3 Ways for Floundering Agencies to Find Growth

merry-go-roundHave you had a conversation with a college sophomore lately?

In this example, it is also the equivalent of talking with a 7-year-old.

“I want to be a nurse or a psychologist. I want to save the world. No, I want to make money, so I’ll be a lawyer. But I really like writing, so I’ve thought of getting an English major and then getting my master’s in education. I heard the job prospects were bad for accountants, so I was thinking of going into engineering.” Ask any 7-year-old the same thing: “I want to be a fireman and a ballerina and an astronaut and maybe a teacher.”

Ask most agencies what they do and you’ll get a similar response -- a list of things they can do, want to do, and might be able to do. It's a dizzying response to a basic question. And the answer has much larger consequences.

Running an agency requires more clarity and focus, and without it, most communication firms move forward like they're stuck on those banned playground merry-go-rounds. There’s little chance for growth when you’re simply spinning. An agency loses an account and fires three people. It wins an account and brings on five new employees. It changes its branding every two years. It eliminates departments. It adds new services based on one client. There’s little stability, and its biggest selling point is the brands it has worked with.

So, how you can stop the madness and point your agency toward growth?

Find a Focus

A marketing agency has to be a chameleon; with each new client comes a different audience, voice, mission, and goals. In order to do this -- and do it well -- the agency is constantly changing its mindset to accommodate its clients’ needs.

This innate ability to adapt leads to two types of problems for the agency’s own brand: it either creates a blank slate, where clients’ work and PR shout-outs command the attention, or the agency tries to be all things to all types of clients by listing off services like The Cheesecake Factory’s 50-page menus.

A Pinterest/YouTube mashup of past work isn’t necessarily detrimental to an agency’s ability to land an account. But seeing isn’t believing, and in this case, thoughtful, knowledge-based information about a specific area of expertise or industry will do more to convince a client of the possibilities that a partnership will bring.

The same is true for the agencies that create a rolling list of services -- everything from direct marketing to event activation to SEO. Few clients truly believe that you can do all those things you list off well. They are looking for an agency that specializes in marketing to a niche audience while having a strong history of, say, successful public relations campaigns. They are searching for an agency that has experience matching live events with social media and technology. Show this, but also talk about the strategy, challenges, and unique insights your company brought to the project.

Having more than one service gives you the ability to create an integrated marketing experience for clients, but having a clear focus will bring the clients to you.

Invest in Education

Living in a town with one of the best journalism schools in the country has given me the opportunity to meet, mentor, and train young talent who are looking to jump into the advertising industry after graduation. This has also given me the opportunity to see first-hand the substantial disconnect that exists between traditional training and the real world. Agencies that hire based on a book of designs and copy are doing a disservice to their existing team. Hiring someone who can create the “big idea” is not enough anymore.

Unfortunately, it is then up to the agency to train and evolve to make up for this gap in knowledge. Someone who knows “how” to use a CMS is much different than someone who understands the possibilities and limitations of the platform. A social media manager who can throw in a few hashtags but doesn’t understand the rules of engagement in a crisis is less useful than a fax machine.

Allison Kent-Smith, founder of Smith & Beta, a digital-centric educational program said: “For years, the industry has continued to look mostly outside agency walls for digital talent. We continue to trade and exchange the same talent with an average tenure of about 18 months. A formal agency digital education program elevates the literacy of many, rather than relying on the expertise of a few. Reality is, a few experts does not scale. So if an agency wants to grow and evolve (or lead), they must invest and reinvest in employees. This education investment does not start and stop -- it is an integrated, ongoing part of everyday 21st century work.”

Marketing firms that implement a structured, year-long learning program to create a knowledge base of content, SEO, user experience, data mining and analysis, information architecture, and technology will not only create big ideas but will also be able to execute (on time and within budget) on those strategies.

Acquire New Business Strategically

Many marketing firms are great at building relationships with existing clients and maintaining those for years. But more troubling to agency leadership is the quality of new business opportunities. A big part of this is a lack of structure and strategy. If the agency does have a dedicated new business professional, she usually lacks the resources and support from leadership to develop and implement a sales strategy, one that includes tracking and managing leads and informing how the agency is marketed and seen by prospective clients. New business then becomes a goose chase -- responding to RFPs, making calls, networking, spamming people on LinkedIn, etc.

New business needs to be a cross-functional role where not everyone is expected to bring in new leads, but each staff member should be required to provide support to the new business department on an ongoing basis.

"I often hear advertising and digital agencies lament the fact that they have an on again off again business development program,” said Peter Levitan, a new business consultant. “I think the only way that an agency can overcome this malaise, the malaise of not having a consistent business development plan, is to make sure that the plan and process is baked into the agency's DNA. That means that the CEO, ECD, and partners must wake up hungry every day and make sure that all employees understand that their futures are dependent on agency growth."

Growth of an agency needs to be strategic. Bring on clients who understand, believe in, and support how you approach work. Don’t hire more talent that isn’t a fit for your culture just to be able to support a client win. Think through how “big” you can get and still feel like the same agency you were passionate enough to build. Find your focus and plan for growth. The merry-go-round might just stop long enough for you to find yourself on stable ground.

Jami Oetting is the executive editor of The Agency Post, an online publication for marketing and advertising professionals. The publication is running The Agency 100, an annual ranking of the fastest growing marketing companies in the U.S., to celebrate growth, solid client relationships, and stability. Connect with her on Twitter @jamioetting or on Google+.

Image credit: The Knowles Gallery

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