As times change, so must agencies. AMI does some research every summer and in talking to CMOs across the country, it’s been very clear that clients are no longer interested in only working with just one agency anymore. In fact, our study showed that over 50% of them want to work with multiple agencies, allowing each other to do what they do best but not letting them run the show. In learning how to be a part of that blended family team, there is opportunity.

That’s just one of the topics that I chatted about with my podcast guest, Tom Martin. He helps agencies take advantage of that opportunity. He gets them to the place where the client sees them as the ultimate partner, a consigliere, if you will, versus the guys that just execute ad strategies. He finds that the real money is in becoming a partner who can think, ideate and grow a client’s business.  

But how do you find those partner clients? He does all of this through his system of Painless Prospecting where you wake up, open your inbox, and there’s a lead waiting for you instead of having to go create that lead. It’s investing in your agency to build not tomorrow’s lead, but the lead that’s six months or a year down the road.

Tom and I dig into the nuts and bolts of this with:

  • How prospecting for new business has changed over the years
  • Why clients no longer believe in hiring just one agency
  • How to define your value to your clients when delivering ideas instead of “stuff”
  • Correctly positioning your agency in the days when your client first discovers you
  • Painless Prospecting: how to get great leads to find you
  • Can Painless Prospecting for New Business work for generalists?
  • The risks of delegating the Painless Prospecting process
  • What your content has to do for your Painless Prospecting process to work
  • Why giving away your secret sauce is never going to implode your business
  • Tom’s propinquity theory on marketing today
  • What you can do right now to get started on the business development path discussed in this episode

Tom Martin, author of “Invisible Sale,” has been in the agency life for many years. He has spent 20 years driving new business for agencies. In 2010, he created Converse Digital, an agency that focuses on doing business differently.

To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site ( and grab either the iTunes or Stitcher files or just listen to it from the web.

If you’d rather just read the conversation, the transcript is below:

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Build a Better Agency where we show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invested employees and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of expertise as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.  

Drew: Hey everybody, thanks for checking out this episode of Build a Better Agency. I am Drew McLellan and I am raring to go today. This is a topic that I love to talk about and I know you love to talk about. Every agency owner loves to explore the idea of chasing down, and attracting, and winning more business. So, that’s why I knew our guest today is gonna really knock it out of the park for you. So, let me tell you a little bit about our guest, Tom Martin. Many of you are familiar with Tom. I hope you’ve all read his book, The Invisible Sale. If you haven’t, make sure that that gets on the top of your reading list very soon.  

Tom has been an agency guy for many years. Spent about 20 years in the agency business on the agency side, mostly driving new business for those agencies and in 2010 decided to create Converse Digital. And now he works with agencies, he works with clients directly, but he’s really focusing on the whole idea of agencies having to do new business differently which is a conversation I’ve had with many of you over the years. And so Tom has developed a framework that he calls Painless Prospecting.  So, we’re gonna dig into that, and gosh knows probably several other things as well. So Tom, welcome to the podcast.

Tom: Hey man, thanks for having me, Drew. Always good to talk with you.  

Drew: You as well. So, anything in your intro that I left out? Anything else that the listeners need to know about you?

Tom: That I favor a stiff cocktail in good debates, but that’s about it. Other than that, you covered it all.

Drew: And anyone who follows you anywhere in social media knows those things about you already, right?

Tom: Yeah. Usually, they go together. The more stiff drinks, the better the debate.

Drew: There’s usually a good whisky photo somewhere in your Facebook feed throughout the week, so I can always count on that.

Tom: Well, you know, the beauty of doing a lot of work in the liquor space, you know, I’m exposed to a lot of liquor. So, you have to support the clients that support you. That’s my thoughts for…

Drew: You have to embrace it. That’s right. It would be disingenuous to do anything else.  

Tom: Absolutely.

Drew: Yeah. So let’s talk about prospecting for new business. Let’s sort of go broad and then narrow in. So, you’ve been doing new business for agencies for now 25 years when I look at sort of your resume. How has it changed?

