Three Principles of Successful Agency Review

Over the years, we have answered hundreds of painful (sometimes excruciating) RFPs. Some designed by specialty search firms and others created by the clients themselves.

When we began offering agency search services to end-user clients, we wanted to create a process that was both efficient and effective. We prioritized being respectful to both the client and the agency, while gathering the right information to reveal the best possible match.

Drawing on our experience from both sides of the table, we formulated our review process based on three truths.

1. Agency reviews should be customized not canned.
In our first review, we went to great lengths to develop a truly unique and successful approach. It was perfect…until the next opportunity came along. We quickly discovered that a one-size-fits-all approach might look good on paper but it didn’t put our client’s best interests first. Strategic objectives, budget parameters, staff issues, organizational nuances had to be properly assessed before the final approach was defined. Although our first review ended in the creation of a great partnership (one that is still thriving today), that approach didn’t fit the next client whose needs were entirely different.

2. Qualifications and capabilities are just the beginning.
Determining the qualifications and capabilities of an agency partner is the first step in devising an effective process but asking the agency to draft an extensive document detailing these elements is a waste of valuable time. Most of this information is available on the web, and any remaining questions can be answered in a brief call with agency leadership. We recommend ditching the boilerplate RFP and directing the agency’s time towards getting to know your organization’s specific challenges. Afterward, structure a conversation whereby you can see firsthand how the team thinks on its feet. We are not a proponent of speculative planning or creative. Rather, asking them to participate in a strategic working discussion is the best way to uncover style and ability.

3. Fit is a two-way street.
Often during a review, a client enters the process with some degree of hesitation and mistrust. They may feel slighted or mistreated by their former agency and come to the table with a defensive mindset, focusing on areas they believe they can control like price negotiation. Big mistake. You are looking for a spouse, not a fling. To achieve this, you must establish respect for the other’s needs. Your agency wants you to be successful, but they also have needs like: profitability, a good working relationship and work in which they can take pride.

For many on the outside, many marketing firms look alike. The industrial venues, creative slogans, packaged processes and pretty pictures all blend together, making it difficult to determine true points of difference. Take the time to personally get to know the unique aspects of each agency participating in your process. And remember, it’s not about how high they’ll jump; it’s about finding your true match.

Ad Agency New Business: Getting Past the Gatekeeper

We’ve all been there. You place a call to a senior executive at a highly qualified prospect organization and encounter the Brigadier General of assistants – one who expertly and deftly blocks your access to the prize. This is not your average receptionist. It’s a professional gatekeeper who has been hired to protect and defend the decision-maker. This individual cannot be charmed with friendly overtures or small talk.  Professional gatekeepers are smart, experienced and, most importantly, skilled at handling sales inquiries.Padlock on Fence

So, how do you break through?

It’s all about control.

Watch your tone. Be authoritative. Identify yourself immediately. Don’t wait to be asked for your name.  Remember, the person who asks the questions is always the one who leads the conversation. Example…

Ring, ring

Gatekeeper: “Bill Smith’s office”

You: “Hello, this is (your full name) from ABC Agency. Is Bill in?”

Gatekeeper: “What is this in reference to?”

You: “I’m following up with Bill on our earlier correspondence. Who is this?” (Follow this “answer then ask” strategy. )

Get personal and ask for help. Learn the gatekeeper’s name immediately and use it in the conversation. If you are in the early qualification stage of the process, ask for the gatekeeper’s “help” in discerning the true decision-maker from the rest of the team. By asking for advice you demonstrate that you respect and value this person’s knowledge and suggestions. The gatekeeper becomes an ally rather than an adversary.

Connect with content. Always reference content previously sent or intel gleaned from your marketing automation system to support a valid reason for your call. A promotional mailer or email will suffice, as long as it is personalized and contains information specific to your USP.

Be certain to emphasize that this is not a cold call, but a focused follow-up on valuable (even proprietary) material, perhaps known to have been viewed by the prospect. Support your message by establishing a thought leadership position via various social channels.

To clarify, while cold calls are dead – content doesn’t close, people do.  Establish recognition before picking up the phone via a blend of strong content and direct outreach. The call then serves to begin the relationship development aspect of the process.

Never pitch the gatekeeper. Be forthright while avoiding in-depth explanations of your intent. Selling the gatekeeper never works and relinquishes control of the conversation.

