is to take far too long to create a 28-page PDF which spends an age describing your agency as an Integrated Product-Oriented Brand Development and Advancement Consultancy. And then you’ve gone and broken all three rules.