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How to answer the phone in agency-land

July 13, 2015

We speak to agencies a lot. Whether it’s calling our clients to chase up some clever creds they’re pulling together, or contacting agencies we think would benefit from the service we provide, we know how agencies tend to communicate. A lot of them – a scary majority in fact – answer the phone wrong.

I don’t mean they say the wrong thing (though you’d be surprised how many agencies just say “Hello?”, rather than a fairly cheery “Good morning, Ambivalent Elk!”*), I mean failing to spot a potential incoming lead.

When we call agencies, we don’t always announce who we are at the top of the call. I’ll call an agency and ask for, say, the Business Development Director by name. The phone answerer will very often explain that they’re on a call, or out of the office and suggest I call back later or leave a message. Not the type to pester, I rarely leave messages. I’ll most likely say that I’ll call back later. At this point it’s the phone answerer’s job to find out who I am (in fact they should have done it already). It’s frighteningly rare though. And that’s scary.

If the Marketing Manager for Rockstar Games calls you because they’ve had a look at a bunch of agency web sites and they liked your one, among others (they’re not going to choose one, they’re going to call a few), it’s not their job to make sure you find out. They’re trying to rule agencies out, not share the wealth. If your receptionist, staff member who happened to pick up the phone, PA or helpful temp doesn’t find out who they are, they’re not going to call back. They just ruled you out.

Make sure everyone at your company knows that an incoming call is a potential pitch – a potential win. They should treat it accordingly. Get a name, a company and a direct number to call back on. If it’s a genuine lead, they won’t mind – in fact they’ll want to know that their chosen agency is efficient and thorough. Anything less and you have to ask yourself why they’d be impressed at all with that first exchange.

I know, by the way, that you get a lot of sales calls. New business agencies like mine, electricity companies and telecoms suppliers all add up to a barrage of messages. Think about how much time and investment you put into your new business endeavours though and remember that and incoming lead is the strongest kind. Deal with it as such.

*Ambivalent Elk is not a real agency, but it should be

Rumours of my demise… new business ain’t dead!

June 15, 2015

Wayne Rooney is a jogger. I’ll come back to that. There are a number of people who boldly proclaim that new business is a waste of time, that cold-calling is dead and that trying to get into pitches is not worth the effort. I’m here to explain that while some of those things are true some of the time, most of the time they’re just shorthand for “buy what I’m doing, not what anyone else is doing”. That’s fine, as long as it’s not presented as fact. It’s often mentioned that 60-80% of wins in marketing-land go to either the incumbent (how can we know that?) or a referral. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the sample for this research can’t have been huge (or surely we’d have a definite number, rather than a 20 percentage-point swing). But even if it is, it doesn’t matter.

Picking up the phone

Business Developers have to pick up the phone and call people. They must also perform other activities, like research, write clever emails, join Linkedin groups, read books by Seth Godin (other authors are available) and go to events, but a lot of the time they have to make phone calls.

Making a lot of calls (and a lot is 65 – we have competitors who make 120+, but that’s as mad as a box of frogs) isn’t a fun thing to do in isolation. “Making calls” is to new business what jogging is to football. Nobody calls Wayne Rooney a jogger, but he spends the vast majority of any game jogging around the pitch. All footballers do. Good new business people make calls. They have their fun though when they get a chance to have a juicy conversation with a prospect. Rooney has that moment when he gets to shoot at goal. Gordon Ramsay does so when he plates up an amazing dish (the famous chopper/stirrer Gordon Ramsay, as nobody anywhere has ever called him, but is in fact what he does most of the time). The business developer can’t get to that juicy conversation without making calls. Rooney can’t play football without jogging. Gordon can’t cook food without chopping and stirring.

So don’t be a snob about picking up the phone. When someone is harping on about how cold calling is dead, remember that they’re probably doing it themselves. We were approached by a “word of mouth” agency years ago who claimed that their clients didn’t need to conduct any outbound marketing and that all their customer acquisition and retention would look after itself using their amazing methods for generating word of mouth. And here they were on the phone to us, asking how to find new clients. Their methods weren’t bad – they were fantastic. They just didn’t work in isolation. Very few things do.

