Most of us were happy to turn the page on 2020 and discover what comes next. What that will be is still uncertain, but we know it won’t be a return to our pre-pandemic normal. With that in mind, let’s explore how agencies will win business this year.
First, I’ll recap what we learned in 2020, then we’ll set the stage for what might be coming in 2021. Finally, I’ll share three “sure bet” places to strengthen your agency's new business efforts moving forward.
How 2020 changed us
In 2020, agencies encountered typical obstacles like increased in-housing and more project-based work, plus “special pandemic edition challenges,” including swift and drastic changes to the way people live and work, affecting shopping, spending, and media consumption. With this, 2020 laughed in the face of our plans, budgets, and expectations for the year.
Necessity is the mother of all invention, and we witnessed it this year across the ad industry. As Campaign's global head of media Gideon Spanier noted, all of this 2020 chaos brought about positive changes in Adland, including working smarter, more collaboratively, and with greater resourcefulness. Agencies have demonstrated their creative chops this year by getting things done one way or another.
I’ve witnessed more patience and kindness this year amid collective acknowledgment that we’re all just human beings in non-ideal circumstances trying to get through this. The people we interact with may be experiencing any number of challenges from job loss to kids learning virtually to illness or death in the family. So sometimes, a kid will pop into a Zoom meeting, or a dog will join the call, and it’s not the end of the world. Expectations for separating our professional selves from our whole selves have relaxed a bit, and that seems like a good thing.
How 2020 changed new business outreach
Here are the key changes we observed while conducting outreach to generate leads for our agency partners:
- Just as brands changed their messaging for consumers, we changed our messaging, tone, and timing to be appropriate for the context.
- We put greater effort into services and targets most likely to close in the new landscape (with that said, business was still closed with travel and hospitality brands in 2020).
- With most people working from home and checking voicemails or only accepting calls forwarded to their cell phones from known numbers, it became much harder to connect with live people.
- With many people furloughed, laid off, or personally affected by illness, it’s been harder to locate the appropriate party.
- Our greatest tool has been email, but in 2020, global email inbox volume reached an all-time high while nearly 20% of email messages failed to reach the inbox (Validity). It's harder than ever just to get your email seen—much less opened, clicked, or responded to.
- We found physical mail also ineffective as a tool to break through with cold prospects because it’s unlikely to reach people who are not working in the office.
That’s just looking at the changes that affected lead generation. Closing opportunities virtually with everyone on both sides of the table working remotely from different locations presents additional challenges.
Looking ahead in 2021
In 2021, the evolution of “normal” will continue, and with it, an ongoing focus on digital transformation, e-commerce, and agility (see Patrick Coffee’s winners and losers of 2020 and ClickZ’s 2020 takeaways). Coffee has noted that holding company agencies have been launching new e-commerce and digital transformation divisions to compete for work where brands need to spend right now.
A new torrent of agency searches will likely take place this year. While we expect smaller and independent agencies to continue their winning streak, there will also be new competition from new startups, consultancies, and freelancer networks.
Travel and live events may not come back in full force until late 2021-early 2022, and with people expected to continue working from home much of the time, the future of OOH and brick and mortar retail remains a question mark.
At this point, predictions for 2021 are based on assumptions that the U.S. population will be vaccinated by mid to late 2021, allowing some sense of pre-pandemic normalcy to safely resume by the end of the year. Certainly, all of us (minus a few introverts basking in their glory) are eager for a return to the socialization, interactions, and experiences that we are used to. But if we’ve learned anything this year, it's that contingency planning must remain on the menu.
How will this affect how we pursue new business in 2021?
There is no particular magic to closing new business (and trust me; no one is more disappointed by it than me). That was true in 2020 and will still be true in 2021. That said, we have no "special sauce" to help you win new business in 2021.
What we do have are common sense new business fundamentals. What they may lack in “wow factor,” they make up for in effectiveness. Our best advice is to double down on these new business building blocks to put your agency in an ideal position for success in an uncertain landscape.
These three principles will help your agency’s new business efforts in 2021, no matter what comes.
