Episode 339

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Running an agency in a post-COVID world means growing more and more comfortable operating in a virtual environment. This collective shift in our industry has been happening for a while, but after navigating a global pandemic, agency owners have had to pivot more rapidly than in the past. As a result, agency owners are left wondering how they can genuinely connect with their prospects and invest in those relationships when the human aspect of interaction has shifted to a digital one.

In this episode of Build a Better Agency, I talk with encore guest, Tom Martin. Tom is the Founder and CEO of Converse Digital, and he knows a thing or two about the collective shift into the digital world – a shift that isn’t going to reverse anytime soon. Tom and I discuss how sales strategies, pitches, and the dynamics of client interactions have been influenced by this digital shift.

You’ll probably be just as relieved as I was to hear Tom share why that shift, while uncomfortable for many of us, is actually a GOOD thing for agencies. We also delve into the importance of strategically creating your prospect lists and how you and your pitch teams can use social media, the internet, and other digital environments our clients rely on to your agency’s advantage. Tom gives expert advice on successfully attracting, building, and effectively selling agency relationships in a virtual world.

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 Relationships

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • What sales, prospecting, and effective agency relationships look like in a post-COVID world
  • How Tom went from being “unemployable” to owning his own agency
  • Why Tom emphasizes the importance of strategically attracting your prospects
  • What it means for your pitch teams to “do their homework” — and why it’s usually the key to winning a sale
  • How sales strategies and client relationships have adapted to an increasingly digital environment
  • Why Tom believes that your prospects list is ultimately worthless if it’s impersonal
  • How investing the time in getting to know your prospects will place you leaps and bounds over your competitors
  • What it means to be a “conversation catalyst,” and how you and your pitch teams can use what Tom calls “social reconnaissance” to offer more value to your prospects
  • Why the industry-wide shift to virtual sales and virtual relationships is actually a GOOD thing for agencies
“I was being very strategic. I wasn’t using the “spray and pray” process.” @ConverseDigital Click To Tweet “You’re writing a blog post or a white paper, you’re recording a YouTube video or something else that you can put out there so people can find you and walk their way to your agency’s front door.” @ConverseDigital Click To Tweet “You have to spend a lot of time in preparation, a lot of time in process — and if you do those two things well, then good things come out the back end.” @ConverseDigital Click To Tweet “When you really embrace the idea of virtual sales and meeting people virtually versus physically, it completely removes the geographic reigns that often hold agencies back — because now you can prospect to anybody anywhere.” @ConverseDigital Click To Tweet “Go do social reconnaissance. The best part about operating in social media and on the internet is your ability to build incredible dossiers on your prospects.” @ConverseDigital Click To Tweet

Ways to contact Tom Martin:

Resources:

Speaker 1:

Welcome to the Agency Management Institute community, where you’ll learn how to grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money, and keep more of what you make. The Build a Better Agency podcast, presented by White Label IQ, is packed with insights on how small to mid-size agencies survive and thrive in today’s market. Bringing his 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. I have a returning guest with me today and I’ll tell you a little bit more about him and why I’ve asked him to come back. You’re going to love him. And you’re going to learn a little more about him in just a second. I do want to remind you, I’m sure if you’ve listened to even one episode of the podcast in the last few months, you know that the Build a Better Agency Summit, the conference that we launched in 2021. I wanted to launch it in 2020, but that didn’t work out quite according to plan. But we sold out and launched in 2021 and everybody had a great time. Speakers were amazing.

But actually I’ll tell you who was the most amazing. It was actually the attendees. They just reached out to each other. They made connections. They found new partnerships. They supported each other. They were generous with what they knew. They showed up just the way I love the AMI community to show up. They showed up with an abundance mindset that agency owners can come together and learn together and help each other and that it’s all good and it works out great. And so, it was so much fun, we’re doing it again May 24th and 25th in Chicago. Would love for you to join us. We have, I think, about 50 tickets left or so before we are sold out. So would love for you to come on board and be a part of that fun and learning. I promise you, you will not regret the investment of time or money if you join us.

I mean, we’ve got six keynotes that are amazing speakers who are going to just dominate the stage and fire us up about all kinds of different topics. We have nine breakout speakers throughout the two days. And over the course of two days, we have 25 or 30 round table hosts. So you’re going to be able to pick topics. Everything from cashflow to succession planning to speeding up the hiring process. You name it, we’ve got an expert there who’s going to sit around the table with 10 or 12 of you and you’re just going to have an in-depth conversation for an hour. No presentation, no PowerPoint deck, just a real conversation sharing what you know. And you’re going to share what you know, they’re going to share what they know. And it’s going to be a beautiful, beautiful thing.