Your new business agency (us, surely…) ought to be making around 60-70 calls per person, per day as well as sending a couple of dozen properly tailored emails. They ought to be researching prospects so that they know of what they will speak. Your new business agency might not send you to 5 meetings a month (we certainly don’t – and real, qualified opportunities can’t be counted in advance) but will know about the prospects they’re contacting for you and can tell you “what next” when those contacts go quiet.


Late and over budget

May 14, 2015

Lots of marketing agencies haven’t had a proper, sustained new business effort in place, relying (as many do) on referrals and waiting for the phone to ring. Selling what an agency does is very different from responding to a referral or an incoming enquiry. Part of our briefing day is designed to uncover the things about our client that are interesting to a “cold” prospect. Remember, that’s a prospect who receives too many terrible sales calls to put up with one that sounds like all the others.

As well as finding the little compelling nuggets that make a cold approach work better, there are some things that you should avoid saying or writing if you want to really interest someone:

On budget, on time
As opposed to…? Hollow promises, the opposite of which are unthinkable don’t have any impact. Your prospect wasn’t thinking, “this all sounds great, but I imagine you deliver it late and over budget”. And if they were, they’re not likely to be reassured by this flippant soundbite. Your clients know whether you deliver on budget, on time when you deliver on budget, on time. Until then, don’t join the chorus of agencies who say it.

We’ve worked for (insert biggest client here)
Nobody cares who the biggest client you’ve worked for is. Ours is Aegis (well, one of their agencies). Do you feel differently about us? Did it make us a better new business agency? Tell the world about the best results you got for a client. Back when I worked for a big, lumbering new business agency, our entire spiel on the phone was to jabber on, talking about the biggest clients our clients had. It was only when I started looking for the most compelling examples of my clients’ results that better win ratios emerged. Talk about your best results, ideally from the point of view of your client.

We really get under the skin of our clients’ brands….
….unlike our competitors, who, just prior to starting work on their clients’ marketing activity have their memory wiped, a la Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind and just make stuff up. Everyone claims to “really soak up what our clients’ brands are about”, to “immerse ourselves in our clients’ values”. There’s literally nobody saying, “we take on a client and try to find a member of our team that knows nothing about them or their ilk, then we set them loose with their marketing budget in a shabby carrier bag”. I’m being glib for effect or course but you get the idea. As before, talk about results – talk about what your clients have once they’ve worked with you.

There are more, all of which we studiously avoid. In summary though, tell the world what they can get from you. If a client works with you for 12 months, what will they have in month 13 that they didn’t have in month 1? That, after all, is what they’re buying.

7 ways to stop making awful new business calls

August 8, 2013

First, let’s get something clear: we do a lot more than make phone calls for our clients. Today we’re just addressing the fact that most new business calls are remarkably bad. We don’t claim to have a magic wand, nor do we promise ridiculous results from our work. We do however make sure we avoid wasted opportunities. The phone call is a prime example of where waste can occur over and over in a single day. In a single hour.

Research it

The first compliment you can pay your prospect is having taken the time to research them. Even a little bit. It’ll make all the difference to your confidence. It’ll make all the difference to how receptive they will be. You don’t need to know their dog’s name (though if you do, please find a way to mention it without sounding like a stalker (on second thoughts, you will sound like a stalker. Probably keep it to yourself)), but knowing where they have worked before (Linkedin will help with that) or which agencies they’ve hired before (trade press can yield that information) will show that they’re not just a name on a list.

Make it different

Most agencies’ new business calls open with something like “We’re Crunchy Frame Creative and we’re a creative agency and we’ve worked for Channel 6, Harbinsons’s Jam and Nevaslip Prophylactics. Can I have a minute to talk about your marketing?”. Other than the fact that you’ve already started talking to them without establishing that they are okay with having an agency badly described at them, it’s just dull. You’re an agency? With clients? Wow! When can we brief you? If you’ve done your research and you’re smart enough, you’ll be able to open with a question that prompts some conversation. Some of our team are sometimes guilty of not using their research to spark natural conversation – it makes the call far harder to get anything from. Nobody in any marketing department wants to know who you’ve worked for or what type of agency you are until you’ve created a compelling reason for them to desire that information. You might create that compulsion through your clever questions, your knowledge of their company or simply your genuine, carefully directed enthusiasm.

Stick to what you say you’ll do

If you tell someone you’ll send them information straight away. That means moments after the call. If you’re not going to send it immediately, then tell them when they’ll get it. If you tell them 3pm, make it arrive at 3pm and mention your promise.

