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Opinion: Four Agency Growth Habits to Foster

Following on from IAPI’s recent event on the pitching, Laurence Green and Ross Farquhar outline the four key growth habits agencies should embrace.

Agency growth can be elusive, even in economically buoyant times. Much of the recent growth in the advertising market has been captured by the tech platforms aka ad businesses. Clients leave their posts faster than ever, the account soon afterwards. Episodic project work has replaced the recurring revenues of a full-blown account win. It’s hard enough to refill the bucket, let alone add to it.

Most agency leaders would recognise that reality. Our answer, typically: pitch more, pitch harder. It’s not a very good answer.

So, when we were asked by IAPI to share our pointers for agency growth, we pointed elsewhere. At Fallon London (acquired by Publicis Groupe) and 101 (acquired by IPG), we experienced our fair share of pitch highs and lows. Enough highs to keep us coming back, smiling our Pitch Smiles, but enough lows to question our agencies’ and industry’s over-reliance on them as the engine of agency selection and growth; to forage for business in new ways; and – above all else, perhaps – to build our brand.

Because this of course is the medicine we prescribe our clients. Thanks to the work of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, we advise clients to go wide rather than narrow. To go long rather than just short (to be more precise, allocating resource in a ratio of roughly 60:40). To prime future demand rather than just fighting for our share of today’s market.

When we go to market ourselves, we forget these rules…or at least set them aside. Drag our top teams off existing client business. Show clients a complete answer to their problems, for free. Risk burnout and mental health impacts. All for a 1-in-4 chance of winning a prize that might not be quite what was advertised after all.

Agency eyes are famously bigger than their bellies, after all. It’s fair to say that if “Sharp, Binet and Field” was to hang out its shingle tomorrow, it wouldn’t be so haphazard in its business planning and resource allocation.

Too much agency growth is premised on hope. And hope is not a strategy.

So, although our recent fireside chat with IAPI members enjoyed its own gravitational pull back towards ‘pitching better’, we humbly submit that these four habits will serve your growth ambitions just as well.

1. Add up all those hours you spend pitching. Switch a chunk of that resource from sales activation (because that’s what it is) to agency brand-building. Commit to this rather than experiment with it. The three actions below hinge on it.

2. Audit your little black book. Who are the good clients (and ones that got away) who you could engineer a no-agenda reunion with? Who are the people you covet working with in the future who might be open to some light courting now?

3. Sometimes we’re so busy telling our clients’ stories we forget to tell our own. Take time to tell your story: it’s more than just the sum of the work you do. Why do you exist? How do you do business? What do your people, your clients and campaigns have in common? What sets you apart? Remember: as Byron Sharp taught us, it’s OK to be distinctive if you can’t or aren’t different.

4. Start sifting for the small projects with clients you covet and design your ‘sell’ for them. What work have you done in the past that demonstrates your agency’s ability to solve the smaller, stubborn problems on the clients to do list?

New KPI’s for the above and any ‘sleeper growth’ bedfellows will help loosen the ties that bind you to the pitch, because “what gets measured, gets managed”. You may even find that your pitch performance improves too. Good luck!

Laurence Green is an independent adviser to creative businesses and the inbound Director of Effectiveness at the IPA. Ross Farquhar is the CMO of Little Moons.

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