Friday, November 8, 2013

Do You Know Enough About Our Client’s Business To Provide Insights And Solutions?

While sorting through and cleaning up some old files, I ran across this email that I sent to my staff a few years ago. The purpose was to inspire them to provide better service and better communications solutions to our clients. The thoughts in this memo are still truths for any advertising. public relations or marketing services agency, so I hope you can gain something from reading this.

Memo to Staff:

A few years ago, we drafted a statement of purpose for the agency. We said that our goal is to be an indispensable source of insights and communications solutions to help our clients meet their business objectives. In every new business presentation we make, that statement is displayed prominently and discussed at length. It’s something we use to set our agency apart from other agencies. And it does.

A quick review of other agencies around town reveals these statements of purpose for some of our chief competitors – “we create ideas for clients who believe in the power of inventive thinking”; “art that inspires action”, and “the critical stage agency” (whatever that means). I don’t mean to put down what other agencies say is their reason for being. But I do think our statement of purpose is more direct and more powerful in what it says about us to a client or prospect.

What we are saying is that we provide something to help our clients grow their business – insights and communications solutions. Webster defines insight as “the ability to see and understand clearly the inner nature of things”. Think about that. We’re promising to go beyond the obvious and find out something special about our clients and their business. To provide insight, we’ve got to truly understand our client’s business. And that leads me back to my original question. Do we know enough about our client’s business to provide insights and solutions?

According to a recent survey among senior-level client people, that’s the number one complaint clients have with their agency. In the survey by Citigate and GfK Custom Research, “C-suite” executives were asked to judge the agencies that handle their advertising, public relations and marketing services. The biggest gripe (voiced by 42% of respondents) was that the agencies “fail to demonstrate an understanding of their business.” That’s a pretty damning statistic! Almost half of the clients’ key decision makers think their agency doesn’t really understand their business. By the way, these same executives had other complaints about their agencies. Thirty-six percent said that agencies make them feel like they are “just another number” without giving them enough attention. Other common complaints: agencies are too expensive (33 percent), lack creativity (32 percent) and don’t provide the right staff (25 percent).

These are also important things to know about how clients feel about their agencies. But I really want us to focus on the “understanding their business” issue, because that is what can separate us from other agencies. 

I’ve always felt that the secret to building a strong client relationship is to live their business. During my career, I’ve ridden a Sunbeam bread truck at 3 a.m., worked out in a sweat room at Procter & Gamble to test Secret Anti-Perspirant, toured a NAPA brake plant, picked oranges for Florida’s Natural, worked in a Slim Jim slaughter house, and baked Papa John’s pizzas with the founder at 11 p.m., to name a few clients I’ve worked on. I have been on sales calls with a client’s field salesmen, and checked at least 1,000 stores to study distribution and shelf placement. I’m not bragging. It’s something I just felt I needed to do to understand as much as I could about the brand, the category, the competition, and the environment in which my clients did business.

And, to be truthful, much of the time I really hated it. But I did learn a lot about the client’s business from the ground up. And, more importantly, I gained a respect from the client that paid off when I made recommendations on their communications strategies. If I could gain some understanding (and insight) from my inside look at their business, I had the credibility because I had been there.

Now I’m not saying that everyone should run out and sell Lottery tickets at 7-11. Or work at a jewelry store. Or plow a 40-acre field. But we can all do something to gain a greater understanding (and insight) into our client’s business.

How many of us read the newspaper every day and study the advertising? How many of us sort through all of the direct mail we get at home to be on the lookout for competitive mailings. Or for any really creative ideas that we might be able to adapt for our clients. How many of us are using the Internet to stay on top of category and general marketing trends?

Every day, I get e-mail news alerts and RSS feeds from key trade publications, major bloggers, AMA, Marketing Profs, TrendCentral, Forrester, McKinsey, AAAA SmartBrief and NRF SmartBrief. I’ve usually not looking for anything special. I’m just looking to see if anything pops up that will make me smarter about our client’s business. Any one can be a mystery shopper for a client by visiting their store or one of their competitor’s stores.

 And I can tell you from experience that clients appreciate it when you pass along your observations. Even if they aren’t great new insights, it shows we are trying. And that we care about their business.

Do you know enough about our client’s business? Do you care enough to learn? I hope you do. I think it’s a big part of what makes our agency such a great place to be. And how we keep our clients!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Are you asking yourself the right questions to grow your business?

Last night, I heard an interesting talk from Lars Wulff, CEO of Mud Bay,  a very successful regional pet store retailer.  Lars told us the story of how he and his sister have led the growth of their company from one store to twenty-five, with plans to add 4-5 more stores in the coming year.

I liked Lars a lot.  His self-effacing demeanor and true desire to learn how to do things better gave me a lot of cues on why he has been successful.