Follow it up properly

Your prospects get a lot of calls. If you’re going to build any relationship with them then you will need to stay in touch. If you don’t then despite how amazing your agency’s work is, they won’t remember you. There’s a fine, nay (nay?) invisible line between “staying in touch” and “pestering the heck out of someone”. Stay on the right side, but don’t convince yourself that they’ll call when they need you. Too often they won’t. If polite contact from time to time is enough to annoy them then they weren’t going to hire you anyway.

Don’t offer outs

“Can we respond to your next advertising brief, or……..”. This “or”, hanging off the end of the sentence is like a comfort blanket to new business people. In fact I’ve heard it from salespeople of all types over the years. Listen to your new business calls. If you hear that, then stop doing it the way you’re doing it and hire us (quoting SNB_OURPREVIOUSNEWBUSINESSCALLSWEREAWFULSOPLEASEHELPUS for a 7% discount). Don’t offer exits along the way. If the prospect doesn’t like your approach, or if your questioning uncovers the fact that they don’t want you, then they’ll find their own exit. You ought to be looking for the next best thing, all the time. When are they reviewing? How long is the current agency contract? Are there ever projects that fall outside of their current agency’s remit? But don’t roll out the red carpet to the exit door, or why did you call in the first place?

Don’t rely on something you sent

You sent information and now you’re calling. You mention it, right? Let’s look at the possibilities:

1)      You call, saying that you sent the information about your amazing work on Harbinson’s Jam. The prospect remembers this information. But the prospect also remembers seeing it and not calling or emailing you. Otherwise you wouldn’t be calling them, eh?

2)      You call, saying that stuff about the PDF about the jam guys. The prospect doesn’t remember seeing it, or didn’t have time. Now you’re back at square one, but the prospect now views you as the guys who sent the information that he instantly forgot, or couldn’t be bothered to read.

3)      You call, use your research and intelligence to ask questions, building on the previous information that led you to send information. If the prospect doesn’t mention it, then you can send it as if they’ve never seen it. If they now remember it of their own volition, then their image of you is rather stronger – they remembered your jam work unprompted.

In case it’s not clear, number 3 is best. So if you sent info, don’t mention it. Sounds counter-intuitive, but it isn’t about your ego, it’s about creating a compelling reason for a prospect to hire you.

Close, boldly, openly and honestly.

There are loads of different types of closes – the assumptive close, the Ben Franklin, the negative close. Bin them – they’re too prescriptive. How about something like:

“I hope I haven’t interrupted your day too horribly, but if I did then here’s the short version: we’re a cracking new business agency and you’re an agency that could do with a long-term, coherent, effective new business campaign. How can we do some work for you?”. Too prescriptive? Of course it is. The conversation should guide the words you use to close. Do close though. It’s the bit that’ll start your stomach churning but when it works (and if you follow all of the above, it’ll work more often), it results in those lovely highs that make the new business slog worth every moment.

Being different vs. saying “We’re different”

February 18, 2013

First, be different

Someone said something very nice about my company the other day. I was meeting a marketing agency boss – someone I respect – who owns half of an agency I would love to have as a client. Always nice. Anyway, they’re reviewing their new business provisions and we’re up against a few of our competitors. He said:

“Your competitors all sent me documents that started out by telling me that they’re different, but didn’t go on to tell me how or why. What you sent me just laid out how you do things and the differences were clear”.

Now, a lot of positive things were said in the meeting. Obviously I claimed that we’re a fantastic new business agency and I asserted that we’d be perfectly suited to them. Both of those things are true, but the thing that stood out for me was the quote above. Literally all of our competitors had claimed to be different. And so they looked the same. This got me thinking.

Of course some people will say that their company is different and then explain how. If that’s the case then they need to make sure their differences are actually unique in some way. Every agency is unique, but summing up why often leads us into “so what?” territory. If you’re going to claim difference then test your claim. Look around at your competition. If you’re not as different as you thought then don’t panic – it’s not always about being different. As Seth Godin told us, using the metaphor of an oddly coloured bovine creature, it’s not even about being better.

Apologies to Seth for borrowing his mantra, but being remarkable is often more attractive than just being better, or arbitrarily being different. Tell people how and why you’re remarkable and let them decide if you’re different in any useful way.

