The relationship between agencies and clients (especially large ones) can feel like tiptoeing through a game of cat and mouse, wearing an eye patch, with no shoes on, over a scorpions’ nest. You have to choose your steps carefully.
So, it was refreshing to glimpse behind the curtain and find out what clients’ really think – well one in particular – when Vicky Brentnall, Director of Advisor Services at Vitality, graciously joined December’s Directors Discussion Group for mid-size agency founders.
Despite the chaos of 2020, many agencies have still been picking up new work and performing pretty well. One reason is that corporate companies have been releasing staff to reduce fixed costs. It means that previously well-staffed departments have become under resourced. There’s no escaping that this is pretty wretched for the people involved, but these companies still need a range of services supported.
They have been turning to agencies to fill the newly created gaps and deliver the work needed. These requirements are not evenly distributed, though. The majority of staff have been laid off from roles that are seen as non-critical – for instance, creative, UX or design, etc. Tech roles, which manage the software ‘engines’ of business, are much more likely to have been kept in place. For the record this is not the case in Vitality where nearly all staff have been kept on or are now back from furlough.
It does suggest there are more opportunities for agencies working at the more creative ends of the sector. Which is good to know, right? But how do you do something about it?! Cold calling is one approach, but it can become a fast track to frustration and sheer despondency. The group suggested outsourcing it to professionals. Find a telesales specialist who you think can complement your brand and culture – the general feeling is they’re not all hard-nosed ambulance chasers, the good ones can be much more sympathetic and empathetic. Sure, there’s a cost involved but, when it works, it should pay for itself. You might even be able to cut a deal – to pay a lower up-front fee and pay a higher commissions on success, until you feel fully comfortable with the process.
What really cut through the discussion, though, was the importance of building relationships. Many large companies will run tenders, but more often than not they’re not open – and only a few agencies are directly invited to pitch – you know, the standard three quotes. When clients need something done, the best chance to win the work is for someone in the office to know you. No one wants to wade through dozens of pitch decks and everyone wants to work with someone they can trust.
Over and over, the group confessed that some of their biggest wins came because they knew someone in the company. Being friends with the Big Cheese doesn’t hurt (just ask Matt Hancock and the PPE contractors!) but you don’t have to know the MD or CEO. Getting your name in front of the decision maker is important but, even at director level, Vicky admitted she happy to ask around the office – either for direct suggestions, or opinions on a company she’d discovered but never met. With 160 people in her department, that suddenly opens up much more potential if you know one of them.
The important thing is to be in someone’s mind when the call goes out. This isn’t just about sales, at least not the typical way we’re told sales should be. It’s about connecting with people – treasuring relationships. Don’t simply sell yourself, put the focus on others – ask people about themselves. Find out how things are? What’s going on at their work? Show some interest and, of course, stay in touch. It also means you get to know when something is on the cards which is relevant for you.
Don’t forget, corporate clients need agencies; right now, some of them need agencies more than ever. But clients are people, and they want to work with people they can trust (oh – and whose business is financially stable – that’s really important too!) So be nice, be gregarious, be a little bit bold and stay connected. You’ll probably play both cat and mouse at different times but, if you work with people who know, like and trust you, at least you can pull on a pair of boots before you walk over the scorpions’ nest.