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Monday, 16 December 2013

Trust is the secret to great agency / client relationships

Having spent half my career as a client and the other half servicing clients, I've learnt the do's and don'ts of how to build relationships and I've also made a few mistakes along the way. What I have found is that like any relationship, honesty, collaboration, transparency and most importantly trust, are the key ingredients for a successful long-term partnership.

My pet hate when I was a client was receiving a quote for a job and not understanding what half the costs were. Why did I need X days of account management? What do planners do? What's the difference between an artworker, designer and creative? A lack of transparency, poor communication and limited insight, often resulted in a loss of trust on both sides – I lacked control over costs and my agencies felt they were unable to deploy the necessary resources to meet my needs.

As an account handler, my primary role is to understand the commercial and day-to-day challenges which my clients face. Communication and collaboration is essential to this process as it enables both parties to predict and mitigate any potential problems, closes information gaps and continually focusses the agency on the client’s business challenges. By working together it is possible to develop collaborative working relationships which result in both parties feeling that they are receiving value for money.

Unfortunately, new agency / client relationships often begin with a discussion about budget rather than how we can create value for both organisations in the long term. The rise of procurement has brought this into sharper focus with price often taking precedent over value. The result has been an erosion of agency margins and the commoditisation of some services. More importantly, by focusing on price, clients often place unnecessary limitations of their agencies ability to add value to their business in the long term.

With the above in mind, I believe that stating your desired ROI and being clear what time and resource you are willing to commit to a project, communicating how costs are formulated and why, and having an honest conversation about preferred ways of working, are critical to building a successful client / agency relationship. By establishing the ground rules early, and not being afraid to have difficult conversations, we can minimise issues (perceived or real) and manage future expectations.

Ultimately clients and agencies need to move beyond the 'them and us' approach to doing business. We need to think long-term, seek to add value to the process wherever possible, collaborate, communicate and take shared ownership, and above all, work to maintain trust at all times. Without trust neither client nor agency can realise the full potential of their relationship and create the value that is vital for long term business growth.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Getting on the client radar - part 2 word-of-mouth

Once you have established your brand and service proposition the next step is taking it to market. Agencies are notoriously crap at marketing themselves, due to either a lack of time, lack of resource or an inability to make the critical decisions on the construct and ownership of their new business strategy - everybody is an expert and everyone has an opinion on what should be done!

Referrals are generally the easiest place to start and can be the most cost effective and valuable new business opportunities. So it's important to create a culture which encourages and rewards employees to seek out and actively pursue referrals. Ultimately everyone in the business should have a vested interest in promoting the agency, after all it's the lifeblood of the business. However, creating an entrepreneurial agency culture is easier said than done.

Employee Referrals

We are connected socially and professional via LinkedIn and our social networks, it's a small industry and we've all worked in other agencies on a variety of accounts, so it makes sense to tap into our database of clients and media contacts. However, it's not enough to ask your employees to refer you, they must believe in what you are trying to achieve and feel compelled (not obliged) to actively promote the agency for the benefit of themselves and the business. Chucking a few financial incentives around never works!

When agencies ask their staff to provide referrals they are asking them to potentially place their personal reputation at risk. Therefore agencies must recognise that their staff are mini businesses in their own right who have a personal brand and a career to protect. Strong leadership, employee engagement with the business strategy, and an inspiring and empathetic approach to people management, will have a big impact on your employee's desire to want to further your business objectives.

If staff are to be effective in generating referrals they must have the necessary tools at hand. You would be surprised by how many agencies struggle to develop even the most basic sales tools e.g. a personalised letter of introduction; a well established, content rich and regularly updated website; a 60 second elevator speech that can be tailored and confidently delivered by everyone; agency credentials and examples of work that can be quickly and easily distributed; a process in place for what to do when contact is established.

Client Referrals

Another obvious source of new business opportunity is client referral. It is by far the best endorsement of your work and carries huge credibility with potential prospects. However, asking clients to actively seek out new business referrals on your behalf must be approached as a two-way street i.e. there must something in it for them or why would they bother. Keeping your client's business in mind when servicing your other clients, attending events, networking or chatting with your mates, will often throw up potential business partnership and client referral opportunities.

