Episode 266

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How are clients thinking about and reacting to both COVID and the recession it triggered is on every agency owner’s mind. Will our clients go dormant? How are they approaching 2021 budgets and plans? Because we know this is vital intelligence for you, we decided to make that the focus of the 2020 Agency Edge research project. You’re going to find the data insightful and a relief.

The Agency Edge research series is a collaboration between AMI, Audience Audit, and Dynata. Audience Audit’s Susan Baier joins me to walk you through the highlights of the research findings and what you should do next, based on what we learned.

We believe the insights will help you strengthen your relationship with your current clients, dodge some potential landmines, and navigate your biz dev prospecting with more success. After you listen to the podcast, be sure to grab the 30-page executive summary from the show notes.

A big thank you to our podcast’s presenting sponsor, White Label IQ. They’re an amazing resource for agencies who want to outsource their design, dev or PPC work at wholesale prices. Check out their special offer (10 free hours!) for podcast listeners here.

Agency Owners | How are clients being impacted by COVID and the recession

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • Findings from the 2020 Agency Edge Research Study
  • How agency owners are feeling as they deal with the impact of COVID and the recession
  • The 3 distinct segments that capture agency owner sentiment in 2020
  • How the agency relationships of respondents have been impacted by COVID and the recession
  • What clients want out of their agencies during COVID and the recession
  • Why the data from the latest research study paints a more optimistic picture than we’d feared
  • New opportunities for gaining market share in 2020
“70% of the businesses we surveyed are muscling their way through the recession by continuing to do business how they’ve always done business.” @susanbaier Click To Tweet “During your conversations with clients in 2020, you need to be demonstrating efficiencies, both in how you work and how you manage the budget. They want to know that you are really watching every dime for them.” @susanbaier Click To Tweet “For virtually every client study we’ve done including this one, we found that most of the respondents are working with multiple agencies. It is just an annual reminder that you are not in this alone.” @susanbaier Click To Tweet “When we looked at plans to increase marketing spend, at least a quarter to a third of all segments from our research study said they are planning to increase.” @susanbaier Click To Tweet “Some of the data from our previous studies was tough for agency owners to swallow. But the data from our most recent study was actually relieving.” @susanbaier Click To Tweet

Ways to contact Susan Baier:

Additional Resources:

Speaker 1:

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Agency Management Institute’s Build A Better Agency Podcast presented by White Label IQ. Tune in every week for insights on how small to mid-size agencies are surviving and thriving in today’s market. We’ll show you how to make more money and keep more of what you make. We want to help you build an agency that is sustainable, scalable and, if you want down the road, sellable. With 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody. Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build A Better Agency. This is a topic that I love talking about. So I’m excited to just jump right into this episode, but first I have to tell you that I’m not the sharpest crayon in the box. So what I want to tell you is that we are going to talk in this episode with Susan Baier about the 2020 Agency Edge Research Series. And so what was interesting about that was Susan and I, every year we do this research, we’ve done it since 2014. And in late 2019, what we decided the topic was going to be was how are clients feeling about the economy, the ever pressing and pending recession that everyone thought was coming and how is that going to impact how they were approaching their relationship with agencies and their marketing budgets and all of that sort of stuff.

So we marched into 2020 thinking that’s what we were going to study. And we were just finishing up the actual research tool and getting ready to go out into the field when COVID hit the US. And so I mean, literally we were a week away from going out into the field with this research, which would have ended up being absolutely irrelevant to everybody. So good fortune shined upon us. So we obviously stopped and decided to wait. And then we re-pivoted and re-tooled the survey to really ask them, “Hey, now that COVID is here, now that we know we are in the midst of a recession, what’s going on with you? How are you feeling? What’s happening with your company? What’s happening with your budgets? How is this impacting your agency relationships?” Things like that.

So now super relevant. And I’m excited to share with you all of the details. Susan and I are going to get into that in a minute. But what you may not know is that a lot of times, the way I do these… I’m totally letting you see the underbelly of the podcast production. So normally what happens is I record the interview first, and then I record the introduction because then I can kind of tailor the introduction to exactly what the person and I chatted about. So obviously I don’t do that on my solo cast because I know what I’m going to talk about. But when you’re interviewing a guest, even though I have a set of questions and topics that I want to cover, I know they’re going to say something interesting that I didn’t expect and we’re going to go off on some tangent.