Tom: I think it’s…well, you know, in some ways, it’s not changed at all and in some ways it’s changed dramatically. I think it just depends on the agency that you’re looking at. You know, clients are still doing the RFP thing though it seems to me, I don’t know, maybe you can weigh in as well. It does seem that clients are starting to realize the RFP process maybe isn’t the absolute best way to hire a marketing partner. I think they’re also moving away from AOR relationships, though I think that may start to swing back the other direction. And therefore they’re kind of more sourcing knowledge experts or vertical experts and then bringing those people in. To me, that’s sort of the biggest change that you’re seeing. It’s not just, “Oh, I’m gonna replace my AOR with an AOR and I’m gonna do an RFP.” And that’s how it’s gonna happen.

Drew: You know, AMI does some research every summer and then we unveil that content at BOLO every year. But for the last couple of years, we’ve been talking to CMOs and it’s been very clear in both the ‘14 and ‘15 research that clients are really not very interested in only working with one agency anymore. They don’t really like the AOR model. They really want to bring, as you say, they’re looking for experts in sort of key deliverable areas and they expect those agencies to play nice together.

Tom: Yeah, I think they don’t believe that any one agency can truly deliver everything they need. Just the breadth of what marketing has become with the channels in the digital and even the consumer scene in the way that consumers have changed. And a lot of the clients, you know, even our own clients, we were never an AOR for any of our clients. You know, oftentimes, they’ll just tell me, they’re like, “I don’t think there’s any one agency out there that can do everything I need.” And so they tend to be tilting more towards a sort of a consortium model, if you will, or they have a group of agencies. But then they at least, in the roles that we have with a lot of our clients, we serve as a sort of Master Overseer agency consigliere to the client. And then a sort of master, you know, let’s make sure everybody is pointing in the same direction and let’s make sure that ideas are being cross-pollinated.  And let’s make sure that agencies are playing nice together, and leveraging off of one another instead of competing.  And helping the agencies understand that the way you’re gonna grow is not by picking each other’s business off. It’s gonna be because the client, which this particular client has many brands, you know, that client’s gonna start adding brands to the consortium and that’s how all boats will rise, that’s how it’s going to work.

Drew: Yeah. I think right now that’s where a lot of agency owners are struggling. Number one, you know, when I’m with agencies or agency owners or account execs and I say, “Hey, let’s go around the room, everybody tell me about your agency.” The sentence “full service integrated agency” comes out of everybody’s mouth and I think you’re right. One of the things that our research is showing us is that clients call BS on that. They’re like, you know, you’re 12 people, how can you possibly be an expert in everything? Or you’re 20 people, or you’re 50 people, or you’re 100 people. You can’t know it all. There’s too much today. And so I really do want subject matter experts and I think agencies are really having a hard time reconciling that idea and learning how to play nice, but, you know, to your point, I think, when you learn how to be a part of sort of that blended family team, there is opportunity. They are both within the client, but also these have the potential to be great partners that can also bring you in a new business because you do have a different expertise than they do.

Tom: Absolutely. I think the hardest thing that, at least in my firm, that when I made the decision that I was going to systematically try to pull out of the execution side of our business, and really just focus on being that strategic mind and helping clients ideate and solve problems differently. You know, that was really tough because clients actually are, even though they say they want strategy, they really pay for execution.

Drew: Yeah. They wanna buy stuff.

Tom: Yeah. They wanna buy a deliverable. They want…and when you’re the “strategy team”, deliverables are far and few between. They’re hard to put an ROI on the quality of an idea and so forth. So, it’s scary because it’s a much harder sell. It’s easy just to go, “Yeah, yeah, we can do that.” You know, because then I can deliver something. I can bill for it and mark it up and all that. So, I think it’s just naturally, it’s scary. I think for any agency to say no to business because we’re always worried that we might not have another lead or another client come through the door. So I get it. We all get it. But I think at some point, you have to sit down and ask yourself, you know, how believable is the statement I just made? Because I think clients are becoming really, really, really good at seeing through the bullshit.

Drew: Yeah, yeah. So in an age where ROI is everything and on the client side, they’re being pressured to demonstrate the value that they’re getting for the marketing dollars they’re spending with agencies. How do you when…now I’m asking you specifically about the work you do…how do you demonstrate value to a buyer who’s used to holding up stuff and saying, “Look what I bought,” and now you’re giving them ideas or strategies. How are you delivering value or how are you defining value for them on that?