So I would love to have you join us before we sell out. So please grab your ticket. As you know, it just gets more expensive as we get closer to the event. And honestly, I would be very excited if we could just sell it out now and I don’t have to keep talking about it anymore. I can just focus on getting ready for it. I’ve got to give a keynote, so I’m working on that. I’m a little nervous. It’s not really my thing to give keynotes, but I did it last year and now I have to do it again. Anyway, I’m excited to spend the time with all of you and would love for you to join us. So head over to the Agency Management Institute website and up in the upper-left corner, it’s B-A-B-A Summit is on the nav bar. If you just click on it, you can register right from there. So please join us in Chicago. I think you’re going to have a great time.

If you’re a member, whether that’s an associate member or a peer group member, remember you can join us on Monday for family day. So you’re going to come in right after lunch. We’re going to do panel discussions around hiring, succession planning, and biz dev. And then we’re all going to go out to dinner together. So if you’re a member, make sure you grab the family day ticket as well.

Okay. Let me tell you a little bit about our guest. My guest today is my good friend, Tom Martin. Tom owns an agency called Converse Digital and has written a great book called The Invisible Sale. If you haven’t read it, well, I’m sure we’ll talk about it. But if you haven’t read it, it’s a great read. And Tom’s an agency guy from way back and he was actually a biz dev guy at a couple agencies. He was the odd biz dev guy. He was actually successful at it. And then went out and launched his own shop. And so, has been for many, many years now running his own shop and obviously being his own biz dev guy because if you’re good at it, why would you hire someone else to do it?

So Tom and I were talking and we were sort of talking about how a lot of you were saying it’s harder to sell because you can’t get on the road, you can’t have FaceTime with prospects, and things like that. And Tom has really nailed … And The Invisible Sale is really all about how to sell when you can’t get in front of somebody. Or whether it’s because of distance or whatever the reason is. And by the way, he wrote the book pre-COVID. It’s not a COVID inspired book. But anyway, we’re going to talk about how sales have changed for agencies and what we can do to create connections, whether we can or can’t get in front of prospects in person. So with that, I just want to jump right to it because Tom has a lot to teach us and I want to give him plenty of room to do that. So let’s get started.

All right, Tom, welcome back to the podcast. It’s great to have you back.

Tom Martin:

Well, it’s even better to be invited back. I guess I didn’t screw it up too badly the last time.

Drew McLellan:

Not only did you not screw it up badly, but you were so good that you’re also going to be at the summit. So excited to have you there in a couple months to share your wisdom with our attendees. So thanks for agreeing to do that as, well.

Tom Martin:

Yeah, no. Thanks, I’m excited too. I mean, you have assembled one heck of an outstanding group of people to speak with. I don’t know if I’m more excited to speak or just to be there to hear everybody else.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. It’s going to be a great couple days. I’m excited for it. For those folks, the handful of folks who aren’t familiar with you, why don’t you give them a little bit about your background and how you’ve come to know so much about sales and agency sales before we dig in?

Tom Martin:

Well, I grew up in the agency business. Like you, I was an account guy. And when I moved here to New Orleans, I was working for a small shop and I made the mistake or blessing, however you want to look at it, one day of writing a memo to the president saying I thought the way we did our biz dev could be improved. We were like a lot of shops. We would pitch when we needed it. We’d pitch if we were invited. But we really didn’t have an ongoing, strategically-driven program.

He thought it was a great idea. Said, “Spend half your time on that, half managing clients.” And we were so successful that within about six to eight months, he said, “Okay, you’re not going to work on clients anymore. You’re just going to be the pitch guy.” And eventually was VP biz dev. And then was given an opportunity to do a lifelong dream, which was start my own agency. So I left that firm, started an agency. Three years later, Hurricane Katrina wiped it off the base of the earth. I went back to work for agencies in a biz dev account management place. And after about three years, the owner of that agency and I agreed I was unemployable and really needed to be my own boss again. And I started conversing [crosstalk 00:07:18].

Drew McLellan:

So true of so many agency owners.

Tom Martin:

Yeah. Well, I tried. I made it three years.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Tom Martin:

But social media happened and I really dove into it very, very early. And began to kind of make a name for myself as one of the few agency guys who was really into the social space, using it for branding and all kinds of other fun stuff. And so, yeah. 2010, I stepped out with no money, no clients, no nothing. Two weeks notice started Converse Digital in 2010 and luckily, 12 years later, we’re still here.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Knock on wood, right?