Differences that aren’t different

A cursory look around online uncovers dozens of agencies across every discipline who claim some unique set of values. I’m going to pick on 3 Degrees Agency. I don’t know them personally but I know they’ve done some great work for companies like Cogenta, Taxishare and Endemol. Their reputation is good (speaking to client-side people all day, we hear some stories about agencies, but 3 Degrees isn’t one we’ve ever heard a bad word about) and their site is nice enough. They claim these three differences (I’ve paraphrased a little):

1: We care – With every project, we take the time to get to know you, your company and your customers. We like to form lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with all of our clients.
2: No fluff – We’re a small team, which means you get to work directly with those assigned to your project – never more than a phone call or email away.
3: Results led – It’s not all fun and games, at the end of the day we pride ourselves on providing you with great ROI. Our aim is always to make your competitors jealous and your customers (and accountant) smile.

All of these are nice, positive values to have, but they’re not unique. In fact, the opposite of each of them is essentially unthinkable to a small agency. There will certainly be genuine differences between this agency and their peers, but none of these three are any of them.

It’s not just agencies of course – Hackett Equity Solutions (again, sorry to pick on one company – I’m sure they’re brilliant) are apparently different because:

“Our difference is based on our authentic no nonsense approach which puts people at the heart of everything we do, we understand that no successful business can be built without the people at the centre possessing the passion, drive, ambition and desire to succeed. With this in mind our aim is always to help build the structures around those key people which allows them to focus on their strengths, whilst we provide solutions to areas which are identified as needing to be improved.”

I’m going to sound picky and a little glib, but nobody out there is claiming a “nonsense approach” which “puts people at the very margins of what they do”. Nobody claims to hire people with apathy, ambivalence and a desire to fail miserably. Furthermore, no company builds structures around people to nullify their strengths. In short, their apparent differences are just a paragraph of positive rhetoric. Again, I bet they have some really interesting unique values. They just haven’t told us what they are.

Differentiation is something that nearly everybody claims to have, so unless you’re going to back it up – unless you’re actually different then saying you’re different is the most samey thing you can do.

Three ways to get more from your new business agency

February 8, 2013

1)      Don’t make them describe you in a particular way.

Just because you’ve decided to call yourselves a Brand Empathy & Ideas Generation Agency doesn’t mean that your prospects or clients would ever think of you as that. Worse than not thinking of you in your chosen way, there’s the simple fact that if someone needs what they call a creative agency and goes looking for one, they’re not going to immediately see that you might be able to solve their problem. If you have your new business person calling or emailing people who control marketing budgets, then encourage them to find out what the person might be looking for. If it’s “creative” then you’re a creative agency. If it’s “ideas”, you’re an ideas agency. Many of our clients over the years have insisted on a specific description and we’ve learned to say “no” because it does no good.

2)      If they ask for a short credentials document, give them a short credentials document. Do it on time.

Agencies love to talk about themselves. Clients speak to lots of agencies over time. Do the sums. Do you imagine that they want long presentations from every new agency they encounter? The chances are that after a couple of conversations and the mention of an upcoming brief, your new business legend (for that’s what we are) will need to send over some sort of document to move things along a bit. Unless they’re asking for specific examples, send them a short (9 pages maximum) description of your agency. Make sure the majority of it tells the prospect what they will get (which is different from what you do). Leave the dull bits (where you are, how long you’ve been in business) until the end (if they’re not interested by then, who cares where you are?). Actually, just read my article on the excellent Econsultancy – it’s at and it’s marvellous.

3)      Support them from the start.

Look, I know that hiring a new business agency is scary stuff. We’ll ask for a level of trust that in the early months is fairly un-earned. While some new business agencies will abuse your trust and have you spending valuable studio time putting together documents that will be seen by a temporary receptionist at a company with fifty quid to spend, this is (or should be) rare. What is worse – far worse – is stifling their ability to win you new clients by slowing them down. We often have to promise a terrifyingly fast turnaround on some detailed credentials documents to squeeze a client into a pitch. When they trust our word and support us, it invariably leads to a far more productive project. Our most successful client of 2012 obviously trusts us implicitly, but the key thing they did from the start was trust us, sight unseen. We’re good at this and I hope our competitors are too. Don’t get in the way.