Tom: You know, it’s interesting. I find that the value…you know, there is a certain amount of a thing.  Like we had a client that says, “You know, look here, you’re our big idea people, you’re the ones that are supposed to be bringing us these macro multi-channel ideas.” And sometimes that deliverable is I had…you know, she and I were on a trip and I pulled out a deck and I said, “All right, let’s walk through this while we have the next two hours together on an airplane.” So, in that case, there was a deliverable, there was a set of ideas.  And you know her ROI was, does she feel that these ideas are fundamentally better than the other ideas she’s getting from her various marketing partners? And then, how is she valuing that? You know, are they multichannel? Are they super expensive to try? Or can we test them first and then sort of scale them up if they find traction? You know, things of that nature.  

So for us, it’s about understanding, you know, how does a client value ideas? What is sort of their little checklist that they’re checking to see if an idea is valuable or worthy? And then building ideas that fit into their particular framework. And really just being…the other thing I find is that I’ll hear a client say things like, “I feel better after you and I talk.” Or you’ll get on the phone with them and they’re really stressed out, by the end of the call, they just…you know, you can tell there’s a little lightness in their voice, they feel better.  

You know, I don’t know if a client can quantify that value back to me. I’ll find out the next time I have to go up for contract or rate negotiation. If I get a lot of pushback, then maybe, you know they’re not valuing, but if I push a number across the table and I don’t really get a lot of pushback, then I know okay then that’s…I’m valuing what I’m selling you at the rate you’re valuing what you’re buying. It’s a much softer thing. I think it’s a much harder thing, because you’ve got to constantly be proactively bringing that value to them and bringing them new ideas, and bringing them things they can use, and moving their business forward. It’s a very proactive style of engagement which I think is harder in some ways. But, you know, if you can get to it, I think it allows you to be in a place with a client that’s just a lot more structured and a lot much stable, because it’s back to those early days that we all wished we could get to where the agency truly was the marketing partner. You know, was really that…”I’m going to my agent. I’m not making a move without my agency guys weighing in on this”. And, man, if you can get to that, it’s a beautiful place.

It takes, I think, some time and some very concerted effort to get there and I think a little bit of that is what you and I always talk about when we chat about. It goes all the way back to business development. How do you position your agency in the very early days when a client first discovers you because that…the way you’re positioning, I think, sets the stage for whether or not you can realistically get to that place with a client where they see you as that ultimate partner.  That consigliere as I call it, versus just, you know, you’re the guys that execute ad strategies and you guys build ad campaigns or websites or whatever it is you do.

Drew: Well, and I think too, and this is gonna lead us right into, I believe, the whole idea of Painless Prospecting for New Business. But it’s about being really clear about who you are because there are some clients, even for your shop, there are some clients who they don’t want to buy what you sell, they want to buy execution, they wanna buy SEO expertise or whatever it is and you’re a bad fit for them.

Tom: I’ve got clients who…literally, I have a client right now that, you know, is having some troubles with finding an agency that really matches well with her.  And while she has been searching, she’s in between shops. Like my team has been stepping up and doing the execution, and frankly, you know, all the modesty aside, doing a really good job with it.  And to the point where I’ve even kind of said, “Well, why don’t you just let us continue to do it? I mean, we’re doing a great job, you’re happy with the work, it’s good stuff.” And she looks at me and goes, “I don’t want you doing it. That’s not my role for you. I like that you’re the strategy guy. I like that you don’t have any skin in the game. And when you tell me I should do something, I never have to worry about, well, you know, how much of that is because he wants to make money on that and how much of that is because he really thinks that’s what’s right for me.”

And so, you know, it’s kind of funny, the way I’ve positioned myself in my firm especially with this particular client, like it or not, I have pigeon holed myself into a place where she thinks, “This is what I’ve hired Converse Digital for”.  They are not the right firm and Tom’s not going to convince me they are.  So, okay, great.  I don’t even try.  But I think that that’s important … again, that’s scary.  