Tom Martin:

Yeah. Every day.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. But it’s interesting because as you know, most agency biz dev professionals never earn their salary back for the agency. They never are successful enough to pay for themselves. And so, clearly you were doing some things different. Even back then, even though you were unemployable in other way. Which I think most agency owners are. You obviously were delivering great value. So what do you think you were doing that was different?

Tom Martin:

Well, I think the thing I was doing differently is number one, I was being very, very strategic. I was not using a spray and pray process.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Tom Martin:

We had a very finely defined group of prospects that we went after. Our A’s, our B’s, and our eh. “We’ll love if you would call us,” C’s. And once you went into the database and you were classified as an A, B, or C, your entire first year of contacts was already pre-programmed. What you were going to get, when you were going to get it, what the follow-up was going to be. And then I just was diligent. Every day. Back then I used ACT. And I would open my ACT. and it would tell me what my day would be hold. And it would be a call, an email, a send this direct mail, send this clutter buster.

We just really worked it and worked that process. Not unlike nowadays. Except nowadays I think the process is different. You’re not sending an email or a clutter buster you’re writing a blog post, or a white paper, or you’re recording a YouTube video that you can put out there so that people can find you and then walk their way down your cobblestone walkway to your agency’s front door.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Right.

Tom Martin:

But I think that was the thing is that we were really strategic about it. We were militantly strategic. And we really did our homework. I remember I would build these binders that were two and three inches thick that would be an entire category overview, primary competitor overview, everything, that I would give to our pitch teams so that they could come up to speed really, really quickly.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Sounds like it.

Tom Martin:

In categories that we might not really know anything about. So that we sound it a little smarter than we probably were when we did get the opportunity to have a conversation.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Well, it sounds like the way you attacked sort of the list and reaching out to those prospects is very much like how Steven and I talked in the book about sort of that nano list of, “Here are 25 companies that you’re going to pursue really vigilantly. But constantly giving them something of value rather than about you.” And the goal is that you keep at them until they hire you or they file a restraining order. But until one of those two things happens, you’re at it. Right?

Tom Martin:

Yep.

Drew McLellan:

And it sounds like you had that sort of same attitude.

Tom Martin:

You know, we really did. In fact, the last pitch I led at Mayor, which was the agency I started doing biz dev at, the very last pitch. I was literally getting ready to move a client from our A list to our B list. And the marketing director called me and said, “Hey, we’ve got this little PR project. Would you all be interested in pitching?” And I just started laughing. And he was like, “What are you laughing at?” I was like, “I’m sorry.” I said, “You don’t understand.” And I tell him the story about what I was about to do. And I said, “I’ve touched you 52 times in the last two years and not so much as a phone call or a go away or restraining order.”

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Tom Martin:

And he starts laughing on the phone. He says, “Well, I will tell you what.” He goes, “You’re being called today because I have every one of those things sitting in front of me in a file folder.”

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Tom Martin:

“I’ve kept everything you’ve ever sent me. Every email, every direct mail, every … I just never had a need. And now I have a need.” And so, I mean, it was so funny. Because we were so close to moving him to the, “Oh, they’re not interested,” list. And then 52 times before this person finally called us.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. But I think that’s the fallacy, right? I mean, I think as agency owners, even though we intellectually understand this, our hearts can’t wrap our heads around it. Until they absolutely have a need, there is nothing we can do. There’s no coupon, there’s no buy one, get one free. There’s no white sale. There’s nothing we can do to incent them to hire us before they’re ready. And so since we have no frigging idea, when they’re going to be ready, the only thing we can do is just continue to invest for as long as it takes for them to come around. And some people come around in a day and others come around in a decade.

Tom Martin:

Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

And you just have no idea when that’s going to happen. Right?

Tom Martin:

Yeah. You really don’t. And there are times. I remember, there was one barbecue company, they were selling 1800 direct response. Which Mayor, the agency I worked at, we were really, really good at direct response. And so we just did a little simple little research study. We had about 30 people from the agency come all them and their competitors and just kind of see what showed up in the mail. And what we quickly figured out was what showed up from them was a mess. Not everybody got the same brochure. Somebody got this, somebody got an owner’s manual. And all of a sudden we’re like, “Okay. This guy has a problem.”

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Tom Martin:

And so we used that in our outreach. We said, “Hey, we think you have a problem and we’re real good at this. We can fix this for you.” And it was so funny is that we finally did get a chance to talk to him. He knew he had the problem. He just didn’t know where to turn to fix it. And he didn’t know-

Drew McLellan:

Right. How to fix it.