Never lie. Engage don’t evade. Don’t try to fool or sneak past the gatekeeper. Be professional and forthright. Treat the gatekeeper as a valuable member of the team whose input is important. Lying as a means to get your call through is a mistake that can never be corrected.

Finally, when all else fails, always ask to be put through to voice mail. A succinct, benefits-driven message (followed by an email and personal note) is another highly effective mechanism for getting the decision-maker acquainted with you and your firm. It also creates a pathway for follow up calls.

Bottom-line, avoid being a barbarian at the gate. Increase the likelihood of encountering a welcoming committee by being focused and authentic with your prospect’s gatekeeper.

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Ad Agency New Business: What’s in a voice?

Agency new business combines many inbound and outbound activities designed to position your firm as an expert with a select group of prospects. Although the marketing landscape has dramatically changed, one activity still stands apart – the executive sales call. Coupled with other positioning activities, the sales call frequently turns prospects into relationships.


Paramount to the effectiveness of a call is the sound of your voice. According to top sales consultant Chet Holmes, tonality has 5x more impact than the words you use. Often, it is the first impression a prospect uses to personally judge your agency.

When asked what personal traits promote successful telephone sales calls, corporate executives stress the importance of being authoritative but also “expressive” and “engaging”. Conversely, off-putting traits include those that display a lack confidence or are heavily laden with tics such as “vocal fry” or “uptalk” – common voice patterns typically exhibited in younger people that are emblematic of a conversation with certain members of the Kardashian clan.

Assuming you have done your homework prior to picking up the phone, and have a clear understanding of your prospect’s business climate, what else can you do to best position yourself for a successful call?

  1. Prepare your voice. Like any muscle, your voice should be warmed up. Clear your throat. Exercise your vocal chords and get some talk time in prior to making that first call. This will loosen you up, get you in the mood and, most importantly, get your voice on track for conversation.
  2. Consider standing. This helps convey energy and vigor. It also allows you to leave your desk and focus on the person with whom you are speaking rather than your computer screen or other distractions.
  3. Check your speed. Some of us are prone to speaking too quickly. Moderate your pace by listening and responding, rather than simply moving the prospect toward a predetermined next step. This will help slow your cadence. Be sure to breathe before making important points.  Do not be afraid to embrace appropriate pauses and/or silence.
  4. Practice enthusiasm. People like positivity. To convey enthusiasm authentically, remember that you are offering a valued professional service, which will “help” your prospect achieve his business objectives. You are not “selling” something. Phony and pandering styles often evolve when sales people are unsure of the value of their service. Dispel all traces of insecurity by learning as much as you can about the value your agency will bring to a future relationship with the prospect’s organization.

Not everyone is cut out for outbound sales!  Are you one of the select few who enjoy the hunt?  If so, remember to be positive and to treat every sales call as an opportunity to build a new, mutually beneficial relationship.

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Ad Agency New Business: The Cobbler’s Children Still Need Shoes.

Despite an endless supply of easy-to-follow tips designed to put you on the road to new business success, your firm may be one of many continuing to put its own work last by prioritizing client activity and postponing agency needs until they become urgent.

How can you change this pattern?

After decades of working with marketing firms (of all specialties and sizes) we offer two maxims which have consistently helped our clients succeed.

1.  BUDGET don’t barter

2.  HIRE don’t appoint

Chances are you have been through an agency rebranding or two aimed at refining your position to sharpen appeal and generate new business.  Perhaps staffers were appointed to assume “new business” roles and all “free time” was proclaimed to be “new business time”. Lists were generated, mailers conceived and social calendars formulated. Everyone appeared to be onboard.

What happened next?

Probably little or nothing …and time passed.

But then, maybe you got a referral or an existing account blossomed. The storm passed and you shelved the endeavor…until the next dark clouds arrived.  Like the cobbler’s children, you still lacked a basic requirement to ensure the long-term health of your agency.

Don’t kid yourself. Creating a successful business development program is a full-time, multi-pronged endeavor. With hundreds of firms competing for the attention of your top prospects, mounting a last minute, part-time effort is about as effective as spitting into the wind. Furthermore, as inbound marketing tactics continue to gain momentum, agencies can expect the “barter” approach to be even less effective as marketing channels overflow with the content of competing “experts”.

And whom you hire also matters.  Business development is a skill and a specialty. It’s not the secondary job of an under-utilized account person who would rather spend their time elsewhere.

So, when is the best time to make this person and program investment?

When you are BUSY.

