Earlier this week, I happened upon this interview with Seth Godin. In it, he and his interviewer, content marketing expert Sonia Simone, got to talking about implied stories.

Anyone who’s followed my posts for a while knows I’m a bit obsessed with storytelling and its role agency new business. The more I learn about the psychology of storytelling, the more convinced I am that it’s an agency’s secret weapon for converting the rights kinds of prospects into new business leads. Here’s why:

Agencies don’t sell tangible goods (at least most don’t); they sell abstract services. The value you and your competitors provide is embedded in your ideas, how you got to those ideas, and what you’re going to do with those ideas. That’s abstract stuff.

An abstract thing is hard to sell. You can’t pick it up and show it to someone, saying “check this out—ours is bigger and better (or shinier, or faster or sharper…) than the one you’ve got now.”

Given this challenge, you’d think agencies might equip themselves to overcome it by fostering more of a sales culture. Most of them don’t (although I admit I’m making a broad generalization—there are agencies out there that buck this stereotype and have mastered a level of discipline and focus around selling).

This often results in putting someone in a business development role who is too junior and then, when that doesn’t work, overcompensating by hiring a seasoned sales pro. In both cases, those individuals don’t get the support they need to do an effective job, and everyone ends up disappointed. The new business person gets fired and you’re left still trying to figure out the best way to grow your agency.

You can break this punishing cycle by discovering your own innate abilities to be persuasive. The best place to start is by reacquainting yourself with your own compelling story.

I won’t kid you—sometimes I have to sharpen my own tools of persuasion to convince my clients that this isn’t just a frivolous exercise. In fact, it’s a short-cut to discovering your unique competitive edge.

When you’re clear on your competitive advantage, new business is no longer a dreaded chore. In fact, you might find yourself looking forward to it, or you may even find it becomes such a natural part of running your agency you don’t even realize you’re doing it.

It’s also going to cure you of the addiction to jargon and empty generalizations that many agencies use as blunt objects in an attempt to get a prospect’s attention. Since I’ve written and spoke on this a bunch elsewhere, I’ll get back to the point about implied stories

What are they anyway?

Implied stories are representations or symbolic versions of your agency’s compelling story. As Simone puts it:

“We tell a business story with our tone of voice on a podcast, and the color choices on our website. Our pricing, our response time, our “Contact Me” form … they all come together to tell the story of your business.”

This makes sense to you, right? You probably counsel your clients about this all the time. Brands get expressed in numerous ways – don’t dilute the messages with inconsistencies.

But, how consistent are you in expressing your brand in all the ways (and more) that she mentions?

More importantly, are these brand expressions truly grounded in an authentic and compelling story? Or was your imagery style or color palette chosen (consciously or subconsciously) because your creative director liked them and because it reminded you of that larger rival who always seems to be in the news?

Ask yourself: is the investment you’ve made in your own arsenal of branding elements paying off for you? Could they be doing a better job of reinforcing your story?

In the podcast, Godin goes on to say:

“We tell a story whether we think we are telling a story or not. In business, we’re often telling the story of ‘I am profoundly uncomfortable, and I’m going to rely on the base level of facts…’ ”

When I heard this, I thought, “wow, that sounds like a lot of agency pitches.” That’s not exactly true, because agencies try to relieve that profound sense of discomfort by tszuj-ing things up a little with all-too-common descriptors like “innovative,” “relentless,” “consumer-centric,” and “passionate.” Unfortunately, those terms do little to help your case because they don’t tell the client anything of value. They are effective at lumping you in with all your competitors since they usually succumb to the same-sounding pitch too.

And what about this profound discomfort? When it comes to agencies and agency leaders like the CEO, I wonder if that discomfort is chalked up to an impression that stories are too easy or not professional enough. Or, there’s an erroneous impression that the prospective client on the other side of the desk won’t accept the story without a recitation of the base level of facts (“we have these clients,” “we have this process,” “we perform these services,” “we’ve won these awards”).

And, in fact, the client on the other side of the desk may not accept your story. That’s OK. If your story is true and authentic, but doesn’t make a connection, then that client was probably wrong for you to begin with.

What I can promise you is that telling your story well, whether in a straightforward narrative or implied through your website, your agency’s dress code, your office space, or even how your receptionist (if you still have one) answers the phone, will make developing new business easier. 

  • Your ideal clients will feel an immediate connection
  • You’ll have more confidence in the value you offer
  • Your team will be more invested and less burnt-out
  • It guides you toward the right decisions about whether to pitch an account or pass
  • You’ll make pitch presentations that are more focused and persuasive

If you want to discover how to make business development easier for your agency, consider signing up for a Fast-track Agency Audit. It’ll give you a blast of clarity around three crucial but difficult questions to answer:

What are we selling?

Who are we selling it to?

How are we selling it?

Plus, you'll get a custom plan for building a successful, sustainable new business operation. In other words, it’ll be easier to find and win the right kinds of business for your agency.

To learn more, click here.