Tom Martin:

That we were necessarily a great agency for that. He’s overwhelmed. He’s got 9 million things and all of a sudden we show up and we’re like, “Hey, we know you have this problem. And by the way, we can fix it for you. We’re really good at this.” And long story short, they became a client within about six weeks. There was no RFP, there was no pitch.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Tom Martin:

It was just single source. And it was great. Right? But that’s that’s kind of what you have to do. I think you have to spend a lot of time in preparation, a lot of time in process. And then if you do the two of those well, good things come out the back end. You end up invited to pitch or you get single source opportunities like that. Or people nowadays will just show up in your inbox via your web form saying, “I’ve been reading your stuff.” Or, “I’ve this or that. I think you can help us. Can we talk?”

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Well, but you can’t do that with a list of 500 people.

Tom Martin:

No.

Drew McLellan:

I mean, I think, again. That’s, again, one of the fallacies is I’ll say to an agency owner, “What is your biz dev list? What does your prospect list look like?” And they’ll go, “Oh, well, we’ve got 5,000 people.” And I’m like, “That’s not a prospect list. That’s an email subscription list. But that is not a prospect list.”

Tom Martin:

Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

You got to get down to a handful of people because if you’re going to do the research like you’re talking about, and you’re going to touch them on a frequent enough basis in a meaningful way that helps them do their job better every single time as opposed to patting yourself in the back or talking about the award or doing the thing, then you actually have to know who they are. And you can’t know who 500 or 5,000 prospects are.

Tom Martin:

That is so true. And it’s just like anything else. I mean, if you want to be interesting, you have to be interested.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Tom Martin:

Because people, A, it shows when you’re interested. It shows when you’ve taken the time to learn a person’s business, or you’ve learned a little factoid that you can do something really creative. I remember when we were trying to get into Whole Foods. And I was deep diving, doing my research. And I find out that even though their CEO, he is a tree hugging hippie from Austin.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Tom Martin:

He is super competitive. And in their world, it was them and, at the time, it was, I think, called Wild Oats. Wild Oats, I think, was the other one. And in their world, that was like Coke and Pepsi.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Tom Martin:

And so we literally, our idea was to send him a clutter buster. It was a crate and inside with a bag full of wild oats that were there and a hammer with our agency’s name on it. And it just said something like, Crushed Oats, compliments of Peter Mayor Advertising.” And I didn’t put a business card in it or anything. We sent it … The only way you could figure out who sent it was they looked on the FedEx label and they called the traffic department. Because that was the only name that was on the label. And said, “Hey, we’re Whole Foods. And somebody just sent us that. We need to talk to the person who sent us this box.”

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Tom Martin:

And it was just because they were like, “You get us.”

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Tom Martin:

You understand and that, no, we’re not these hippy Austin people. We’re a business. We’re competitive. And, yeah. We [crosstalk 00:15:57]-

Drew McLellan:

And we do want to crush these people. Right.

Tom Martin:

Yeah. We do want to crush them. Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Tom Martin:

We are that competitive. And obviously nobody’s ever done that. And week later, we’re in their offices. And I walk in their offices. I’m not kidding you, Drew. They had it in the reception, the marketing reception like they were putting their kids trophies up or something. It was hilarious.

Drew McLellan:

That’s awesome.

Tom Martin:

But just goes to show you that if you get to know who it is you’re trying to prospect, you can leap and bound over everybody else because you’re interesting now.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Well and I always say, we go in chasing out after them. So it’s very clear, we’re interested. But we’re not that interesting because we’re not talking about them. And I think you’re right. You have to be both.

Tom Martin:

Yeah. I, mean, let’s face it. Everybody’s favorite topic of discussion is themselves. They just don’t want to admit it.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely. That’s right. Look at a cocktail party. The most interesting person you met was the one who asked you the most questions about you, right? Yeah.

Tom Martin:

Yep.

Drew McLellan:

Unless they’re a salesperson. Insurance sales guy. Then not so interesting. But, yeah. That’s the exception. So, all of this was pre COVID. And one of the things I’m hearing, a lot of agency owners talking about is how hard it is to sell these days. Air quotes. And I hear the, “Well, we can’t go to trade shows. We can’t go to events. We can’t do all of these things.” What’s your response to that?

Tom Martin:

I get it. You’ve been doing something your whole career and all of a sudden you can’t do it anymore. So by default, it creates stress and anxiety. And no one’s ever really taught you a different way to do it.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Tom Martin:

So now you’re really anxious. But as someone who has been doing virtual selling for 12 years, this is how I’ve always sold. It’s just how I did it. It was out a necessity. It was cheaper, frankly. And I feel bad for them because I don’t think what they understand is that it, yes, I get it. It’s difficult. But it’s actually a blessing because when you really embrace the idea of v