Because I’m like crud, now I can’t expand my … the easiest way to grow your profitability is to get bigger with the existing clients that you work with. That’s the age old model that we were all taught.  I cut myself off on that one.  But, at the same time, it’s kind of like well, that’s a really nice, well defined, place to be.  And if I’m going to talk to another client, and they are having some trouble justifying the fees for the service I can say, “Look, you know what? Here’s my client. Here’s her name and phone number. She’s always telling me, feel free to have prospective … go ask her. Ask her if she feels like she is getting the value from what we charge her and so forth.  She’ll tell you.”  

And so, it might make it easier to win more of that kind of business.  But that’s what it comes down to.  I think it is just that we as agencies have never been very good about sticking a stake in the ground.  We all like to be the generalist.  It’s where the model of our industry started.  It’s hard but, if you can force yourself to be defined and really stick to it, and treat like oh, that client needs that and we don’t really do that – let me cooperate.  Let me go find another firm in my space that …  Was it you and Jason Falls that were having that very conversation?     

Drew: Yep, yep.

Tom: … about cooperating?  Yeah, I knew that I had just heard this on an earlier podcast.  

Drew: Yep, on an earlier podcast.

Tom: Yes. Yes, I knew it.  See, I do listen to your podcast.  

Drew: I love that. Now I owe you $20.  

Tom:  What you all were really talking about really was that cooperative of – hey, I really don’t do this.  How about I bring you into my client and then, you know, if you’ve got a client that I really do something well that you don’t, you bring me in and let’s let all boats rise.  

I think that’s a very powerful way to build business nowadays. It fits the client’s natural inclination. I think it actually helps those of us that are smaller, scale better and compete. But it does require you to be disciplined. It requires you to be really, really good and truly be best in breed at what you do and not just talk about it which…you know, that’s a whole other thing I think agencies are really guilty of.

Drew: Absolutely. We have taken the fake it till you make it probably to an extreme.

Tom: Yeah. Oh, definitely.

Drew: Yeah, but you know what? I see the financials of a lot of agencies and I will tell you that while it might have been at someday a luxury to be a specialist and people could get by with being generalists. I think marketing has gotten so complicated and so sophisticated.  And I think back to how it was even before you and I were in the business back in the 50s and 60s and really ridiculously small number of channels and all that to what it is today and the sophistication especially on the digital side. But the reality is it’s pretty tough for anybody to be a generalist. And on top of that, I’m telling you now when I look at the financials, the agencies that are hitting the best practice dashboards in their financial metrics are not the generalists. They’re the ones who are struggling and they are the ones who are struggling. They’re being so commoditized that they have to really make compromises and where they’re making compromises is in their profitability.

Tom: Yeah. Well, that execution is probably because…I think it’s probably about…a long time ago, probably five, six, seven years ago, I wrote a piece for Ad Age where I talked about, what was Agency 5.0 going to be? And, you know, in it, I talked about…I really did think the future of our industry was that you were going to have agencies that were going to elevate to that sort of strategic partner realm.  And then you were gonna have agencies that were gonna sort of go down the ladder and become really just executioners. And then they were gonna be the people who really cranked the machine and they were not gonna make as much money and they were not gonna have as big a profit margin. And it wasn’t going to be maybe as much fun because the real money was gonna be up in those people who really could think and ideate and make a client…you know, grow a client’s business.  

Drew: Yeah, right. Somebody who understands the client’s business, or the industry, or is sort of staying at that top level.

Tom: Yeah. You know, you’re kind of seeing a little bit of that. I think clients in a perfect world, they’d love to get an AOR again.  I know they say they don’t in research, but it’s a lot simpler to only have one’s team to call for everything. It makes your life easier. They just don’t believe that that AOR really exists.

Drew: Right. So, let’s talk about the whole idea of Painless Prospecting for new business. Give us a little idea of sort of…give us sort of the macro view of what that is and then let’s dig into it a little bit.

Tom: Well, the macro view is that, you know, when I started out in Biz Dev, my life was really my database that I was working in.  And I would say, “Oh, we wanna go work with company A and B and C,” and I did what all agencies do. I would call and direct mail, and send 3D clutter busters, and try to convince them to give us a shot. And Painless Prospecting really flips the model on its ear and says, “Well, you know, I’m gonna let the prospective client select me instead of me selecting the prospective client.  And I’m gonna do that by simply publishing, speaking and really presenting my ideas, and my thoughts, and my process isn’t how I think marketing works.  And really become known for knowledge.” Knowledge that can be found in a Google search or on a stage at a conference, you know, in a podcast, whatever.  That someone can listen to that and be intrigued, and then come back to a home base, my website, and where they can find years of writings and additional thoughts and white papers, etc. And they can really do their research the way you and I would like to do our research, which is without somebody looking over our shoulder.  And kind of figure out like, “Wow, these guys seem like they have a really good hold on a problem that I currently have that I’m not able to currently fix and none of my partners are able to fix.”