Establishing a PR function which is tasked with promoting both your agency and your clients' business is another effective way to incentivise clients and encourage them to provide referrals. Everyone loves free PR and it also allows the agency to develop client centric content, which in the client-side marketing press is essential to ensure publication. It also provides the opportunity to develop case studies and testimonials for inclusion in your marketing material and for distribution direct to prospects.

Another great way of encouraging your clients to spread the word is to develop thought provoking and relevant content that your clients will find interesting, relevant and useful, and feel compelled to share with their business network. Implementing a content marketing strategy with a clearly defined editorial plan and encouraging everyone within the agency to contribute, will help you to develop engaging content that can be distributed via your own media, direct to clients, via industry platforms and the trade press.

In my next post (getting on the client radar - part 3) I'll expand on the importance of agency PR, content creation, reputation building and thought-leadership, as well address other sales and marketing activities which I have found to be effective in getting on the client radar and generating new business opportunities.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Getting on the client radar - part 1 brand

If you're a start-up agency or an agency with a relatively low profile, getting on the radar of prospective clients and earning a place on a pitch list can be really tough. It helps if your key members of staff have a personal brand and a portfolio they can trade on. It also helps if you have a client that is willing to be an advocate for your work. If you don't have either of these two things then how do you put your agency on the map?
A truly unique proposition

Developing your brand and service proposition is the obvious place to start when considering your new business strategy. A compelling and unique proposition increases the chances of you getting noticed, it helps to clearly differentiate you from the competition, and it informs how you think and act as a business.

Your brand proposition must be based on a belief system, your organisational values and a point of view that is easy to understand, unique and compelling. Ultimately the proposition must be true to your personality and strengths i.e. articulating (simply) why you do what you do, not what you aspire to be.

There are four alternate strategies you could consider for your agency brand and it will depend on your agency skill set and the talent you employ, and whether you specialise in a particular discipline or disciplines:

Your proposition could be:
  1. Relationship led e.g. Good Works® - Karmarama, a service POV that underpins their ethical approach to business and their promise to always put their customers (and staff) above everything else. 
  2. Strategy led e.g. Predatory Thinking® - The Gate, a strategic POV which defines their approach to developing competitive business advantage for their clients. 
  3. Creative led e.g. Fallon or Saatchi & Saatchi, who believe in the unreasonable power of creativity and it's ability to help businesses to outsmart rather than outspend their competitors.
  4. Service led e.g. Energising Ideas -  McCann Enterprise, who offer brand strategy and integrated comms with the aim of engaging all stakeholders not just customers.
I've found from personal experience that employing an industry specialist PR agency during the development of your proposition will help you better understand the competitive landscape. They provide a valuable second opinion on whether your proposition is truly unique and if it will cut-through, giving you a fighting chance of gaining the media exposure you need to develop your reputation. An outside perspective will also help you to stay focused and encourage you to sacrifice everything that does not fit with your proposition, beliefs and ways of working.

Whatever route you chose to go with your proposition, you must ensure that it is Marmite. Some people should love it and others hate it because there is no room for indifference. By creating symbols of re-evaluation which represent your unique POV, breaking with typical agency conventions and seeking to change how clients view agencies, you stand a better chance of being considered as a viable alternative to more established competition. Your overriding aim must be to place yourself in an entirely separate space.

When your proposition is in place, look inward rather than knee jerking into a external launch. Your staff need to understand and then engage with your business strategy if they are to embrace who you are and commit to vigorously pursuing your business objectives. That doesn't mean launching it with a presentation and a few cocktails, it means involving your people in the process of developing and implementing your strategy and engaging employees in conversation across every function of the business. It also means making some tough choices on staff recruitment and retention.

As a challenger brand you will inevitably encounter the inertia and resistance that every business experiences in a mature market dominated by a few big players and saturated by a plethora of others. That's why overcommitment and a desire to do what everyone else is either unwilling or incapable of doing is essential if you want to stand out. Clients must perceive you as a can-do agency that is willing to adapt and innovate to suit the business and industry you are servicing.

With a solid brand and business strategy in place you have the foundation from which to take your proposition to market and begin the process of actively engaging customers, the media, key opinion formers and prospects. Part 2 will address some of the methods I have used for agency sales and marketing that I have found to be effective in engaging organisations and driving client acquisition.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Pitch theatre and winning new business

I was interested to read Dave Trotts blog on pitching (Harry's Game) the other week in which he provides a couple of great examples of how to beat the competition. Whether you think the tactics are ethical or not, there's no doubt that in a market as competitive as advertising you need to use every trick in the book if your agency is going to get noticed and ultimately take the business away from more established competition.

