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’re a much better number two. Somebody else runs the place, you’re the front man so to speak. You know, I’m the lead singer if you will. And that’s kind of where I was at. The agency and then where I was at and myself, we didn’t build it correctly, and then so it spun out.

So, I think that it can be done but you really, as an owner, you’ve really got to sit down and think long and hard, and really get to know the person, and make sure that, okay, I can build a compensation program and that’s not just monetarily, but that’s everything. You know, I can build something that this person can see themselves retiring at my agency, whether they’re ever elevated to an ownership position or not. They can still see like, “Yes, I’m home. I see no reason to leave as long as this kind of stuff continues to happen in my career etc.” But I think you really gotta have those kind of discussions way upfront in the process to where everybody is on the same page and on the same team and they understand, this is what we’re doing because that individual’s star is going to rise. And in some cases, it’s going to rise faster and higher maybe than the agency star, than the owner of the agency star, than key creatives or key account executives. You have to think about all of that because egos come into play and personalities.  

And that’s probably the biggest risk, is that you are going to take someone and you’re gonna elevate them. And that may make other people upset, but those people don’t wanna be elevated because like they’re just introverts or whatever, they’re not comfortable doing public speaking or whatever it is. So, you’ve got to figure all of that out first if it’s not going to be an owner. That’s why it’s always best, I think, if it is an owner because everybody expects you to be that guy or the gal who carries the stick.

Drew: Right. So, back to the sort of the content piece of this — prospecting for new business. In your mind, is there a formula or a recipe for sort of what that looks like? So if I’m an agency owner and I’m listening and I’m like, “Yeah, I wanna do this,” and I get it from the big picture, but what am I actually saying I want to do?

Tom: Well, I think in the simplest sense is you’re wanting to position your firm or the people within your firm as a real resource of information that makes me as a client smarter, gives me the opportunity to do my job better. Gives me new ideas, helps me understand or turns a lightbulb on in my mind of a way that I might do something differently in my business or for my brand.  And that’s really what you have to commit to. Now, what format that takes, you know, could be podcast, could be blogging, could be video blogging, all kinds of things it could be. It could be public speaking.  

Drew: And odds are whatever it is today, it will be something different in five years anyway, right?

Tom: Well, absolutely. Now look at podcasting. Five years ago, podcasting was dead and all of a sudden it’s like the latest…everybody’s into it. And with good reason, the data points are showing that, okay, the technology delivery mechanism has finally caught up with the concept of a podcast and it can be delivered now in a way that people can easily consume it, and that was why it kind of died to begin with. Okay, great. So, yeah, and I think some people are better, some people give…you know, some people who are great on video, they’re visually attractive, they just…somehow their personality just comes through the screen, and you just can’t help but look at them. The same kind of people that I think tend to be great public speakers, they can stand on a stage and you want to continue listening to them, you want to watch them.

Great. If that’s who your people are or that’s who you are, then those are probably channels you should be looking at. If you’re somebody who stands on a stage and you just have no real gravitas, or no presence, or you’re just uncomfortable, well, you probably shouldn’t go the public speaking route. Maybe you should go the writing or podcast. Maybe you have a great voice, but you know whatever, you’re more comfortable without looking at other people, whatever the case might be. But you’ve got to find the right channels that fit your people, your talents, you know, and realistically what you can do. Certainly, video podcast take a lot more time than audio, than a blog post. And then you’ve got to commit to really giving real value. I think the biggest mistake a lot agencies make is they try to put this really light fluffy, doesn’t really tell you much, kind of content out there and think that that’s gonna create an impression in someone’s mind.  And it doesn’t.

Drew: Well, you know, I think a lot of agency owners feel like they don’t want to reveal their secret sauce because that’s what clients are gonna pay for or they don’t want their competitors to see it. So, how do you answer that concern?

