If you read my last post, you remember I offered this idea of agency business development as a three-legged stool: The first leg is a persuasive value proposition, the second represents the skills and confidence to usher the deal to a close, and the third is lead generation.

If the first two legs are weak, you can’t expect the third leg to prop the whole thing up.

I shared these thoughts with my friend and colleague Mark Duval. He runs Duval Partnership, a firm that offers outsourced prospecting and lead generation to agencies. He generously shared his thoughts on what makes an agency prospecting campaign successful as well as some misconceptions and skewed expectations that he routinely comes up against.   

Jody Sutter: OK, Mark, I’m going to start at the beginning. What are the indications you look for in an agency that you’ll be successful in generating leads for them?

Mark Duval: The first is, of course, a strong strategic positioning. They have to be able to clearly articulate why they’re different from the tens of thousands of other agencies out there.

I also look for an ability to demonstrate expertise in one or two verticals, a capacity for problem-solving, and a willingness (or an ability) to share results. Too many agencies are focused on creative deliverables or ideas and don’t spend enough time demonstrating tangible business results. But, if you can’t demonstrate to prospects that you have generated business results for a company like theirs, why should they do business with you?

JS: Can you give me an example?

MD: A traditional example would be case studies that demonstrate clear business outcomes which are aligned with client needs. Like gaining market share. I’m not talking about fluffy marketing metrics. I don’t mean social media “likes” and follows, ad impressions, or even website visits. What is the next action consumers take that impacts revenue? How does the social media and online interest translate to profit?

JS: What else do you look for?

MD: A strong body of work, obviously (although that can be subjective). I look for well-developed case studies, since they showcase many things: a strong process, strategy, knowledge of a business category, technical skill, and results. I want to know what content they are creating around thought leadership—that’s where an agency can really differentiate itself.

I also look for the right balance between vision and pain. Unfortunately, I can’t take credit for that phrase, but it perfectly encapsulates the state of an agency that’s ready to be successful with outbound prospecting.

JS: I love that, “a balance between vision and pain.” Can you elaborate on what that means to you?

 MD: In other words, I want to see that an agency has a clear and compelling vision of how they want to grow (revenue, types of clients, types of projects). That vision must co-exist with some distress, whether that distress is due to an empty pipeline or consistently poor performance in pitch meetings. It can’t be so much distress that they are in panic mode and the ship is already sinking. Because business development only moves so fast. They have to be doing some things right but have room for improvement. That’s where we can really make a difference for our agency clients.

JS: That’s a great description. What does it look like when that balance of vision and pain isn’t there?

MD: Sometimes that occurs when agency leaders are overly secure in their vision. That’s not to say their vision is “wrong,” but if it’s not well-developed or on-point, it’s often because the leadership is somewhat closed to new ideas or outside input. It usually indicates some resistance to change or unwillingness to think critically about where their agency is going. In the past, that has translated to an agency not being as collaborative or as open to our contributions as we need for success because our business is based on a partnership model with ongoing communication.

The other way it can be out of balance is when the pain is too acute. It’s a mistake to think that any agency new business provider has the power to resurrect an agency that’s neglected their business development for too long. In that case, the agency would need results too quickly for new business development to be a viable solution. The sales cycle from lead generation to closed business is too long. Not to mention, if they are in such distress, they often have much bigger issues in terms of leadership, operations, positioning, perhaps internally with employee and client satisfaction, and maybe even in the quality of work. Those aren’t all things a new business program will fix. So you end up in a situation where the agency is desperate to close new business but also much less likely to.

JS: What specifically do you look for when you’re judging the fit of an agency for services?

MD: I ask myself, “do they have a focus?” That might be specializing in a service area or focusing on a business category where they’ve seen success. In my experience, the more focused they are, the greater success my team will have in identifying and converting the right leads for them.

I also look for a quality to their work that will allow them to break through.

And I look for a website that’s concise and compelling. Does it help me understand what they do? Is it client-centric? In other words, does the agency tell a bigger story about the problems they solve or do they treat their website as a way to play the agency’s “greatest hits”? 

JS: Have you ever turned down a potential client because they didn’t meet those standards?

MD:  Absolutely. It’s not good for me or them if I don’t believe I can help them generate new business.

JS: Tell me a bit about the expectations the agencies have when they want to work with you. What are they and how do you manage them?

MD: They come with a lot of expectations and, as long as the expectations are based on facts, I’ll be able to manage them. Every agency’s outcome is different because what each agency has to offer is different. Their skill at closing new business and the degree to which they accept our help with that varies. But we are very good at setting expectations for the results we deliver in a given time frame based on what we’ve done for other clients. We are very upfront; if a client’s expectations are unrealistic, we will say so, and why, while providing them with some benchmarks for what we think is realistic.

