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Essential guidance for agencies, 07.04.20

Published on Tuesday, 7th April 2020, contributed by Tonic Creative Business Partners

It continues to be an uncertain and worrying time for many - but we’re always here to help if we can.

In this edition we've shared some perspectives on business development and prompted you to take action in two areas to help you get ahead. We hope these points will guide your own thinking and help shape your plans and actions. But if you’d like to talk more about any of your own specific issues, we’re available and more than happy to talk.

THE S WORD: SOLVING NOT SELLING

When faced with a crisis, it’s normal to react to the immediate priorities – often the unavoidable practical issues. As an agency leader you’ll have spent the last weeks ensuring everyone is set up and working remotely, examining cash flow with a fine tooth-comb, talking to clients about current projects and new ways of working, and maybe making tough decisions about head-count and other overhead costs.

Now it’s time to get on the front foot and be proactive. To ensure your business can survive beyond any recent ‘damage limitation’ steps you’ll need to focus on your pipeline through a new and very different lens.

Many agencies will be in the fortunate position of having long-term clients with whom they’ve built trust and loyalty. Others won’t be so lucky. But with all clients thinking and acting differently, all agencies will need to adapt to maintain the lifeblood of new business they require.

The underlying business development principles are still valid, but the starting position is different now. The mindset needs to be about really helping clients deal with their own challenges. It’s now about engaging on their most important short and long-term issues. Genuinely solving the problems that really matter to them – not trying to sell in predictable proposals for mundane projects.

Many clients will need help to change their business models, strategies, categories, products, services, channels, geographies. They’ll need help to get through the short-term and to understand their longer-term opportunities. In this different world, they’re likely to be open to new and different agency partners, creating new opportunities, and threats, for agencies.

So, whether your focus is on maximising business from your existing clients or finding new ones, this is a time to revisit your business development approach to compete strongly on this tougher playing field.

Here we offer some practical suggestions to help you maintain and adapt to the new S word.

Existing client business: Proactive not passive

Get even closer. Get deep under the skin of what’s happening in your clients’ organisations – what’s changed, has the strategy shifted, what are their real pain points? Use your contacts well to gain all information and insight that might help you. Ask your ‘referral champions’ for introductions to any new areas where you might be able to help.

Look for work, not briefs. Don’t expect formal project briefs. Think about anywhere you could really add value, right now. Go beyond your normal services to consider how your expert skills could help solve any of your client’s business problems. Be proactive in talking to clients about how you could help – but don’t pursue anything you can’t deliver exceptionally well.

Deepen connections. Working remotely may mean there’s more time and headspace for clients to talk, consider and reflect. One-to-one connections are replacing large meetings. This is a real opportunity to strengthen and build relationships and, as with all relationships, those that survive a crisis will be even stronger in the future.

Have a plan and deliver. Get the client team involved in the plans, make sure everyone is clear on the objectives and their individual responsibility. Track progress – and be prepared to change, agility is key. Make sure every aspect of your project delivery is faultless – this is no time to be dropping the ball.

New client business: Nurturing not prospecting

Get your house in order. Get skilled up and get your tools in good shape so you’ll be able to do new things not just think about them. Make sure you have information tools, such as Canvas8 or Winmo, and learn how to use them. If you don’t have a CMS, now’s the time. And when you’re sure about your targeting, build the database to stand you in good stead for the future. 

Think beyond normal sectors and services. Think about the challenges you’ve solved for clients and which brands might now be facing those challenges. Don’t be limited by traditional sectors or products. Consider who is doing well – or might in the future. Be brave, think differently about the work you want and could win. But don’t just jump on any opportunity, it may not be the right one and could drain your resource and energy.

Cut through the noise. Standing out will be more important than ever. Make sure your proposition, core messages and values are relevant for the current environment. And be sure they are authentic, clear and communicated consistently through all channels and materials.

Don’t hunker down. Be the voice that remains. Continue to create relevant, original and engaging content. Ladder up to your proposition and open up broad based discussions to build long term relationships. Maintain visibility, using your owned media and continue with PR and awards. Pick up the phone and talk to ‘warm’ prospects - you’ll be surprised by their response. And if using e-mail – keep things short, with no strings attached – don’t create barriers.

This is a time for solving not selling. Be sure you’re really focused on helping your existing and prospective clients navigate their best route through the crisis. And in turn, doing the best for your business.

DON'T WASTE THE OPPORTUNITY

You’re probably relieved to have found some cost savings, deferred some payments and put your staffing strategy in place. And now you just want to focus on producing great work for your live clients. But there is an opportunity to achieve so much more.

With some staff having been furloughed and everyone working from home, it may be hard to consider new ideas and initiatives. Motivation can be low at all levels, making it easy to slip into a passive mode, just waiting for things to get back to normal.

But the best led agencies will recognise the opportunity that exists during this period. The chance to get ahead and have an extra edge for the future. The chance to improve the way things have been done in the past. It’s these agencies that will emerge as the new leaders - don’t be one of those left behind.

Some things to think about:

  • Consider what the post-virus world might mean for your business and people. Identify practical actions to make sure you will have the right targeting, offerings, skills and ways of working.
  • Think about the weaknesses you already know about and assess how this time could be used to improve things: roles and responsibilities, processes, technology, data, communications, training.
  • Define clearly the areas where you want to make changes, set realistic objectives for progress each week and each month - and review regularly.
  • You’re likely to have fewer people than normal to support these activities, so involve as many as possible, use their time well and make them feel these changes are vital for being fit for the future.

THERE'S A LOT TO LEARN

It’s hard to underestimate the challenges facing businesses right now and survival mode is in full swing. However, with promotions and pay rises on pause, motivating and retaining the talented teams and individuals holding it together should be a top priority if you want to be in a position to thrive on the other side.

Focusing on learning is one such way - continuing to build business capability whilst nurturing career ambitions (the latter feeling a lot more than two metres away right now).

So, with the harder shift to remote working already tackled it makes sense to leverage your new virtual community to connect people to the content, tools and techniques that will give them more control over what happens next.  

Some things to think about:

  • Start by adapting existing programmes - company lunch ‘n’ learns or specific masterclasses - to a virtual format. A simple way to bring people together and continue to share and build knowledge. 
  • Continue or establish virtual mentoring relationships within and across teams. Setting goals and staying on track is both motivating and reassuring. You may have your own to adapt, or there are many established programmes already out there.
  • Simplify individual learning paths so they are focused and feasible alongside the day-to-day firefight. Honour the skills expectations of a current role but also motivate people with new opportunities that may support a post COVID-19 era.
  • If it’s not the case already, update your learning strategy to be digital-first. The return on investment will be a highly engaged team, constantly eager and able to upskill.