Tom: The clients already know your secret sauce is mayonaise with a little worcestershire and some mustard, you know. Guess what, the other guys was worcestershire and ketchup and mustard. I mean, you may have had the opportunities. In our role with our clients, I’ve had the opportunity to sit on the client side on multiple occasions for reviews and I honestly believe, I said all the time, I think every agency owner and new business guy should have to go sit through some client reviews on the client side as like an apprenticeship. Because you will very quickly figure out that agencies think they’re so different and they’re really not. Their secret sauces really aren’t that different.  

And it’s because, let’s face it, at the end of the day, you’re trying to motivate a human being to take a behavioral action. It’s that simple. It’s just not rocket science. And so, I think agencies that…and what agencies have to understand is that, you know, like my magic sauce so to speak is propinquity, and the whole using of the propinquity science methodology of that’s how you build a marketing program and a content program, and that’s how you win consumers today. I stand on stages all over the world and I tell people all about propinquity and I show them how to do it. But guess what. At the end of the day, if a client says, “You know, I’m really bought into this propinquity thing, I love this idea,” they’re gonna have a choice. They can hire the guy who first did it, the original chef of propinquity. Or they can hire some agency that says they know how to do it too.

Well, who are you gonna can hire? Provided that there’s not like a cost or geography concern. You’re gonna go hire the original. And that’s what I think agencies don’t understand is that, you know…you remember when Saatchi did Lovemarks thing?

Drew: Yeah, yeah.

Tom: I don’t know if you’ve read the book. Like that. I mean, they were getting hired because people were saying, “I want Lovemarks.” Well, I mean, it wasn’t anything really that different than what all of us do. But he gave it a name and he wrote a book and clients got excited and that’s what…

Drew: And that made it a thing.  

Tom: Yeah. And that’s this. That’s what this allows you to do, it allows you to make it a thing.  And it allows you to make people in your organization’s experts on the thing. And that’s what clients want, they want somebody who’s theoretically smarter than they are in branding, or in mobile, or in whatever. And that’s what they’re coming in it. To me, it’s really no different than in the early days like when it was a much more creative driven industry. Everybody wanted to win creative awards and everybody wanted to work for big brands that had big budgets so lots of clients could see their killer creative, because that’s how clients were doing it. I want the guy who did the Volkswagen ads, or I want the people who did the United Airlines. And then their secretaries would go find out what agency handled it, and that’s how you would get business.  

It’s really the same thing except now you’re selling your ideas. You’re putting your ideas out there on a big pedestal and you’re saying, “I’m smarter than the next company.  Or I’m smarter than the next guy or gal. And if you want the smartest kid in the class, hire us.” And if you can…you know, if your work, if your content supports that, then you’ll get hired, and that’s the beauty of it. It’s that, by the time the client calls you, they’re already pretty sure you’re the smartest kid in the class or one of the smartest kids. And now it’s a matter of chemistry, and finances, and, you know, can you make all that work out? Which, to me, tends to be the easier of the two things. And off you go. Right?  

But you gotta get over that fear of, “Oh, I got the secret sauce that nobody else has and if I tell, then that’s it. I’ll never get another client again.” Because that’s just malarkey. I’ll tell you straight up, it doesn’t work. I mean, I took my secret sauce and put it in a book, and then a damn detailed book that literally you could take the book and rebuild our entire process yourself. And I still have people will call me and say, “Yeah, I know I read your book and now you said I could do it myself, but I don’t think I can because as I read your book, I realized how complex it is. So can you guys just do it for me?” Bingo.  

Drew: I think that’s the part that sometimes we forget, is just because they know your methodology or your secret sauce doesn’t mean either they can or want to do it themselves. And honestly, if they can or want to do it themselves, they probably aren’t gonna be a great client anyway. So, you really want the people to go, “I love the concept of that, I get it. I see the value in it, but I don’t wanna do it.”