And so I want the introduction to accurately reflect what the show is about. So I always record it afterwards. So Susan and I have already recorded the interview you’re about to hear and throughout the interview because again, I’m not the brightest bulb in the box, I’m talking as though this episode is going to air on November 2nd, but it’s not. If you’re listening to this, it’s November 9th or later, I was off by a week. So throughout the interview, I keep talking about the fact if you’re listening to this in real time, you can join Susan and I for a webinar where we’re going to drill very deeply into all of the research data, stuff we can’t get into in a one hour podcast on November 4th, and I’m inviting you to go to the show notes and register for that webinar and join us.

Well, of course, it’s after November 4th, you can’t join us. It was a great webinar. I’m sorry you couldn’t be there. But I realized after we recorded it, that I was off by a week. And so I hopped on the phone with Susan and we are now going to do a webinar again on December 17th at noon. So throughout the show, every time you hear me say, November 4th, I need you to substitute in your head December 17th. So I’m really sorry. I know this is a little confusing, but I promise you I want you to have access to this webinar. So Susan and I are just going to do it again. So again, December 17th at noon Central is when we’re going to do a deep dive into all of the data of the research. You’re welcome to join us. So the way you get to sign up for the webinar is go to agencymanagementinstitute.com and under the resources tab, you’ll see podcast.

And depending on when you’re listening to this, look for episode 266. So it may be the very top episode if you’re listening to this in real time. But if you’re listening to this after Thanksgiving or early December, you’re just going to have to scroll down a couple of episodes, get to 266, click on that episode and there you’re going to get to the show notes for that episode. And down at the bottom, there’s a bunch of links. And one of them will be for the webinar on December 17th, which I have brilliantly disguised throughout the episode as calling it November 4th. But what I really meant to say was December 17th at noon Central.

So I’m sorry about the confusion, but let’s jump into the episode. I want you to hear all of the things that we learned from this research, because the research data is fascinating. And the research data for us as agency owners is actually, there’s a ton of good news in this research. So I want to get right to it. Sorry again for the confusion. Hopefully I will hear and see from a lot you on December 17th when you show up at the webinar that I foolishly called November 4th. All right. Let’s get into the episode. So without further ado, I think for maybe the fourth or fifth time, I can’t keep tracking. Well, welcome back to the podcast, Susan. Thanks for joining us.

Susan Baier:

Thanks for having me, Drew. It’s getting kind of embarrassing. I’m sure your listeners are tired of hearing my name on your podcast.

Drew McLellan:

No. Here’s what happens, if you’re not on every other episode, I get emails. People are like, “Where’s Susan? We need Susan.”

Susan Baier:

Oh, that’s good to know.

Drew McLellan:

I’m like, fine. I will just give the people what they want.

Susan Baier:

That’s good to know. Well, I always appreciate talking with you, you know that.

Drew McLellan:

So last time you were on the show, you were on the show with Steven Wesner. And we were talking about the research that you guys did around the ROI of thought leadership, which I love that study. It really aligns with Steven’s in my book, but today what we’re here to talk about is the research that you and I did as part of the Agency Edge Series.

Susan Baier:

Yep.

Drew McLellan:

And as I said in the introduction, we sort of had to do a quick kind of a dog leg to the left so we were all ready to go into the studio or out into the field with, “Hey, when are you thinking a recession might come and what are you doing to plan for that?”

Susan Baier:

Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

And then all of a sudden COVID came and…

Susan Baier:

I’m so glad we had the opportunity to make that change that we weren’t already in the field, because I think we learned some really interesting things by asking questions that we hadn’t originally anticipated asking and about things we couldn’t have anticipated that we were going to need to ask about. So I think we’re lucky that we got to make that dog leg but yeah, it was a little wild.

Drew McLellan:

Well, the whole time was wild. So it only makes sense that our research project would be wild as well, right?

Susan Baier:

Exactly, right in line with 2020.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So as always for folks who are familiar with the Agency Edge Research Series and the kind of research you do is attitudinal research. So can you just explain to folks who maybe aren’t familiar with that, how that differs from other kinds of research and how we get to the data that we get to?