Lars began his talk by asking the audience some questions - who owns pets?; who has ever shopped at a Mud Bay store?; who considers Mud Bay their primary pet store choice?  He then asked the most important question - why?

It reminded me of Simon Sinek, author of "Start With Why", one of the best approaches to business and leadership I have ever heard.  If you don't know Simon Sinek, take the time to view this explanation of how innovative companies differentiate and grow their business and how great leaders inspire action..

 But back to Lars.

During his low-key, interactive presentation, he was interrupted several times with questions, and one of those questions was 'Have you considered other growth avenues beyond simply opening new stores?".  His response  was immediate and genuine, and led me to write this post. His response to the question was "I am planning a session with my key management team to explore ways to enhance the customer experience, and that will determine any new directions we move".

Notice that he didn't say we will "explore ways to grow the business".  His response was to look for "ways to enhance the customer experience".

What a great way to approach business and growth!  Every company wants to grow.  How many approach growth from the customer's perspective?  How many companies have made missteps because they added new services instead of customer benefits to grow their business?   How many agencies have added new services or digital marketing departments or capabilities to "enhance their customer's experience" vs. just to gain more revenue?

Lars had a lot of good things to say about the importance of understanding and maintaining a consistent and strong corporate culture.  And the necessity of having a differentiating benefit that would build customer loyalty.

But the real strength of his organization is his basic approach to business growth "How do we enhance the customer experience?"

In a world with so much competition and so many options, asking the right question can be the difference between success and failure.  Are you asking the right questions?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Are you talking about business or trophies in your new business efforts?

In a recent article from MarketingProfs, the author offered "Nine Key Things To Look For in an Agency Partner".  The article was well-written with some good advice to clients who are in, or will soon be facing, an agency search.

One of the author's  "key things to look for" struck me as particularly valuable for agency new business directors to consider:  In the '90s, awards, trophies, and accolades were the sign of an agency's true value; now, it's all "in the numbers." 

The author went on to say that "client results and ROI are the true measure of success, and recommended that clients should look for agencies that are able to prove past clients' success through metrics and can understand, analyze, and garner insight via pinpointed data."

If more agencies understood and accepted the premise that clients need reassurance more than puffery, they would be a lot more successful in their new business efforts.

In other posts, I have spoken about the need to focus on the client's business, not your past successes because I strongly believe that clients are desperate to find help from their agency.  They are searching for more than just creative executions, they want real understanding and assistance in helping them navigate today's fragmented marketing landscape.

Here are five key things for agencies to consider when  approaching clients and prospects about new business:

  1. Clients are confused and overwhelmed by the pace of change. New media and marketing options continue to come on the scene every day, and clients need help in evaluating and determining which options make the most sense for their needs and budget constraints. 
  2. Clients are under more pressure than every before.  The 2012 Spencer Stuart CMO Tenure Study pegged the average tenure for CMO's at 43 months (versus 9.2 years for CEO's).  But some categories are much more pressure-packed.  The average tenure of a restaurant CMO is only 22 months.
  3. Clients want leadership, not partnership.   A recent New Business Study confirmed this with client quotes like "I need an agency to help me figure out how to take advantage of the new tools that are available", and "I need an agency that can help me invest in the right tools".
  4. Clients want new ideas, not better execution of old ideas.  Clients are searching for the "holy grail".  You need to give them something new to think about, if for no other reason that for them to demonstrate to their boss that they are moving the brand forward.
  5. Clients want process (it reassures them).  Clients don't want to take chances.  They can't afford to take chances because someone is looking over their shoulder questioning every decision they make.  In most of my new business projects over the last few years, I believe the client prospect made the safe decision, whether it was the best decision or not.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that clients aren't asking "How can you help us make ads or a new web site".  They are saying "How much do you know about our business in order to help us build a bridge between our brand and our customers.  They are asking a prospective agency hard-hitting, specific questions like "what metrics do you use to gauge success?  What types of listening and reporting tools do you use?

Are you still talking about your trophies?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Why Most Presentations Fail

In the July/August issue of Inc, columnist Geoffrey James lists "Three Reasons Most Presentations Fail".  His big three reasons are:
  1. Too much information about you, and not enough about what your solution can mean to your customers.
  2. The wrong point of view by presenting a laundry list of clients and business success instead of trying to make a connection from the customer's point of view.
  3. Presenting the "same old, same old" story instead of articulating what you do better than anyone else and why they should pick you.
Mr. James is absolutely right-on in his assessment.  Too many presentations start from the wrong perspective - the prospect wants to know about how you can help him, not all the wonderful things you have done for others.  Those are important, but must be carefully integrated into the "reason why" they should select you over other options.  They will not get you invited to the party unless they can be directly related to the prospect and his needs.