Tom: Absolutely. I mean, think about it. It’s kind of like a chef. You know, if that was true, if giving away the secret sauce was gonna implode your business, nobody would ever write a cookbook. Because you’ve given me your secret sauce, you’ve given me the whole recipe, but like you know, I can give you Emeril’s recipe for foie gras, you’re gonna make it and he’s gonna make it. I’m guessing his is gonna be better.  

Drew: I can assure you it’s gonna be better.

Tom: Yeah, there’s an intangible and that to me, that’s what it is. The intangible is what nobody can ever duplicate. So that’s your cookbook.

Drew: I know listeners are like, “Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, what is this propinquity thing?” So, for the few people who are listening who have not read your book, can you just give them just a taste of that then I’m gonna tell all of you, “Go read the book.” But give them an idea of what that is. Because it’s so fascinating.

Tom: Yeah. Propinquity is my founding theory on how I think marketing works today and it basically, it’s a science that’s been proven repeatedly over the last 100 years.  And what they have found is that the number one determinant predictive variable of future relationship building of who you’re gonna be friends with, lovers etc. is proximity, physical or psychological. And so, our whole concept here at Converse Digital is we wanna find out who is our audience?  Where are they online, off line, you know, where are all the places that a brand could intersect with them?  Where are they looking for information when they’re making a purchasing decision? Etc.  

And then we wanna find ways to make our clients brands show up at each of those places and create that little bump. And the theory is that if we can create enough bumps and at each bump they learn something a little slightly new about the client or the brand, that over time they build up enough data points that they can like.  That they move from liking to wanting to ultimately buying. And it’s just…it’s in the book in much more detail obviously, but it’s our theory, and it’s not…I mean, it’s 100-year-old science. It’s nothing new.  

It’s just, I think, we’re the first people that ever said, “Hey, let’s take this theory and apply it to how brands can be built with, you know, against a customer base.”  And what it does is it creates a framework in the mind of a client and it gives them a way to talk about how they believe that they should be going to market to win their customers with their bosses, their CEOs, and CFOs. And then when the CEO and CFO buys into it, then they go, “Okay, who does that?” And then they go, “Well, it’s actually this group in New Orleans, this guy wrote a whole book about it, yada, yada, yada.” And then we get hired.

Drew: Yeah. Well, and I think what you’ve done to sort of augment it is yes, it’s 100-year-old theory, but you’ve sort of said, “Okay, let’s take that theory. And how do we leverage these new tools, these digital and social tools to really maximize on that scientific theory?”

Tom: Yeah, absolutely. How do we go and really surround a prospect? And we’ve also shown people how it differs for consumer to…you know, business to consumer versus business to business, and we’ve developed some techniques and some tactics that flow out of it that certainly make it easier to create. But yeah, you know, it’s really interesting. I wish they’d allowed me to call the book Propinquity. They wouldn’t let me do that because nobody could spell it and nobody could say it, you know.

Drew: You can certainly understand their point.

Tom: Yeah, I can, but God, I wish they would have because it would have been the perfect title. Because it’s the one word everybody remembers, you know, it’s what they come back to. But again, you know, it’s my Lovemark. It’s me saying, “Hey, here’s my theory and here’s how…it’s my “secret sauce”.” And instead of hiding it under a bushel, I’m gonna print it in a book.  And I’m gonna go on trips around the country and the world speaking about it.  And I’m gonna spread it far and wide, and I’m gonna get as many people convinced that propinquity is the way to go. And some of those folks are gonna buy the book, hand it to their ad agency and go, “I want one of these.” Okay. That’s fine. But enough of them are…my theory at least, is that there will be enough of them that will absolutely say, “I wanna call the guy who wrote this book.”

Drew: I want this guy. Yeah.

