A couple of weeks ago I got to speak at The Drum’s Pitch Perfect conference, a one-day event devoted to helping ad agencies sharpen their new business skills.

There was some great content presented (after all, it was organized by The Drum), and one of the best sessions featured four client-side marketers who graciously agreed to expose their underbellies to us:

It’s always a lucky opportunity when we agency folk can ask clients candid questions about what we’re doing right and what we could do better. In this case, I learned some new things, but mostly I was struck by how little things seem to change. Clients are trying just as hard as we are to stay on top of the constantly-shifting sands of marketing, not to mention the demands of their jobs. Agencies are perfectly positioned to be a source of a help but often they end up being more of a hindrance.

Here are a few of the common themes I heard.

1.    Getting noticed continues to get harder, not easier. No surprise there, right? When asked about the biggest mistakes agencies make when attempting to introduce themselves, Kerry Chilvers said, without hesitation, “stop hounding us,” but then in the same breath she admitted that “persistence pays off in the end.” Ah, what’s an agency to do... Well, to start, have something worthwhile to say, which leads us to theme #2.

2.    Adrian Cutler emphasized how important it is that agencies have something smart and relevant to say. I was surprised at how basic his expectations were. Judging from his experience, it sounds like most agencies don’t do even the most rudimentary of background research on the company or the people they’re trying to reach. Why would agencies set such a low bar? Or, is it possible that agencies are doing their homework, but it’s concealed by the usual agency-centric info about client rosters and creative awards?

3.    Referrals still rule. After all your hounding... er, I mean, persistent outreach; after all your smart, insightful packaging of credentials to address the client’s most pressing marketing issues, clients will still turn to their colleagues first to ask which agencies they’re working with and like the best. Sigh. 

So how do you make sure you’re on the “help,” not “hindrance,” side of the equation?

 Look, this stuff may not be easy, but it isn’t complicated. Get the basics right. Be clear and specific about what you do and whom you serve, and then make sure you’re delivering that message to those people.

Be smart about how you get that message across. Don’t tell them everything in one email. Since you know it’s probably going to take a sustained effort, plan out a series of communications that build on a core message and each time offer valuable information that highlights your expertise.

Choose the right frequency of messaging (remember, persistence, not hounding), and don’t give up too soon (or ever, if you believe you have something valuable to offer that client).

And have a referral strategy that’s grounded in regular nurturing of your network, including your existing clients. Here are some guidelines on how to do that.

It wasn’t all the same-old-same-old. There were some new themes that emerged among the panelists and that reflect the signs of our times. One was the trend of agencies partnering with other agencies to deliver services to clients. Our marketing ecosystem has become so complex and competition between agencies so stiff that it’s become natural for agencies to seek new business through partnerships.

According to the panelists, many agencies haven’t figured out how to do this well and clients find themselves in the middle of inter-agency squabbles, poor communication, and territorial feuds.

Clients hate playing referee.

And, there was another session dedicated to this topic. This time, the panelists were all from agencies, two from smaller boutique shops and two from larger agencies (the largest being Dentsu Aegis Group).

Listening to the panelists, I found it interesting that the larger of the agencies tended to think the best approach to managing these partnerships was through transparency and collaboration. Well, of course, they would! They’re the ones that are most likely to own the client relationship and, therefore, hold most of the cards. They can decide when and how they’d like to collaborate and be transparent.

Does this sound a bit cynical on my part?

It’s only because I’ve seen this situation from both the large and small agency side. It’s not that smaller agencies shouldn’t trust their larger partners. I actually agree that trust, transparency, and collaboration are important to make these relationships work. But I don’t recommend leaving anything to chance.

If you’re entering into these agency partnerships, especially if you’re a smaller agency seeking to partner with a large agency, set some ground rules first. In fact, if you’re going to actively pursue these relationships, have a strategy just as you would have a strategy for pursuing marketers.

Don’t know where to start? You might want to start here, with a post I wrote a few months ago in which I offer some ideas on what a new business strategy might look like at each stage of the sales cycle.

I want to thank The Drum for putting on a great event, especially Melanie ShahTalloulah MatthewsVictoria Celaschi, and Diane Young for including me as a speaker. I’d recommend Pitch Perfect to any agency looking to keep their biz dev skills sharp. Check out the event page from this year and get yourself on the mailing list for 2018.