Allocating resources in good times allows you to focus on pursuing the accounts you want. It frees you from desperate selling tactics, resulting in project work with less than desirable prospects. It also provides the opportunity to build and nourish a true expertise.

Take the time to do it right. Plan your program for the long term and hire the right individual or resource when times are good. It will give you the freedom to CHOOSE the business you want and strategically plot the logical evolution of your firm.

Stop going barefoot. Treat your agency like its best client and outfit yourself for the inevitable winter ahead.

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Ad Agency New Business: Love the One You’re With

With a myriad of experts advising similar content strategies for attracting new business to your agency, we ask ourselves – what is the overarching takeaway? Simply put, narrow content, aimed at niche audiences, aligned with a strong and defendable positioning strategy.

Then, why do many agencies continue to apply a generalist approach to the central component of their inbound campaign – The Agency Blog?

Research shows that, without focused content, your blog is less likely to be followed or read.  Google’s announcement last month regarding its core-ranking algorithm (in terms of how it processes quality signals) further elevates the value of content quality.

Consider these two exercises when evaluating your firm’s blog:

Segment Audiencesd103c31477955141d5a16ccfe5e92bd6

“The majority of agency content (and social interaction) is with people who already know and support your firm.  Stop looking at content creation solely as a customer acquisition vehicle and start looking at it (first and foremost) as a customer retention vehicle.”  – Jay Baer/Convince & Convert

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Who are our best clients?
  • What industries do they represent?
  • Do these industries line up with our new client acquisition goals?
  • What service patterns do they follow?
  • Who is the most common point of contact/entry (e.g. Director-level or CMO)?
  • What specific characteristics do they exhibit? What business issues keep them up at night?

Prioritize your target audiences with clients and prospects that fold easily into existing business silos. Then, cater your content to speak (in a detailed manner) directly to them.

Further, we strongly recommend staying away from a preponderance of posts about YOU.  We understand that you are proud of your awards, anniversaries, birthdays and office culture.  However, unless you are closely connecting these topics to something that your clients and prospects value, it is counter-productive and may reinforce some of the negative stereotypes associated with our industry.

Segment Topics

Create expert blogs and, within them, personas showcasing your in-house talent. Empower these subject matter specialists to delve deeply into their specific areas of expertise with commentary and analysis to support your firm’s unique market position.  Brand your blog with the intent to engage and distribute it to both your client service and business development teams (along with clear instructions for usage).

Bottom line, highly specialized content (aimed at niche industry audiences) will help you both keep the clients you’ve got and entice the ones you want.

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Ad Agency New Business: The Cardinal Rules of Hiring an Outsourcing Partner

So you decided to hire an outsource firm to conduct new business for your agency. Ensure success by thoroughly examining the following key elements of your new relationship.Outsource Key Showing Subcontracting And Freelance

Lead Generation

Where does your new partner get its leads? Most likely, they come from a combination of industry specific lists, previous pursuit activity and key contributor insight. Your agency’s target audience should be a nuanced universe, crafted from a variety of sources and honed by very select criteria. What you don’t want is a pre-purchased generic list that is being resold and recycled to other firms.

Custom list building is crucial to creating a successful program. Carefully selecting each and every organization on which your firm will spend its time and resources is an imperative function of your outsourcing agent. More is never better – it’s just unfocused and reflects a lack of in-depth knowledge.

Data Ownership

Once you have decided what organizations are your agency’s best targets, ensure that your firm has complete ownership of all the data associated with every contact made on your behalf. Some outsource firms resell lists that lie on their servers within their CRM and Marketing Automation programs, forcing you to tie all future pursuit activities to them.

If you are sold this operating practice as an easy-to-implement value-add – proceed with caution. Having worked with agencies that bought into such an arrangement (previously), we were astonished by the lack of information provided once the relationship ended. Many times, they were left with nothing more than a list including thousands of organizations ordered by SIC code.  No contact detail including: email addresses, direct dials, personal observations or outreach history was contained.

Get what you pay for and insist on anytime access and the rights to all of your data.

Niche Industry Knowledge

While limitations of physical location can be overcome, your Business Development Director’s knowledge of your target industries cannot. Having worked in the northeast at a variety of both B2B- and B2C-focused firms, we have interacted with a wide gamut of agency audiences. From the financial services, healthcare, medical technology, high-tech, pharmaceutical and industrial sectors to the travel and tourism, food and beverage, retail and real estate industries, we have been fortunate to work closely with them all.

