Whether we like it or not, the end of the year is fast approaching and a new one is close behind it.
Have you started thinking about your agency’s new business plans for next year yet?
I’ve seen—and created—my fair share of annual new business plans. Some were good, some not so good. The good ones were more recalibrations than wholesale reinventions. They built on successes, plotted a clear direction, course corrected away from mistakes, and had just enough stretch goals to keep things exciting. Plus, they actually offered a plan, not just a statement of hopes and dreams, and everyone understood their role in the plan’s success.
The bad ones?
They were overly complicated, sank too much time in navel-gazing analysis of the marketplace and competitors, lacked clear direction, and were overly ambitious. And they were likely to be under-executed or not executed at all.
What a waste.
I sometimes wonder if agency leaders hide behind the activity of planning. It sure feels like you’re moving forward, but there’s a point of diminishing returns where the planning becomes an excuse to postpone the doing.
I’ve always been curious about why that is—I’ve seen this tendency in myself as much as I have in others. What holds agency leaders back from the doing part?
Time, or lack of it, is the usual suspect. There always seem to be myriad priorities that get in the way of those commitments to pursuing agency business development goals. But I think there are also some powerful mental blocks that we don’t consider enough but should.
Here are three that might be standing between you and those big, hairy, audacious goals for growing your agency next year (plus some strategies you can use to eliminate them).
Fear of rejection
You’re selling stuff every day, whether it’s coaxing your kids to eat breakfast or convincing your team to use new project management software.
Selling puts us in a vulnerable position. There’s always a risk that you’ll be unable to persuade the other party to buy what you’re selling. When it comes to your kids or your team, you’ve got the leverage of your authority on your side.
When it comes to a prospective client, you’ve got the leverage of your expertise.
The problem is, in many cases, the client doesn’t know that yet. To them, you’re just one of dozens of agencies they’ve already heard from this week, none of which did a persuasive job of convincing them it was worth their time to meet with them.
We don’t like this feeling of vulnerability. In fact, it’s deeper than just dislike. It’s closer to straight-up fear.
To avoid the fear, we might convince ourselves to stay in our safe place and keep doing whatever it is we’ve been doing (or not doing), no matter how unsatisfying or unproductive it is. Or to make one more round of revisions to the new business plan.
The solution is to get clear about the value you offer and be comfortable with your role as an expert.
In other words, no marketer has ever woken up at 3am in a panic thinking “oh man, I really need a collaborative agency partner to take my marketing to the next level.”
Instead, they worry about launching a new product, or a TikTok influencer posting something disastrously inappropriate, or how to reach gamers, or how to prove a campaign was effective so that they don’t lose dollars from their budget next year.
The good news is that you know how to alleviate some of these problems. And when you focus more on the problems you solve, you step more confidently into the role of an expert—and your prospects want to work with the experts.
Stop making it about you and make it about them – or, rather, what you know about them, which is probably substantial. Shift your thinking from what you offer to what they need. With just that mental adjustment, you go from feeling needy and vulnerable to being of service. Plus, it relieves the sting of rejection because if one marketer doesn’t need what you do, another one will. No biggie, just move on to the next qualified prospect.
2. Not knowing where to start and what’s going to pay off
Good news! You have so many choices for promoting your agency and attracting new business:
Drip email campaigns
Email and phone outreach…and the list goes on.
Oh, wait, this is terrible news.
There’s just so much you could do that it’s downright overwhelming. Where do you start? And how do you know whether any of these tactics are going to pay off for you.
It’s another reason agencies stay stuck in the rut of responding to whatever RFPs come their way or relying on that terrible client who you would fire if they weren’t such a cash cow. The devil you know…
But that’s not how you control your new business destiny. Instead, you do it with a plan that’s right for you built on a foundation made up of three basic parts:
Your goals for new business growth
Your expert point-of-view
Your personal strengths and the strengths of your team
In my experience, the third one is often overlooked. Growth goals by their nature tend to be ambitious and optimistic. I got nothin’ against ambition, but you’ll only end up frustrated and disappointed if you fail to marshal the right resources.
And it’s got to start from the top
In my opinion, if you’re the owner or CEO of a small agency, you are the best business development resource your agency has. That doesn’t mean you’re the only resource, but you must take the lead.
And if you feel wholly unsuited to that task?
It probably means you’re focused on doing the wrong things.
The trick is to identify your new business strengths and build an ecosystem of support around them.
Do you love addressing big groups but hate the idea of a one-to-one conversation with a stranger? Build a plan around speaking at events where you’ll find your ideal clients rather than a plan that depends on cold introductions.
Are you an introvert filled with transformative ideas or insights? Focus on content creation and recruit an organized and outgoing team member to consistently distribute that content and build you an audience.
A plan that leverages your strengths is a plan that’s focused and is likely to get executed.
3. “Will I just end up back here next year?”
We start each new year with great hope and yet somewhere along the way we lose momentum. Unexpected events redirect our attention. At these times, putting new business on the back burner seems the sensible thing to do.
And then, you end the year realizing you’re in the exact same place you started (or worse, you’ve lost ground). It’s easy to feel defeated, especially if this is a pattern you put yourself and your team through year after year.
One of the reasons why I think new business goals get neglected is because the objectives can be so abstract.
As I said earlier, we like to peg time as the problem (except when an invitation to pitch a monster piece of business comes your way. Then you’ll pull as many all-nighters as necessary, right?) but I believe it has more to do with the gap between the abstract goals and how the hell you’re going to reach them.
Annual new business plans are filled with broad statements like:
Increase in new business revenue by X%
Be the most sought-after agency in a geographic market or business sector
Become an expert at pitching national brands
Break into a new category
These are all perfectly fine objectives! But what’s the path for getting there?
Too often the answer seems to depend on equally abstract activities, like dedicating more time or redoubling efforts or embedding a positive attitude towards new business into the agency culture.
The problem is that “breaking into a new category” is rarely broken down into the specific steps an agency must take to get there. Those steps might include
Redesigning or updating your website and case studies to appeal to a new audience
Attending—or even speaking at—the right events
Building a list of prospects in the category
Creating new strategic alliances
And if you’re like most small agencies, your resources are limited so you must prioritize and focus on two to three projects at a time. For each, define the discrete set of tasks that are required (at least the first few tasks), assign someone responsibility, and set a deadline for when those actions will be taken.
This is the true purpose of an annual new business plan! It should support you with a framework that says, “this is what we’re doing today (or next month or next quarter) in order to get us to our goals.”
New business is an inexact science. There’s a lot you can’t control, so why not control what you can?
Next year? It’s going to be different.
I think your new business plan for next year is going to look different from the past.
This year, clear away the unproductive mental habits and create a plan that gets done because it:
Is clear about who your ideal clients are and the problems you help them alleviate
Plays to your strengths and the strengths of your team
Bridges the gap between where you are today and how you’re going to get to where you want to be this time next year