Texas Joe's awesome pitch on Dragons Den
There are lots of factors which affect pitch success but there are 4 basic principles that I always consider. One, your agency has got to get on the clients radar or nothing happens. Two, your agency proposition has got to significantly differentiate you from everyone else, which means you need to know your competition. Three, your idea and strategic rationale has got to be impactful, challenging and relevant. Four, the way the idea and strategy is presented (before, during and after the pitch) should leave a lasting impression on your audience.

Once you're on the radar (I'll address this in another post), achieving points 2, 3 & 4 can be difficult if you're given 2 or 3 weeks to pull it together. The biggest challenge is balancing the time you allocate to discovery, insights, strategy and creative brief writing, versus time allocated to creative, as well as leaving enough time to finesse the 'presentation' and practice selling it in. This is made even more difficult if you are pitching in a category which you have no prior experience in - research and planning is likely to take longer than usual. Having a pitch process and task schedule to follow helps to keep your team focussed and on track.

What I have learnt over the years is that you need a strong pitch team leader with the authority and knowledge to call time on each stage of the process. Planners won't like me saying this but ideally you want the planning phase to be completed as quickly as possible, with the end result being a simple brief that summarises the commercial and creative objectives, and provides the necessary insights to inspire great work. This leaves the creative team with enough time to develop and craft their ideas into a state that can be successfully presented.

Unfortunately each contributing team (account handling, planning and creative) will view their bit as equally if not more important and will fight for the maximum amount of time possible. This is why you need to form a pitch group that works together on a consistent basis and understands and appreciates the contribution each team makes to the final product. It is all about collaboration, keeping sight of the end goal and good project management.

The common mistake most agencies make is trying to do too much in too little time. The result is lots of average work. Quality over quantity must always be the rule because without at least one great idea you have nothing to sell. If the idea is strong enough and flexible enough there is no need to execute it across every conceivable media. The client should get it instantly and already be thinking about how they would execute the campaign before you even get to presenting the comms and media plan.

Finally, I think we need to get back to what agencies do best and that's being creative. Most agencies have fallen into the trap of presenting ideas in the same old slideshow format. This may be fine for more conservative clients but even stuffy old FS brands are now demanding something "a bit different". The Texas Joe Beef Jerky pitch on Dragons Den is one of my favourite examples of pitch theatre and it demonstrates the difference creativity can make.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Account handlers are the real agency hereos

Account handling is an unusual profession in that it requires a wide variety of skills to be good at it. You have to be part marketing strategist, business consultant, diplomat, book keeper, translator, creative, project manager, coach, technician, sales person, mediator and sociologist.

With some many skills required to be a great account handler it's no wonder that it takes time to master our craft. It's also no surprise that everyone in our profession has dropped the ball on more than one occasion.

On the face of it account handlers are on a hiding to nothing with nowhere to hide when the shit hits the fan. It's a precarious position to be in and I have seen numerous account handlers, both junior and senior, break down due to the pressures of the job – without the added complication of life outside of work.

Recognising that account handling is a difficult job, mistakes are inevitable, and that account handlers need regular support and guidance, is for me one of the most important requirements of good agency management.

Managers need to be able to empathise with the situation a member of their team finds him or herself in. They need to be on hand when problems arise, be willing to support them through to resolution with their sanity intact, whilst at the same time giving them the scope, freedom and opportunity to develop their skills and experience.

Unfortunately I consistently hear from prospective employees that the reason for moving job is lack of personal development and support from management. The excuse quoted by most managers is that they can't dedicate enough time to people management - most of their day is spent selling, developing client relationships, managing the money and supporting the overall running of the agency. 

In my opinion, we're making a big mistake by not supporting our client services people and not recognising that managing people should be a priority not an after-thought. It's time we acknowledged that account handling is a difficult, stressful and vital job that has a direct and immediate impact on the success of the business.

Creatives and planners get all the glory and win all the awards but in my opinion account handlers are the unsung heroes. Their contribution to both agency and client should be more widely recognised and appreciated in our industry.