This might all seem like common sense, but often the temptation is to take far too long to create a 28-page PDF which spends an age describing your agency as an Integrated Product-Oriented Brand Development and Advancement Consultancy. And then you’ve gone and broken all three rules.

Online content and its effect on business development – by Nick Baggott

November 28, 2012

This is a guest blog by Nick Baggott, MD of Navigate Consulting. A leader in the CRM and Digital Marketing fields, Nick has worked with brands including Microsoft, Google, Cisco, Pfizer and O2. Nick also a Fellow of the IDM and the CIM. For clarity, Navigate Consulting isn’t a client of Sponge NB, but Nick is someone whose opinions we respect.

The pitch process has changed out of all recognition. The days of agencies pitching for each project and clients constantly searching for new agencies are (thankfully) a thing of the past.

Clients are looking for longer term partnerships with fewer agencies. That is a great thing for client retention and agency financial planning. But, it is potentially bad news for the new business development team. With fewer pitches, the game has changed. The role of business development is to build long term relationships with the Marketing Directors and Procurement teams who manage the tenders, so that they are on the next long list to be considered for the pitch. These relationships are ideally built on personal interactions, but inevitably they will start with virtual interactions of some type.

So, if your task is to get onto the consideration list of agencies for the pitch, it means a change of focus. You need to be found when clients are searching and you need to represent an agency brand that is respected and trusted, ideally with a reputation for thought leadership and expertise. Online content plays a vital role in building your reputation. It also covers a huge range of channels and tools.

Your most important asset is your web site. Every client will review it and scrutinise it before they contact you. Consider not only how you are positioning yourself and the case studies and services you choose to promote, but also what the site says about your understanding of the digital world. Is it optimised for search? Is it optimised for mobile? Does it contain thought leading content? Does it enable readers to share your content in social media? Does it capture data in an effective and legally correct way?

Then consider which social channels you can use to host and share content. The options are plentiful. For every channel you utilise, you need a content manager who is updating and publishing new content, as well as responding to questions and comments swiftly.

I am a huge advocate of blogging as a way of sharing your expertise and knowledge. Here are some tips.

  1. Consider who the best person is to write it. Who has the expert knowledge? Who has the time? Who has the enthusiasm to do it and stick to it?
  2. Your blog is there to demonstrate your expertise, not to sell (that is what the web site does). So, talk about wider industry issues, share best practice, share research, share your opinion. Don’t just write up case studies.
  3. Be provocative. That doesn’t mean being deliberately confrontational or controversial. It means, give an opinion and ask for your readers’ opinions too.
  4. Write in plain, conversational English. Don’t get it copy written. It must be authentic. The odd typing mistake or grammatical error is not a disaster.
  5. Write as often as you can, but only say something when you have something interesting to say. It doesn’t have to be every week as long as you don’t leave it too long between posts.
  6. Integrate it with the other social channels – host video content on YouTube, tweet a link when you update your blog, have the latest blog posts feed onto the web site home page, feed blog titles and links onto your Linked In profile.

That leads me neatly onto the sharing element of content. You can write the content into a blog, you can post videos onto YouTube, you can write white papers and host them on your web site or you could commission some research and host that on your web site too. That is all great, but no use, if no-one knows it is there!

Search engine optimisation is key and the good news is that all of the social sharing that you do will help SEO by building links from other sites to yours. Make sure all content is tagged for search too, so that Google can find it. Your social media strategy should be to share and amplify your content programmes. All of your content should be sharable, opinion forming, provocative and original. That is a great start. Then you need to proactively spread the coverage of your content into digital channels.

Media can be owned (that is your web site, blog and social channels), paid (do you have budget to test paid search ads for example to promote this thought leadership content?) or earned (that is the free, PR type coverage). Earned media is the most powerful. Use your PR skills to make sure that all of your content, be it digital, video or printed is made available to thought leaders such as trade journalists, key industry analysts, respected bloggers and social media influencers (such as people with plenty of Twitter followers). Then use your own social media channels to promote the content. Top B2B channels are Twitter, YouTube, Google Plus and Linked In. Google Plus is probably most useful as a way of improving search performance for your content.

I hope this helps. It is a start to a very complex and ever evolving topic. If you want to find out more, please feel free to follow me on Twitter (@njbaggott) or of course read my blog

Good luck