Susan Baier:

Sure. So our approach as always has been to try to provide things that are truly helpful to agencies and figuring out what to do. And a lot of research is based on sort of how big is your company? What is your title? How many employees do you have? What’s your revenue? And unfortunately that doesn’t often yield a lot of helpful insights. So our approach is attitudinal segmentation, which instead looks at how people are feeling about things, the kind of assumptions and attitudes that they’re bringing to a decision. Because as marketers, whether we’re agency marketers or not, that inflection point is really where we get to have influence on a decision, right? Where are people getting information? What sort of baggage are they bringing to the process and how can we help them along the way? So that’s our approach. It’s, we do collect a lot of information about our respondents, but our segmentation is based on what’s going on in their heads.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. And in their hearts. I thought this study in particular was not really just what are they thinking, but how are they feeling?

Susan Baier:

How are they feeling.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Susan Baier:

Yeah. So much. And we saw attitudes that were really affected by things that had happened 10 years ago-

Drew McLellan:

In the last recession.

Susan Baier:

… in the last recession. And it’s amazing how long those things stick around and influence how people feel about things that are happening today. So the opportunity to ask about what happened last time and how things are going this time was really fascinating, I think. But yeah, that attitude, that heart, it’s all part of it. That’s how people make choices.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So just for the listening audience, we have great editors on our podcast, but if you hear like a high-pitched whining in the background, my dog, for some reason, Heather, has decided that she is sad not to be with me and sad to be with me. And so she’s just having a blue day and there’s nowhere in the house I can put her that you can’t hear her whimpering about absolutely nothing. She just had breakfast. She’s fine.

Susan Baier:

There’s a lot of anxiety rolling around, Drew, and you never know when it’s going to hit you hard.

Drew McLellan:

She’s having a blue day. So if you can hear that, I promise it’s not Susan or I whimpering in the background. It is my damn dog. So all right. So as always we go out into the field, we ask questions. So specifically we were asking questions around based on everything that is happening with COVID, based on the recession that we’re now experiencing, what’s the plan? How are you feeling? What do you think you’re going to be doing? And we ended up with three very distinct segments. So can you just walk us through those segments?

Susan Baier:

Yeah. You bet. So we never know how many segments we’re going to find in this research because that’s not something we predetermined and we don’t know what’s going to define them. So we sort of let it organically bubble up through the analysis. And I think what we found in this study was really interesting. As you said, three segments and really defined by sort of how they’re approaching, what was at that time clearly recession, we filled at this late June through mid July. April through June, 2020 was the worst quarter on record in terms of economic impact. And we’d formerly gotten into a recession in February. So we were in the thick of it at the point that this was field-

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. By the way, we should probably stop and just say this year unlike some of our other years, our respondents were all from the US. However, I do think that their attitudes while the timing may have been different depending on when COVID hit your country, I think the attitudes will translate well. But just for clarity, these are all folks in the US.

Susan Baier:

This is all US response. This is a 1000 B to B, B to C, a huge range of organizations, but a 1000 agency clients. So the first of the segments that we found, we called distressed and that’s 30% of this audience. And these folks are very anxious at the time.

Drew McLellan:

They are freaked out.

Susan Baier:

They are freaked out. They think that the recession is going to completely upend their industry, that it could be devastating for their organization. They say that their customers and prospects are really shifting their priorities and how they’re making choices about buying. They say finding customers is very difficult. They expect their agencies to be having trouble. And what’s really interesting about this group is that they are more affected by what happened during the great recession back in 2009.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. They brought all of that with them. Yeah.

Susan Baier:

Yeah. It hit them hard back then and they’re expecting that it’s going to really upend things for them, both their organizations, but also their whole industry and its client. So they’re really worried.

Drew McLellan:

And even their personal life like they expect… They very much have a doomsday scenario around-

Susan Baier:

They do.

Drew McLellan:

… what COVID and the recession is going to do to their business and their home life, their life.

Susan Baier:

Yeah. And I think that to me, it’s interesting that that’s 30%, because I think a lot of us would have expected, especially given the timing of this study, a much higher percentage of agency clients that were really in panic mode like that. And this is the only group that we found. It’s really like that. It’s 30%. The second group we found, which is the largest, 40% we call pragmatic. And these folks are really interesting. They view this whole recession thing as like a normal economic cycle bump in the road. We don’t get worked up. They say that it hasn’t changed how they operate. They also say that it hasn’t affected their buyers as much as buyers in other industries. So they’re feeling fairly insulated.

Drew McLellan:

Well, in fact, this is the group that sees this as a huge opportunity. These are the guys that want to spend more money, that want to take market share. They’re like everybody else is going to go dark, so I’m going to go big.