Your agency’s business development plan hinges on communicating a unique specialty that is often industry specific. As such, your Business Development Director must be comfortable discussing (and writing about) the complexities of these industries. Be sure to gauge this ability before committing your firm to a representative who will be the conduit to getting the business you want.

Long story short, understand the methods, own your data and get to know the person on your agency’s frontline before tying your future to a third party.

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Goodbye Mad Men

images“Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek nostalgia literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship; it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards… it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel; it’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels – around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.” Don Draper – Mad Men: Season One, “The Wheel” (The Kodak Carousel Pitch)

And so goes the end of Mad Men tonight. It began for me with my mother saying that I should watch this show about the advertising business. I scoffed thinking, “what do you know?” Wow, was I ever wrong. It was awesome. I was hooked.

But what did a TV drama, set in the 1960s, have to do with today’s industry? Everything. All the things that I loved about my job were on full display – warts and all. Mad Men was in essence a tribute to the excesses and tragedies of the business.

My first job as a young account exec at a small high-tech shop exposed me to a career that immediately felt more like a calling. Everything was tremendously important and sometimes dire. Good times always led to bad. Bonuses became lay-offs. Account wins turned to losses. Our fate at times seemed predetermined – like a Greek tragedy.

My take away, I wouldn’t have missed any of it. It was exciting. It still is exciting. And, while we can be nostalgic for the “good ole days”, the best is certainly yet to come.

So, goodbye Don, Roger, Peggy, Pete, Joan and the rest – you reminded some of us why we love this work. Coincidentally, I actually have a father-in-law named Teddy who is Greek and occasionally waxes poetic…for real.

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Ad Agency New Business: A Philosophy for Success

Many marketing firms recount costly war stories associated with failed new business efforts. Tales from the dark side frequently include statements like: “The effort never gained traction.” or “ The opportunities generated weren’t properly qualified.” or most frequently, “Our business development person just didn’t deliver.”.

New business concept.

If any of this sounds familiar, ask yourself: Does my agency view new business as a cost or as an investment?  The answer may well determine your firm’s potential for success.

Typically, agencies that view business development as a cost, assign small expenditures to project-oriented efforts designed to alleviate short-term problems. Agencies that believe business development is an investment, budget for it annually in a programmatic manner and tie it to longer-term development plans. The most successful link business development to human resources, technology and operational efforts.

For those who view it as an investment, growing their marketing firm requires the adoption of a systematic program designed to build professional relationships with very select individuals and organizations. It also necessitates the development and maintenance of a relevant point-of-view. Allocating resources to maintain energetic contact with your prospect universe through the delivery of insightful information via a combination of inbound and outbound mechanisms forms the basis of your program investment.

Now, whom do you hire? Paramount to creating and funding a strong program is finding the right person or resource* to execute it. Putting the wrong person (backed by costly resources) in your new business driver’s seat can quickly lead to failure and set your agency back years.

Ensure success by hiring a candidate who exemplifies the following personal traits:

Archetype: Is your candidate a hunter? You will know a hunter when you see one. This type thrives on pursuit and focuses relentlessly on the prize. Typically, an extrovert with a passion for perfection, this individual feeds off the possibility of what’s next.

Persistent: Does your candidate have what it takes over the long term? Short-term opportunities are great, however, many new account wins take time. Your new biz rep must possess the ability to continue a prospective conversation without losing focus or confidence – sometimes for years.

Independent but Team-Oriented: Is your candidate a self-starter? While agency new business should never be an island, it does require long periods of solitary, detail work culminating in a high stakes team effort. The ability to work both alone and as a member of a team is a critical attribute.

Resilient: Is your candidate an optimist? While an opportunity lost can be unnerving, derailing your program would be far worse. The ability to manage defeat by adjusting and moving on is a requirement for this position.

Energetic: Does your candidate have stamina? Tracking hundreds of prospects at various stages of evolution is quite a task. Your biz dev rep must be someone who wakes up every day eager for the challenge ahead.

Process-Oriented: Is your candidate efficient? Does this individual naturally develop systems, procedures and timelines to go about the business of their day? The ability to multi-task in a highly detailed manner (on a very large scale) is essential.

Make no mistake. Adopting a successful, business development program requires a commitment and a very long view. It takes the resources, planning and staffing of some of your best accounts. While the costs are serious, the alternative approaches and outcomes might be more than your agency can afford.

