Agency Growth Tips 2/21: Swim upstream. As fast as you can.

Published 06.03.2019

So, here we are. Agency Growth Tip Number 2/12 – super feedback to tip number 1/21 ‘Create value. Not things.’

Thank you for all those that read it. I appreciate the feedback.

Today’s reflections come from direct experience. I’ve made this mistake. I watched colleagues do it. I see agencies I consult with do it. It happens everywhere. And it’s a huge risk to your business.

What is it? Not broadening and deepening your relationships beyond your primary contact and taking them upstream.

Why do we make this mistake? Fear. Apathy. Laziness. Didn’t know better. Blockages. Resistance. There’s a whole bunch of reasons. Blah. If it was easy everyone would be in this agency game.

And look around, everyone bloomin’ well is right now. It’s insane the amount of agencies and startups that are out there. It’s utterly unsustainable. And most agencies are simply commodities… Interesting today. Replaced tomorrow.

There’s a solution. But it has nothing to do with coming up with ideas. It’s about running your agency, not running your output.

So, here we go with 2/21.

Swim upstream. As fast as you can.

There are only four things certain in life. Change. Death. Taxes. And having to re-pitch for clients that you thought were bolted on for life.

From the moment you win a client (via pitch, tender, recommendation or other) the clock is ticking. I am not a pessimist. I am a realist. The clock is ticking down towards needing to replace that client. If you’re like me and you’ve read the great works of adland in the 60s,70s and 80s you’ll know the phrase you’re three phone calls aways from closing your agency.

“I’m not in advertising… I’m in [delete as appropriate] social, design, apps, content, pr”

If you thought the above… I’ll have a bet with you – you’re also the person that says the agency model is broken. As I’ve said before, look for the similarities. Not the differences.

During the great days of advertising, advertising didn’t mean advertising – it meant selling products through communication. There were no other mediums apart from in-store, direct, pr and advertising. The word simply meant selling.

Yes – the agency model is broken – it always has been a bit. But it’s not one model. It’s 21. I think. Maybe more. And there are 7 charging practices. So let’s not get into that macro stuff yet – that’ll be of another day. We have plenty of time.

In the 60s and 70s as well as writing ads they would come up with product ideas and solve business problems – innovation, business models and consulting – as we call it today. And agencies used to deal with the board of directors as well as the marketing team. They were upstream. They created value (see yesterday’s article 1/21). And they relationships were stronger and longer than they often are today.

Forget the disciplines in tech, content, social and mobile for a moment. It’s where relationships live that has changed the most over the years.

Today, few agencies rarely get site of the CEO and the board. Most have never met the chairman. Most can’t name the entire board. Have never met the chairman. They don’t have the email addresses or any planned contact with them. Most agencies deal with the marketing team alone. They are downstream.

And at risk.

Downstream, dealing with a Marketing Manager, you are making things. Providing services. They are cost conscious. Don’t have the ultimate say in which agencies are employed and at what rates. If this is where your relationships are… you need a plan. That marketing manager won’t be in their seat in 18 months time. Then what – the repitch. Urgh. Do not kid yourself that your brilliant relationship with a marketing manager means your business is safe. It is not. At all.

If you’re dealing with a Marketing Exec as your primary contact… while they are often amazing people and potentially future stars, they have no or very little authority at all. If that’s where >80% of your contact lives – you are at serious risk. And you can’t count on them being there in 12 months.

Marketing Directors and Head of Marketing are critical to your commercial relationships – visibility, conversation, reporting, and open dialogue and face time with these key contacts is critical. You have to push up from services into what they care about. Less about the deliverables. They can stretch budgets and make the big calls. They focus more on outcomes and operational issues – timely delivery, supporting their team, strengthening their departments resources and insights – you have too become part of their team. And they’re unlikely to be there in 24 – 30 months time. And time flies.

And then you have Directors and the C-Suite. They care about growth. Value creation. Improvement. Quality. Customer relationships. Innovation. And competitive advantage. They set the budgets. They make the big calls. They need ideas. New perspectives. Intelligence. Innovation. They are as far upstream as you can get. They can magic budgets out of nowhere to hit key strategic goals. And they need people like us. Ideas people. That see the world, not through the lens of operational roadblocks. But the art of the possible.

It’s the reason why the big management consultancies are buying agencies. Because more and more, we are eating their lunch. And as products and services begins to be more driven by data, AI, UX, technology and breakthrough ideas – the more we, agency folk, are the right people to help.

Upstream. Where value is measured. And you have the opportunity to truly create it.

It’s the safest place you can trade from. It’s the safest way to ride out changes in the marketing team… to be the trusted partner of the entire business. The board. Not just a friend or partner to the marketing manager or marketing director. Those relationships no matter how positive, are temporary. Yes, they need to be great ones… who doesn’t love it when your a client leaves and takes you with them. But if you’re replaced in your original relationship that’s not growth. It’s luck.

So commercially, it’s important to manage that relationship and yes, as ever, do great work – but when you win a piece of business you have two objectives 1. Strengthen and 2. Lengthen.

Strengthen your relationships (who you know, the conversations your having and what your’e working on) to lengthen your tenure.

How do you do it? Well, that’s a great question. It’s not easy in all businesses… but you have to find your way and what works for you. For me, I simply used to write to people, sometimes by email – sometimes by hand – yes, a letter… how retro. I used to say I want a deeper understanding of the business, the challenges, ambitions, the people.

I was not a winer and diner. I’m not great at networking. I want to talk business. Some are great at client entertainment. I am not. But I am great at delivering work that delivers results. And that’s what I built my relationships on. We all have our own style.

You can’t push upstream overnight. But you need to have an eye on it at all times, maximsing every opportunity, and make client development part of your agenda – a ‘must do’ not a ‘to do’. Be at events where you know these people will be. If they’re in an article read it. Comment. Reach out.

There’s always a way. And hey, we’re ideas people right. Turn it into your own brief. And set the task to Account Directors too… making new contacts every month – standing still is not an option. We have to have relationships that are as killer as our ideas.

So, get upstream as quick as you can. You’ll also find yourself able to charge in a totally new way too – on outcomes. Value based pricing. More on that another time.

One last important note. You’re not the only one that benefits here – this isn’t purely self-serving… the better you know your client and their business, markets, challenges, business model and aspirations – the better your work will be. So lean in. Get closer to your clients.

There’s no downside. And remember. The most important client you’ll EVER have… is the one you’ve got.

Get swimming.

PS. Usual dyslexia warning applies. Enjoy the mistakes.