Tom: I want the originator. I don’t want…either because they don’t have an agency or they don’t think their agency can pull it off or whatever. But I’m gonna get…yeah I’m sure some other people are going to basically bastardize the concept and that’s fine. There’s gonna be plenty of new clients down the way.  And the beauty is, for me, like, you know, when I started my company, I never thought about serving other ad agencies necessarily, but I’ve actually had other ad agencies call and say, “Hey, we want to build your system into our agency.”  Because that’s why I designed it, I first built it, it’s the model that I use to build business for my firm and for private firms. And so, they realize like, “Wait, you just gave us your ad agency biz dev model. And again it seems a little bit too complex. We don’t know that we have it all correct so we’d like to just hire you to consult and help us build the model here.” Okay, great. For me, it opened up a whole new channel of business that I had never thought was a legitimate channel of business for me. But it is.  

Drew: And the reality is you don’t need 350 new clients a year. Right?

Tom: No.  

Drew: I mean, I think that’s one of the things agency owners sort of forget, is, it’s a numbers game when it comes to new business and prospecting. And so if you can get more people to reach out to you who are further along in the buying cycle and have already decided you can do the work and now it really is a chemistry check. And do you sound and look and feel like I expected you to, and do you talk that way your content talks? And as we delve deeper into the secret sauce, can I tell that you really not only know it but believe in it? You know, that makes the sale faster and at the end of the day, you don’t need a lot of those, you need a few really good ones.

Tom: Well, yeah. And you also get the thing about the savings on biz dev, you look at what an average pitch costs you and time and money and hours, non-billable, you know, all that kind of stuff. And you start to say, “Okay, well, if I could reduce that number by 50%, well then instead of needing 5 new clients a year, now maybe I only need 3 new clients.” Right?

Drew: Right.

Tom: You know, and so it’s a numbers game and certainly if you’re a bigger agency with a bigger footprint, you’re gonna…you know, you’ll be able to handle more clients or probably get more clients. You know, if you’re smaller or more niched, you’ll get fewer. But again, you know, it all depends. For me, I don’t want to be a huge agency. I like being a small boutique, it suits my style and what I wanna do better. But there’s no reason a big agency couldn’t do the same thing. In fact, you could probably totally crank it out on steroids if you’re a big agency because there’s so many other smart people.

Drew: Sure, more resources.  

Tom: Absolutely.  

Drew: Yeah. Well, and again, a larger agency doesn’t want a bunch of small accounts.  They want a few or bigger accounts, so again, it is a numbers game. But oftentimes I think the agencies get in such a frenzy about new business, but the reason they get in such a frenzy is because they don’t do it consistently.  And I think if you did it consistently so that the pipeline was always active and full, then you would always know that half dozen or so new clients you need every year to grow the agency, to absorb some of the losses you’re gonna have, whenever that is, that they’re gonna be there.

Tom: Yeah. I think that’s the number one thing. I know when I first got into biz dev back in the ‘90s at Peter Mayer here in New Orleans, the number one smartest thing that the agency did was right from the get go, they devoted half of my time every day to setting up a biz dev system and working that system.  And within, I think, probably less than a year that half time became full time and that’s all I did. And at the time, we were a $35 million agency and we had a full time biz dev person working, you know, a biz dev program and that’s why we did it. Because we were that start stop, start stop, start stop model. And once we did that, you know, it was just great. The growth kept coming. And what’s great is even after I left, you know, years later, they would start winning clients that I had started working those leads way back when I was there.  And building those relationships and starting that, and they may have just taken a few more years for them to finally turn, but they did. And it’s great, and that’s what agencies really need. You know, they have to find a way to constantly have a little bit of foot on that, that biz dev paddle and keep it constantly out there. And a system like this helps you do that because it forces you to do that.

Drew: So, the folks who are listening, who are nodding, and they’re drinking the Kool-Aid, and they want to as soon as they get off the podcast, they wanna go in and start putting some of this into practice. What are some action steps that they can take today, this week, before the end of the month to begin to get on this path and to stop the stop start, stop start, and to really put in a new program, you know, like you are talking about into play? What should they do first?