And then what happens is that results in an inbound email or a phone call with somebody saying, “Hey, can I talk to you? I have a problem I think you can maybe help me fix it.” And, you know, now I’m talking to a prospective client but I’m so far down the sales process. It’s really a yes or no. Can I really help you fix that? And if so, what’s the cost structure look like? And then okay, is that gonna work or not? And it’s just, you know, I wake up and I open my inbox, and there’s a lead there versus me having to wake up, open my inbox or my database, and go create that lead.

Drew: Okay, so now they’re all going, “Oh, that be awesome,” because as you know, every agency owner, they love to talk about new business but they don’t really love to do new business. And so the idea that they would open their email and magically there would be leads, I think you’ve got a couple of agency owners who are sitting at the edge of their chair and you have a couple that already have tears in their eyes. So, how does somebody actually do that? How do you make that happen?

Tom: Well, really two things. One is you have to take a long scale look at it. You know, you start a process like this and I’ve actually done some anecdotal research with other consultants and what we have found is that it’s gonna take you 9 to 12 months to really get a system like this to where it’s spinning out, you know, good leads for you. Because it’s just gonna take you time to really build your base of influence. But I think the core is that you really have to build a framework, and you have to approach this as a process, and you have to feed the beast.

You have to feed the new business machine with new content. You know, every…maybe not every day, but, you know, every week, and you have to just work the process, work the process, work the process, and believe that it’s going to actually spin out the desired outcome which is these leads. But you can’t give up on it. I think that’s what happens in the agency world, is folks give up on the process too fast.  Or, you know, then in a worst case scenario, it starts working, they start getting busy, and they take their foot off the machine that’s producing the leads and then all of a sudden, the leads go away.

Drew: Right. I think that is a big challenge, it’s sort of a feast or famine model of, you know, biggest client gives you some hints that maybe they’re going away so all of a sudden you scramble for new business.  You get a good sized new client which is all consuming. And then all of a sudden, you stop looking for other clients and you just cycle in and out, over and over and over again, which is a killer.

Tom: Yeah. And I think the beauty of this system is that in the five years, going on almost six years this spring, you know, I haven’t had to send any unsolicited direct mail or clutter busters or compete in a competitive pitch.  And granted, I’m a different model. I’m a small boutique. I’m not a big 50-person agency, so it’s different. But I haven’t had to do any of that stuff, because I started from the get go using a painless process of saying, “I’m gonna be known as the ad agency guy who understands social media and digital.” And if you want that perspective, if you want somebody who really has that 20 years of traditional experience and understands PR media and all that, but also can do this new digital stuff and you want somebody who’s going to give it to you and in a straight up, “Look, this is how this really works mentality, this is the team you call right here.” And then that works.

That’s what people want, they want to be able to do that. Now, I think for agencies, one of the biggest challenges…if you think about agencies, oftentimes they’re run by creative people or people who came out of the creative side of our business, which tend not to be framework process kind of folks.

Drew: Very nicely said.

Tom: Yeah, I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. It’s just true.  

Drew: Yes. It is not their thing.

Tom: It’s not how creativity works.  But even the account people who run agencies, oftentimes, they might be great account people but they’re not maybe necessarily great sales people. And you know, biz dev is a sales process and as much as you might hate that, make 100 calls, get 10 people to follow up, …. There is a process to sales and that’s all. It’s a different process that uses different tools and it’s a much easier process because you’re not cold calling and you’re not trying to get somebody to give you their attention. Instead, you’re just putting a lot of content out there.  You’re creating a name for yourself.  And you’re allowing people to self-select you. And that’s what ultimately makes it painless because, like I said, they already kind of know that they wanna do business with you or they think they might wanna do business with you. And so that first call is a completely different call than what most of us in the agency business are used to.

