An agency that isn’t in control of its narrative places that control in the hands of the prospect, and that prospect doesn’t have the best interests of the agency in mind. 

This month I got to speak in front of two different groups of small agency leaders about the characteristics shared by agencies that are successful at winning new business.

When I prepare these talks, I confess to moments of doubt and anxiety over my content. Most of my advice is, at its root, based on common sense. Therefore, I’m always prepared for a rogue agency owner in the audience to challenge me to tell them something they don’t already know.

This rarely happens.

Agency leaders lose sight of common-sense tactics that win new business. It’s understandable for numerous reasons. For one, agency leaders have a lot on their minds and business development competes for their attention. And, almost universally, agencies lose objectivity. They get too close to their subject matter or too intent on the effort of winning that they don’t often take the time to step back and take a critical look at their approach.

As a result, I help them press the reset button and I reinforce the basics while also giving them new ways to apply them.

One commonsense point I made in these recent talks was how important it is for an agency to master its story. Those of you who are loyal followers of my content (thanks to you both!) know that I’m a firm believer in the power of story to strengthen a sales pitch, from the moment a prospect lands on your website for the first time to the final presentation.

I envision my audience saying to themselves, “Yeah, yeah, storytelling. We got that. It’s what we do for our clients every day.”

And yet, here’s the kind of stuff I see all the time –

  • An agency professes to be an expert in marketing for challenger brands yet shows a preponderance of category leaders on their client list.

  • Or, a firm claims its “people are the difference”, but doesn’t offer team bios on its website. (By the way, your people are never a differentiator. Unless your team is moonlighting at other agencies, the people are always different.)

  • Or, the small boutique creative shop started by a former big agency creative director that lays claim to agility and nimbleness, while also presenting a long, front-loaded discovery process

In all these cases, the story simply doesn’t back up the claim.

Or, the story is overly general and vague, which makes it hard to understand. This is where those enticing words and phrases like “relentless”, “passionate” and “consumer at the core” do you more harm than good.

It’s not rocket science; it’s brain science

Lack of mastery over your story isn’t just about not communicating well. It’s more perilous than that. Here’s why –

Storytelling is an essential tool that every human being uses, all day, every day, to make sense of the world around us.

When the story is clear (“Half-price designer shoes! Limited time only!”), our brains don’t have to work hard to understand the message. When the story is muddy or confusing (“We’re a passionate team of professionals who relentlessly put the consumer at the core of all we do.”), our brains will do their best to fill in the gaps with specifics. And, if it’s too difficult, we’ll give up and move on to the next thing.

Here’s another example –

A prospective client goes to an agency’s website. She visits the “work” section to check out a couple of case studies. She looks at only two out of the six or so that are there. One is for a bank, the other for an insurance company. Then she leaves, having formed the impression that the agency is a “financial services” shop. It's of no consequence to her that the other four cases are examples of work for luxury products or retail or fast-moving consumer goods. She’s drawn her conclusion and it will be difficult to disabuse her of it.

That agency just lost all control over its narrative and placed it in the hands of its prospect, who doesn’t have its best interests in mind.

Lessons from one agency search consultant

Going back to my usual moment of doubt, this time I was vindicated by the insights of an expert who is all too familiar with the minds of marketers. Matt Ryan is CEO of agency search consultancy Roth Ryan Hayes. Not long ago, he did his own talk in front of a group of agency leaders for the 4As (and which the 4As has generously made available to the public here).

He was offering tips on how to win a process-driven agency review. Because supply always exceeds demand, he says, an agency must “be known for something.” He made this comment while discussing how his firm builds what he calls “long, long-lists” of agencies early on in the process. At this stage, he wants his clients to have the benefit of reviewing a generous pool of qualified options. (And, by the way, this is before any agencies are contacted so those agencies in the pool are unaware they’re being considered.)

And he’s very clear about how his firm does it. For each agency, he provides his clients with a description that includes the agency name, location, website URL, brief info about the executive team, and concludes with this sentence:

“Agency is known for _____________.”

What would you want to be filled in that blank to ensure you’re not eliminated in this early round of consideration?

More importantly, how does that contrast with what is likely to be inserted by someone like Matt Ryan based on the outward narrative you publicly share with the world?

As Ryan says, “be known for something. Almost anything.” Better to win some because you stand for something than to be eliminated because you’re leaving too many options. In a world where supply exceeds demand, the client isn’t going to give you the benefit of the doubt. Instead, they will take control of your narrative and eliminate those options for you.

What can you do to take back that control?

  1. Dare to be clear about what you do and whom you do it for. Yup, this means having a differentiated strategic position in the marketplace if you are interested in having a competitive edge in winning the new business you want to win.

  2. Be focused on something (almost anything), at least when it comes to proactively seeking new business. Good news–you have options on where you want to place your focus. Consider things like a business category, a service in which you excel, a demographic you know well, or even a professional point of view that separates you from the crowd.

  3. Review your sales and marketing materials regularly, especially the content that your prospects are exposed to early on in the sales process. You won’t get a second chance to make that first impression. You already know this if you’ve ever tried to convince someone like Matt Ryan to allow your agency into a process-driven review once the process has already begun.

  4. Get the perspective of an informed outsider. Hire me or someone like me to honestly yet constructively assess how you’re telling your story and where you can improve.

Think about the people on the receiving end of your pitch.

They’re flawed human beings—just like me and you. They simply want to find the right agency partner and they want to do it with the least disruption to their day job. And, to assist them, their brains are going to instinctively look for a narrative to make sense of the overabundance of choices before them. Don’t make their job harder. Or, worse, don’t hand the opportunity to a competitor who makes it easier.

Control your narrative. Control the pitch.