Look, it doesn’t make sense for an agency to declare it wants 300% growth if it’s not based on a realistic assessment of where they are now and where they were last year. I’ve had agencies with grand expectations for new business growth when they haven’t tracked their prior KPIs and don’t even know what the average length of their sales cycle is. It’s like me saying “I want to be a point guard for the New York Knicks.” It’s just not going happen! Agency new business is not magic.

I’m also wary of agency leaders that tell me, “just get me in the room and I’ll close.” If it were that easy, they’d already be in the room.

JS: That’s a perfect transition to my next question. When you do get an agency team in the room with the client, what do they need to do not to blow it? 

MD: A lot of agencies think they just need to show great creative, but I think great creative is table stakes.  

What they really need is to establish equal control in the dance with the client. They need a sales process and a good questioning strategy.  

What I observe too often are agencies that are willing to let the client control everything. They’re too cautious about asking smart questions. They fear they’ll alienate the client, which is a mistake because they should be vetting the client as much as the client is vetting them.

I talk a lot with my clients about making sure they establish equal business stature in the meeting. To be clear, that doesn’t mean you should go in with a “me-centric” attitude and a big ego. It simply means that you should understand the value of what you can bring to the partnership and that this relationship either has the potential to work well for both parties, or it doesn’t.

JS: I see that all the time too—the agency relinquishing all the control to the client. It’s like this weird “client is always right” mentality that’s a legacy from back in the days when our business wasn’t as complex, I guess. Why do you think that is?

MD: When an agency has a limited pipeline they feel like they don’t have the luxury of saying “no.” They back themselves into a corner. I think they sometimes need or want the new business so much that they don’t look at the opportunity critically enough, seeing only what they hope it can be rather than evaluating it for what it is. This is so short-sighted and damaging for agencies because the wrong client can end up costing them more in resources than its worth.

JS: How do they avoid getting backed into this corner?

MD: It goes back to what we said at the beginning of our conversation. Agencies have to start with: 

  • A strong positioning

  • Demonstrable expertise in one or two verticals

  • A capacity for problem-solving

  • A willingness or ability to share results

 Additionally, they have to track their KPIs and understand their business enough to know which type of clients and projects are worth their time and which ones aren’t. It is just as important to be able to say “no” to the wrong opportunities as it is to attract and close the right ones.

 JS: What is the most common misconception that agencies have about the work you do?

MD: It’s probably a misplaced emphasis on quantity of meetings.

Usually, the answer isn’t more meetings; it’s the right meetings. In fact, it’s likely there will be fewer meetings if they’re with the right kinds of clients—clients that have authority over agency selection. 

That’s an important point. It’s usually a waste of everyone’s time when an agency is meeting with someone who doesn’t have the power to say “yes”. A lot of meetings on the calendar may feel reassuring to agency leaders, but that feeling is fleeting after they sink a lot of time and have little to show for it.

JS: How do you describe your ideal client?

MD: An ideal client for us is an agency that’s willing to do their share of the work. That is, the agency comes to the relationship prepared with a strong story and the materials to back it up. It doesn’t work when an agency thinks they can simply give us the keys to the proverbial car. It has to be a collaborative partnership.

JS: Totally agree. It’s a mistake for an agency to think that just because they’re offloading a job they aren’t good and don’t enjoy doesn’t mean it’s going to be successful without a great sales story. Plus, they have to know what they’re going to do with those leads once they get them, right? Do they have the systems and techniques to effectively close that business? Luckily, that’s what I’m here to help them do!

MD: We work directly with a lot of agency leaders but we really like when there’s a director of business development involved. The business development folks are more likely to understand the need to collaborate and keep the lines of communication open. They tend to be more responsive to our needs. When a prospect is looking for information, it’s crucial to provide it in a timely manner. This is something that many agencies struggle with, and our experience is that when there is a new business director there is a faster response time.

JS: Mark, thank you so much for sharing all this! It’s been great to get your insights.

 MD: Thank you, Jody! This has been fun.


If your agency is ready to commit to a serious outbound prospecting effort, you might want to learn more about Duval Partnership at www.duvalpartnership.com.

But, if you’re not convinced your story is compelling, then first check out some of my programs, like the Fast-track Agency Audit. This is an intensive workshop that gets you answers to three simple but deceptively difficult questions: what are you selling, who are you selling it to, and how are you selling it? Getting this foundation in place first is crucial if you want your investment in outbound prospecting to pay off. Contact me to learn more.