Susan Baier:

That’s right. I mean, they’re less attached to individual providers. And if anything, they see the recession as making it easier to get the expertise and support that they want more affordably. To your point, they’re opportunists. And that doesn’t mean they’re bad people. They just sort of are viewing this whole thing through a very different lens than that distressed group is. They think they’re going to be okay and what they’re looking for is opportunities to really get a leg up while maybe some of their competitors are struggling.

Drew McLellan:

One of the other interesting things that I thought about this group is of all of the groups, they’re the ones who are regulating their news consumption best. So they have decided that too much exposure to news isn’t a great thing for them. So of all of the groups, they’re the ones who are least likely to be sort of glued to the TV or their computer soaking in all of the news.

Susan Baier:

They really see this as cyclical and see themselves as fairly well protected from any of this kind of stuff. So I think the economic news for them isn’t as critical because it isn’t impacting them in their minds the way it is impacting some other folks. So that’s 40% of our group. That’s the largest. And then the third segment, which is the final 30%, we call steadfast. These folks are very closely paying attention to economic news, but they’re not doing it from a sense of panic. They’re doing it from a position of preparation. They say their organization is well prepared to survive and even thrive in this situation. Marketing is a top priority for them. They expect to remain loyal to their trusted vendors like their agencies. They think generally that their agencies are going to do fine. They do expect some flexibility on things like payment terms from providers. But generally speaking, they feel well-prepared to weather this thing and even do better than weather it, even come out of this ahead.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So they were the largest consumers of the news, but again, not from a sense of panic, but just a, I want to know what’s going.

Susan Baier:

I think they’re well-prepared. I think they’re just looking ahead and they just want to keep their finger on things, but yeah, there’s definitely no sense of panic here. And the interesting thing about these three segments, and we’ve seen this over and over again in our study is true is that all of these segments are seen at all revenue levels, at all marketing budget levels. They all outsource the same levels of marketing work. They have that same sort of distribution in terms of how much they outsource. And while we see that middle group, the pragmatic group sort of more likely to have multiple agencies going on and more likely to have a full-time in-house team, you can’t tell who these clients are by simply looking at the size of their team, the revenue levels that they’re generating, the size of their marketing budget, because they exist across this spectrum which is really interesting and across all these different industries that we surveyed in this study.

Drew McLellan:

And again, just for the listeners. I mean, these are organizations of all sizes. So these are companies that have a marketing budget of under $250,000 to companies that have marketing budgets in the millions of dollars.

Susan Baier:

Yeah. Up to 20 millions and revenue up to 500 million. So it’s a big spectrum.

Drew McLellan:

Right. And what we found is you can’t say, “Oh, the little guys all feel this way,” or, “Oh, the big guys all feel this way.” There are all three of these segments in all of the different sort of the typical demographic ways you would slice and dice this data.

Susan Baier:

Right.

Drew McLellan:

So the first thing when Susan and I started walking through the results… There are times when we’ve done the studies where I’m always looking at it from how is this going to impact agency owners? Are agency owners going to react to this information? And sometimes quite honestly our studies have some unpleasant news for agency owners, right? I think about the how much do you love your agency or what are your AEs doing right or wrong? Some of those studies, data from those studies was tough to take, I think, for agency owners.

Susan Baier:

Yeah. It’s not always reassuring everything we’re doing is good.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. But in this study, I have to say as we were going through their data, I was relieved. I was like, Holy buckets, 70% of the respondents are like, “You know what? This is normal business. Yes, the COVID part is different, but we go through a recession like this every cycles, every 10 years or so, we’re going through something like this. And we as a company are prepared to deal with it.” And the steadfast people were like, “We will just work our way through it.” And the pragmatic people were like, “We’re going to crush this. There are doors here that we are going to push our way through and take the opportunities where they present themselves.”

So 70% of the people that we are all talking to as agency owners have a very practical and not freaked out, not close the doors and lock them and shut down the budget and stop doing anything, that’s not the attitude that we saw. For the most part, the majority of people responding said, “You know what? We’re going to muscle our way through this by continuing to do business like we’ve done business.”

Susan Baier:

Yeah. Which is such good information. And it’s such a great example of how you can look at these different attitudinal groups and really think about how you need to approach them differently. If you’re approaching clients and prospects from the standpoint of it’s gloom and doom, we’ll help you figure out how to cut so you can survive, there’s a couple of segments who’re going to look at you and go like, “Yeah, that’s not how we see this opportunity at all.”

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Susan Baier:

And