*Note: If hiring an outsource firm, be sure to meet the individual responsible for your business. While front men and women can be appealing, you must look behind the curtain to ascertain the true experience and abilities of the person driving your program forward.

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Ad Agency New Business: Engaging the C-Suite

After learning from a new client that chief among the reasons for choosing us over a competitor was our ability to handle conversations with the C-Suite, we decided to explore the overarching intricacies of engaging this important organizational subset.


Interrogation selling is a “bottom-up” approach designed to gather the basic organizational and historic information needed for a predetermined sales strategy.

Interview selling is a “top-down” approach designed to gain an in-depth understanding of the business challenges an executive is facing in order to create a climate of intellectual reciprocity.

Interrogation questioning frequently consists of questions beginning with phrases like:

“Are you…?”

“How do you…?”

“When will you…?”

These questions often put a prospect on the defensive and can create the impression that you are not adequately informed or prepared for the conversation. They also signal that you are primarily concerned with aligning quick sales solutions.

The interview approach is focused on uncovering organizational objectives and the prospect’s perceived path to achieving them. It requires strong listening skills, as well as, in-depth knowledge of the marketing solutions landscape.

Questions typically begin with:

“Tell me about…”

“What has been your experience with…?”

“Do you think that…?”

These questions require a certain level of knowledge concerning the executive’s industry and organizational functions. Such inquiries are designed to uncover detailed information about specific business issues, as well as, what the prospect may or may not want to do about addressing them. It is not an opportunity to offer tactical solutions.

Successfully interviewing a senior executive requires both a willingness and an ability to conduct a detailed conversation.  It often concludes successfully with the prospects request for a meeting to further explore the issues and to meet the team. It is not an opportunity for your business development representative to push a capabilities presentation designed to ply your wares.

At the end of the day, a myriad of factors contribute to successfully engaging the C-Suite. Mastering these skills will maximize positive perceptions of your agency and create quality new business opportunities.

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Ad Agency New Business: Ensuring a Productive First Meeting

Have you ever attended a new business meeting that seemed awkward or directionless? One in which the intent seemed misunderstood? Unfortunately, many agency principals have occasionally found themselves in these circumstances. As the business development liaison, avoiding this situation is a critical aspect of your job.

Preventing a Wandering Discussionstock-footage-close-up-of-two-businessmen-giving-handshake

We have all been there. Initial intent gets sidetracked. A spark of interest grows cold. Unhappiness with an existing partner fades. A new contact learns she doesn’t command the decision-making power originally claimed.

Situations change and people can be fickle. Perhaps, when you initially connected, frustration levels were high or there was a strong desire for change. Those feelings may have shifted, but a meeting is on the calendar and costly preparations are in the works. How do you ensure that you are sending your A Team into a situation that represents a real new business opportunity?

It’s all about qualification.

Your Pre-Meeting Questionnaire

After uncovering the key business issues surrounding a new client opportunity, be sure to ask these pre-meeting qualification questions before sending your big guns into their first face-to-face with a prospective new client.

  • Who will be involved in your agency review process?
    • Who are the decision makers?
    • Are there any key influencers who will play a role?
    • Will the CEO be involved?
  • What are your criteria for reviewing candidate firms? (Get details.)
  • What firm(s) are you working with presently?
    • What is the nature of that relationship?  (Is it AoR or project-based?)
  • What is driving your decision to consider alternate resources?
  • Are there any other firms you are considering?
    • Who are they?
  • Is there a timeline associated with your process?
  • What specifically would you like to learn from our team during this meeting?
    • How much time will you allow?
    • Are you interested in reviewing case study material?
  • Is there a particular assignment you would like to address?
    • Is there a brief we can review prior to getting together?
    • Is there a budget associated with this initiative?
  • What is your process for moving forward?

Most prospects, if properly cultivated, will answer the majority of these questions willingly because they appreciate that this is a serious endeavor for both organizations. Occasionally, you will encounter someone who is “interested in learning more”, or “open to meeting the team” or is “just too busy” to give significant detail.  Such responses indicate that you need to make a judgment call. Carefully consider the following:

  • Is the account a whale and worthy of a possible tire kicker session?
  • Are you so well positioned that the networking opportunity alone is well worth the price of admission?
  • What’s your gut?

Bottom-line, don’t be afraid to ask questions throughout the process. Prospects expect them. You are sending your most valued agency assets into a discussion with an organization with which you hope to do business. Your job is to arm your team with as much information as possible.