Tom: I would pick one thing. Just one aspect of their agency that’s really unique and they’re good at and is smart. Be that a particular service offering or a particular approach or style. And then secondly define, you know, who at the agency is gonna be the voice.  Who’s gonna be the person that’s gonna be known for that type, that content, whatever that is. And then immediately have that person go into hiding for three or four days, a week and just produce as much…start with written content if they want to…as much written content about that topic or that topic area as they can produce in five days.  And then come out, break it up into blog posts and guest posts, whatever they can build it into and then start publishing. And then every single month, set that person in a room for one day and do the same thing. And if that’s what it takes, but just start.  Don’t wait till you build the perfect program.  

Just pick a place, stick a stake in the ground, and start trying to own that one thing, whatever that one thing might be. And then over time, build around that. But just get started. I think a lot of times, agencies worry too much about being perfect. I’ve been doing this for seven years now and the way I did it seven years ago and the way I do it today are totally different. And that’s because it’s an evolving process and you learn by making mistakes. You try things, you go, “Oh, that didn’t work.” Okay, you just don’t do that anymore. And the stuff that works you double down on it, and just start, just get started. I think too often that we allow that fear or that desire for perfection, that artistry in our business to keep us from just starting something that really is quite simple that will start to build your reputation.

Drew: I think one of the things that’s paralyzing is agency owners think everything has to be the Mona Lisa as opposed to being a little bit of help. You know, just a nugget of helpfulness is a winner.

Tom: Yeah. Just make me one bit smarter. Just give me one…you know, it’s 500 to 700 words on a blog post. Just give me one great takeaway that makes me smarter. That’s all you gotta do. It doesn’t have to be the Mona Lisa, doesn’t have to be War and Peace.

Drew: Yeah, amen. So any final thoughts or something that you think agency owners need to hear?

Tom: You know, just that, “Hey, don’t be scared of it.” You know, there is a better way to do it. And like anything, any change, you can always come up with 10 reasons it’s not gonna work. You know, that’s great. But then don’t get upset the next time you’re sitting at the agency at 9:00 at night on a RFP response. If you want a better life, if you want a better way of building business that’s more predictable that allows you to really work for the clients you’ll wanna work for versus just the ones that will offer you an opportunity to pitch. Then you’re gonna have to get proactive, gonna have to get known for knowledge and you’re gonna have to start being strategic about it. All the things we tell our clients to do, you’re gonna have to apply that to yourself. And you’re gonna have to invest back in you, and that’s what this is, this is investing in you to build not tomorrow’s lead, but the lead that’s six months or a year down the road.  

Drew: Or three years or five years.

Tom: Right. So, then you just always…it’s like a flywheel. It takes a lot of work to get it started, but once it’s spinning, you just gotta touch a little bit here and there and it keeps going. And then if you do fall off the wagon, don’t post for a couple of days or a month, or in my case, like six months, it doesn’t completely shut down because you’ve got so much momentum built in. But like you do have to get back into the game and make sure you don’t go on forever without that. Because then that momentum will eventually run out and the flywheel stop spinning.

Drew: Yeah. Great stuff. I knew that you would bring it today, so thank you so much. I know we were talking before we hit the record button that you and your shop are crazy busy, so I’m really grateful that you were able to carve out the hour to spend with us and share all of your stuff, and again really appreciate all you do for agencies.  

And one more time, listeners, make sure that you go get Tom’s book. It’s brilliant, it’s easy to read, and you will be taking crazy notes through the whole thing, so Tom, thank you very much for your time, I appreciate it.

Tom: Hey, really happy to be here. Thanks for the invite as always.

Drew: You bet. Okay listeners, this wraps up another episode of Build a Better Agency. Thanks for being with us. If you find the content useful, make sure you hit the subscribe button so you don’t miss an episode. I will be back with you next week with another guest and hopefully some more insights and ways for you to build your agency to be better, stronger, more profitable for you, and more fun every day. Talk to you soon.