During my career, I must have made over 500 new business presentations, and thousands of day-to-day "sales" presentations for creative, media plans, new product ideas, etc. with current clients.  Some were successful, some not.  But along the way, I got better by following a few simple guidelines:
  1. Less is more.  The K.I.S.S. principle is critical in both the planning phase and the presentation.  I always go by this philosophy "Tell them what you are going to tell them; tell them; tell them what you told them" when planning.
  2. Get to the point early and often.  Most clients and prospects have a busy schedule.  They want to get the answers to their problems as quickly as they can, so don't waste their time, or yours. 
  3. Involve your audience.  Plan for ways to get your client involved.  Some of my most successful new business presentations demonstrated our strategic thinking process by taking the client through the same steps we had taken and asking for his opinion along the way.  By the time we got to our conclusion, it was practically impossible for the client to disagree because he had intellectual and emotional equity in the answer by helping to develop it.
  4. Know when to shut up and listen.  I had a client once say that agency people were "always on send and never on receive".  Unfortunately, he was right.  Too often, we are so caught up in the selling process that we not only dominate the conversation, but fail to hear an important clue from the client or prospect that can mean the difference between winning and losing. 
  5. Don't over-answer the questions from the prospect.  I had a strict rule in new business presentations that when a client asked a question, only one additional person could respond.  This grew from a well-intentioned desire from a CEO to add "just one additional thought" to the answer provided by the department head or account person. 
  6. Smile.  Prospects want to do business with people they like and trust. It never hurts to be likable.
 I could go on, but my point is the same as that of Mr. James -- Too many presentations take the wrong perspective.  It's all about the client, not you!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

White Papers can be a great agency new business tool

One of the biggest challenges for agencies is to differentiate themselves as an authority in a certain area. Blogging and Twitter can be helpful in this area, but for my money a well-written white paper tops them all for effectiveness.

A white paper can generate awareness about a product, service or organization, and is especially valuable as it is often read while in the evaluation stage for a new purchase. During the past decade we have seen an explosion of business white papers as B2B marketing and sales tools, but surprisingly, many ad agencies have failed to take advantage of white papers as a marketing tool.

White papers can be used in several ways by ad agencies: As an awareness and lead-generation tool for new business; As a thought-leadership and CRM tool for current clients; As a training tool for employees and clients.  

Why should your agency use white papers? That's simple, they work.

Several studies have documented the importance of white papers in evaluation and decision-making. A study by MarketingSherpa on technology marketing reported that 44% of respondents said they like reviewing white papers. Even more importantly, 70% said they visited the vendor website and 45% contacted the vendor for further information. According to Information Week, 93% of white papers are passed on to at least one other reader and 86% say they are moderately or highly influential. Case studies have reported that white papers can significantly outperform banner ads and email as a lead generation tool for many businesses.

White papers can establish your agency as a thought-leader.

 White papers provide a platform for an agency to demonstrate their expertise and the quality of their thinking. Whether the topic is general (e.g. branding strategies), industry-specific (e.g. trends in healthcare marketing), or topic-specific (e.g. how to use social media), a well-written white paper can establish your agency as an authority on the subject. Importantly, studies have shown that executives read white papers, so a white paper can be that foot-in-the-door that you've been trying to establish but can't seem to get past the voicemail and spam blocker screens.

Some of the more popular ways to use white papers are: Discuss trends (can establish the need for a change from the reader). Identify problems (can build a rapport and affinity with the reader). Provide solutions (can confirm your expertise, but must be seen as objective and not a sales message to have credibility with the reader). Suggest what to look for (can also confirm your expertise, but again must not be seen as an overt sales message).

A good white paper must be reader-focused, not self-focused.

It is critically important to write white papers from an objective viewpoint so that they are seen as educational, not sales-focused. Too many marketers make the mistake of treating their white paper as a multi-page text ad for their product or service. That approach is a recipe for disaster. And rejection. A well-written white paper becomes persuasive when the reader is presented with facts and charts to support the writer's viewpoint and avoids any claims about the company or its products and services.

Michael Stelzner ( , seen by many as the foremost authority on writing white papers, gave this illustration of a reader-focused vs. a self-focused white paper in a recent webinar: Self-Focused: Groundbreaking TechWidget by XYZ Company Solves Time Management Dilemma. Reader-Focused: Solving the Time Management Dilemma with Technology.

A white paper can drive traffic to an agency's website for more information (or more confirmation of the agency's expertise).

 A white paper can carry more authority than other agency marketing collateral. It is important to remember that a white paper can carry a cachet of authenticity that other marketing collateral for your agency doesn't possess. To some readers, there is a perception (rightly or wrongly) that white papers are completely objective and factual, almost like a scientific paper that has been peer-reviewed. So be careful that you don't mis-use or abuse the white paper as a marketing tool.

But it can, and should, be used by more agencies.