1. Create (or improve) tools to break through
As I mentioned, breaking through to prospects is harder than ever right now. If you understand your prospects, you know that they aren’t taking chances on unknowns. Most of them have limited budgets and little room for error. Usually, proof of results is the price of entry just to get their attention.
Agency leaders must keep in mind that just as business has moved online across verticals, so has advertising. Agency websites have always been critical for new business — probably more so than some want to admit. No matter where a lead comes from, they will always end up at your website to evaluate your agency as a potential match.
Many agency leaders underestimate the number of opportunities they lose through their websites without ever even knowing they were evaluated by a potential client or a search agency consultant. In terms of answering visitors’ questions, copywriting, positioning, navigation, and providing clear proof points, many agencies continue to miss opportunities by providing a poor user experience.
With that being said, agencies should run down this list and make sure they are projecting the very best version of themselves for new business:
- Conduct an agency audit to revisit positioning, messaging, and content
- Re-evaluate your website from an objective new business perspective
- Revisit, upgrade, and create new, visible agency case studies with business results
- Build up relevant thought leadership where it can be seen by prospective clients
- Incorporate client testimonials on your website
Additionally, if you are sending out lead generation emails, they must be more targeted than ever. Amp up the personalization and relevance, and scale back the copy. Ideally, you will have a very concise, easy-to-read email that makes the reader feel like it was written personally for them. It should direct them to a compelling page on your website with examples of work done for clients in the same industry and clearly state measurable outcomes. With that, you may pique their interest enough to get a reply.
2. Stick to business you have a right to win
Now is not the time to go after aspirational accounts that are out of your agency’s league. Marketers need sure things, and no one will “give you” a chance. To protect your agency’s valuable resources, you must ask yourself, honestly, “do I have a right to win this business?” And if you do, that almost always means you have relevant category experience with proof of results. You must be honest with yourself and the prospect about what your agency can and can't do.
Questioning strategy plays a big part in determining “right to win” opportunities because it is the key to qualifying and understanding the prospect. Don’t let questions be an afterthought when they are what stands between you winning new business and wasting valuable time and money. Is there room for improvement in your agency’s questioning strategy?
Smart, strategic, research-informed questions show that you understand not only a prospect’s industry but also their brand. It goes beyond just letting the prospect talk and listening to them (rather than talking at them about your agency). A good questioning strategy allows you to extract the information you need and make the best use of everyone’s time during a meeting.
When you use that information to demonstrate your understanding of their industry, their brand, their customers, their challenges, and how they make money, and combine it with proof of measurable results, you show you have a right to earn a prospect’s business.
3. Build trust and demonstrate value
In agency new business, building value starts with a client-centric approach. Note that it is not possible to do that effectively without first applying a strategic questioning strategy. You may think that your agency’s work or smart thinking might seal the deal with a prospect, but first, put it through a client-centric filter. Take a step back and look at it from their perspective.
- Why does what you're presenting matter to them?
- Can they get it elsewhere?
- Is your proposal truly unique to them personally and to their brand?
Value and trust are the building blocks of long-lasting client relationships, and it starts before business is ever closed.
Here are some ways you might generate that:
- Demonstrate that your agency understands the challenges and needs of the brand and that you know how to help them move in forward in the marketplace, so they can feel confident trusting you with their business.
- From the first phone call to the final pitch, focus on winning their business at every touchpoint. Each interaction gives the brand a chance to see what it would be like working with you. They will become comfortable based on how you have conducted yourself through the whole process and whether you’ve earned their trust.
- Communication is key to building trust. Clearly state what you need, what you will do, and when you will do it. Then do it. No excuses.
No matter what 2021 brings, your agency will be in a better position to close new business if you give your attention to some foundational elements. Though revisiting these basics tends to be overlooked and undervalued, each of these has a high payoff potential for your agency's new business efforts.
Mark Duval is the Founder and President of The Duval Partnership, a full-service sales organization working exclusively with agencies. The Duval Partnership helps agencies acquire new business through the creation and implementation of customized, strategic sales solutions.