If “good agencies” want to become “great agencies,” they must attract higher-end clients.

garbage new business

Don’t be a junk food ad agency.

Sounds simple, right? That said, it’s shocking how many good agencies only attract average, or worse, bad clients. You know the bad client types: generic brands, limited budgets, low risk, grunt work, small thinking. There’s nothing wrong with them if they pay the bills, and that’s your final goal. We recently worked with one agency and all they wanted were those down-and-dirty, retail, grunt work clients as they had figured out a way to make a great profit from them. But for those agencies that are looking to find those really great clients, the ones that let them do some truly outstanding creative work and give them a chance to shine, they have to do something different.

That’s a huge challenge for those agencies that are really trying to excel at the art of advertising. What’s the really big problem? All those small clients, the ones that barely pay the bills, limit the ability of an agency to expand into bigger accounts. Small thinking clients produce small thinking agencies. To quote the great agency icon Leo Burnett, “When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.”

Why do some agencies only seem to attract bad clients?

The first problem is often the agency brand: often it’s bland, out-of-date, or not attractive to the type of clients the agency wants. The second problem is the agency isn’t doing any outreach: this allows the market to define the agency and its clients. And the final problem is the prospects in the agency’s database: too many old, out-of-date names filled with bad information or no information. There’s nothing more tragic for an agency president than discovering all the prospects in his database, the ones they have been working too hard to contact, have limited budgets, and are the low risk, grunt work, small thinking types.

So how do you attract higher-end clients?

  1. Stand Out: If you want to get the big clients, you must first get on their radar. Do more speaking engagements, ramp up your content creation, create a powerful point of view about the evolving market, hire a publicist, do whatever it takes to separate your agency from the pack. Make a statement, create waves, and get noticed.
  2. Own a Niche: Offer world-class knowledge and expertise about a subject related to what big clients need. If you can offer something smart or an unexpected point of view on subjects of interest to prospects, you become more attractive to the type of clients you want.
  3. Dig Deep: Most marketing types at the larger, more complex, clients know their markets quite well. Really well. If you want to work with them, you must be willing and able to not just understand their market but to commit to spending a lot of time researching and working to understand the competitive set. Listen to the tops brands earnings call, look up key staff and follow their every word, get to know everything you can. And then go deeper. Execute some proprietary research projects, look for innovative ways to approach the market, and keep looking for that unique perspective. If you want to eat at the big table you must understand that everyone is extremely competitive, and they are all looking for an edge. Get your agency to find it.
  4. Look Big: Nothing will scare off a big client faster than the hint of a tiny operation. Poor website design, no updates on social, lack of targeted content, and no photos of people at work sends the message that you’re not worthy of their consideration. And it goes beyond the website. Bouncing all calls to voice mail makes you look small. Hire a good receptionist, with a great voice to answer your phones. This is a people business after all. Set up a remote office, join a network, do everything you can give the impression that you have the capacities to handle anything clients may toss your way.
  5. Details Matter: Ever walk through a Lexus dealership? Notice all the small things they do to show off their commitment to service, including even introducing a signature fragrance to be diffused in dealerships? The Lexus covenant is to “treat customers like a guest in your home.” If you really want to attract high-end large clients be sure to offer the types of services they desire and make them feel at home. Pay attention to the small stuff: clearly demonstrate that you have the ability to follow through, that you understand the need to pay attention to every detail, and most of all produce great results – the type of results big clients want (not what many expect). You should demonstrate that you understand how to work with complex organizations. Perception is everything.

Winning better clients means you have to market yourself better. It’s not something you can do over night. It takes time and effort to move up the prestige ladder and find those wonderful clients.

One Quick Example:

It’s often been said that the journey of a thousand miles starts with first step. Many years ago we worked with a fantastic agency that was looking for more. They had grown to around 30 in staff but seemed to have plateaued. They owned most of their region by having the accounts they wanted to win. They were running a good profit. And they had been sitting right where they were for around 8 years.

Something needed to change, and with a new president at the helm, he wanted something more. Something bold. His plan: set up a new business program second-to-none, ramp-up the staff skills by implementing a new organizational model, and focus on developing a strong strategic process. How he was going to do that was not defined. So he called us.

The plan we developed together was challenging, but the results were worth it. The plan in the nutshell was simple in concept, but incredibly difficult to execute:

  1. Adopt an agency vision (focus).
  2. Get the agency change ready.
  3. Redesign agency processes to drive a new structure.
  4. Build a new organization focused on servicing the type of clients they wanted.
  5. Support the redesigned operations with all agency resources.
  6. Align your employee programs with the agency’s vision.
  7. Set up a new business process second-to-none.

That was a long time ago. And sadly that agency is no longer with us. You see, they quickly landed a few great clients, grew to over 300 staff, and started expanding nationally. And then the owners sold to one of the big holding companies. The owners all went off to pursue their dreams, or they retired. Over time, new managers placed into the agency by the holding company didn’t understand the vision or the processes that the old president had built. And now the agency is no more. But it was one hell of a run while it lasted. And proves that if you get serious about growing your agency it really is a simple fact of you are what you eat.

Just as any advertiser needs an outside perspective when going through this sort of exercise, so must an agency when serious about change.


Photo by Vic and used under creative commons.