Drew: So, you mentioned earlier when you were talking about sort of how you positioned yourself that you’re an ad guy who really understands the digital and social space. Do you think a generalist can use this model or does this presuppose that the agency is willing to, in some way shape or form, define here’s who we are, which also defines here’s who we’re not?

Tom: I think they can…yeah, I think it defines…I think any agency can do it. You just have to decide, you know, what do you want to be? Who are you? Who are you not?

Drew: That’s what I’m saying. If an agency is unwilling to do that because it’s, you know, a lot of agencies really buck against…you know, they want to be a generalist. Does this work as well for a generalist or do you have to do some level of definition?

Tom: Well, I’ll tell you. It’s an interesting question. I think it can work at a generalist level, but it’s different.  Because at a generalist level, you’re gonna have to say, “Okay, the only way I can make this truly believable is I’m gonna have to then position the heads of my various service offerings – media, creative strategy, digital, whatever, okay?” You’re gonna have to position those folks as the thought leaders, they’re known for knowledge. So, you’re not really going to be positioning necessarily so much at an agency level, you’re gonna be positioning more at that person’s level. And if you want them, you have to hire the agency they work for. If they are owners of the firm, then that’s not a big deal.  It’s when they’re not owners of the firm that you start to create an opportunity for some really interesting things that can happen.  Because now, all of a sudden, you’re investing time and money and effort to make that person a star, if you think about it, right?  A known name in the industry and that person can pick their star up and take it to another agency.  

Drew:  I was just going to ask you about that because, you know, a lot of agency owners, they’re hearing this, and when you talk about content and content creation, the first thing in their head is, “This is all awesome.”  Here’s the thought process.  This is all awesome.  I don’t have time.  Who can I delegate this to?  And so, I was just going to ask you, what are the risks of owners not doing this themselves?  

Tom: The biggest risk is that the person that you task with doing it, leaves.  I started out in this, when I started out in this back in 2007/2008, I was the president of an ad agency that was not mine. I was just an employee. The benefit to me was that I had time to do this.  You know, to really invest in the learning and so forth. But when it came to the point in 2010 where I felt like I could no longer continue to do what I wanted to do and explore this digital realm and how the world was changing and how buying and selling was changing, in an unfettered manner, I left. And when I did, all immodesty aside, that agency’s credentials in the social space, kinda went to zero.  

Drew: Yeah, they walked out the door with you.  

Tom: Right. Now the business didn’t, because I purposely didn’t take any clients. I didn’t take anybody from the social practice with me. So, that stayed. So, their revenue was okay but you know, if I wanted to be a jerk, I could’ve taken the two guys that were in the social group with me and said, “Hey, I’m gonna hire both of you.  Let’s go.”  And the clients would have walked right out the door with us because there would have been literally nobody in the firm that could have actually done the work.  

But, even with that, they’re national, you know. They went from being an agency that had a national presence through a guy who wrote for Ad Age, a guy who spoke all over the country and sometimes over the world about social, and digital, and mobile, and you know, a guy who was positioning this firm at a national level, like that just disappeared. You know, and that’s the danger of not having an owner be the person who does this. So, I think that as an owner of a firm, I don’t think that you don’t allow someone on staff to be that person if, in fact, they’re the right person, but you really need to think through and have some long talks with those people and say, “Look, we’re going to invest in you. You know, how do we create, not a golden handcuff, but how do we create a relationship that our investment in you doesn’t walk out the door?” And that’s a difficult conversation to have.

Drew: Well, at the end of the day, nobody is gonna sell your shop quite the same way an owner does. And nobody’s got the skin in the game like the owner does. So the owner can’t completely abdicate this to somebody else. I don’t think.

Tom: I think that, yeah…I mean, unless you’ve got somebody who somehow has a lot of skin in the game or has like…you know, like I always laugh. People always, you know, when I talk about when I left, I always tell people, “You know, I’m actually a much better number two than I am a number one,” because I don’t like all the organizational runnings of being the number one. I just wanna stand on a stage and spout and write and give people new business ideas, and get them excited, and to bring a team of people in to do it. Like that’s what I really am good at.  

So, if you think about it that makes…okay, you’