Episode 331

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Agency life has evolved dramatically since the era portrayed in shows like Mad Men. We used to be the keepers of the “secret sauce” for making the magic happen, and now we’re the keepers of the secret knowledge for using that magic to its greatest potential. Agencies used to be expected to be generalists, but now clients and prospects are looking for specialists with a depth of strategic expertise. And part of that specialty is having a clear point of view. But you can’t just whisper it; you have to shout it from the mountaintops.

This episode continues a short series dedicated to improving your agency’s biz dev efforts. We’ve discussed the importance of finding a niche several times on this podcast. But here — our focus will be to go a step further. We’ll look at the importance of claiming and declaring your agency’s point of view — and how to do it.

There are questions you can ask of your agency to finetune your POV. There are ways your agency can be findable without needing to continuously create and churn out original content for each different platform. And you might think you need to speak to a large audience but focusing smaller is actually easier and faster to monetize. Putting the ideas spelled out in this conversation into action will help set your agency on a course toward success.

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 POV

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • The timeline of how agency life has changed
  • The importance of declaring your point of view
  • Questions to help you define your agency’s point of view
  • The cornerstone & cobblestone content concept
  • Why it’s easier to monetize a narrower audience
“We have to plant our flag in the ground and say who we are and what we’re about.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet “What are some truths that you have learned that influence the way that you work?” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet “How do you serve your clients in a unique way?” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet “Once you’ve figured out your niche, figured out your point of view, now you have to be brave enough to tell the world about it.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet “You do have to pick that cornerstone and then let it drive how you atomize all that content.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet “We associate expertise with a kind of coverage, or exposure.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet “It’s not about being everywhere; it’s about being findable in the right few places and then trusting the audience and community that they will help fan the flames and get you to other places.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet “The narrower your audience, the faster you can monetize.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet

Ways to contact Drew McLellan:

Tools & Resources:

About the Author: Drew McLellan

For 30+ years, Drew McLellan has been in the advertising industry. He started his career at Y&R, worked in boutique-sized agencies, and then started his own (which he still owns and runs) agency in 1995. Additionally, Drew owns and leads the Agency Management Institute, which advises hundreds of small to mid-sized agencies on how to grow their agency and its profitability through agency owner peer groups, consulting, coaching, workshops, and more.

  • Leading agency owner peer groups
  • Offering workshops for agency owners and their leadership teams
  • Offering AE Bootcamps
  • Conducting individual agency owner coaching
  • Doing on-site consulting
  • Offering online courses in agency new business and account service

Because he works with over 250+ agencies every year, Drew has the unique opportunity to see the patterns and the habits (both good and bad) that happen over and over again. He has also written several books, including Sell With Authority (2020), and has been featured in The New York Times, Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, and Fortune Small Business. The Wall Street Journal called his blog “One of 10 blogs every entrepreneur should read.”

Speaker 1:

It doesn’t matter what kind of an agency you run, traditional, digital, media buying, web dev, PR, whatever your focus, you still need to run a profitable business. The Build a Better Agency Podcast presented by White Label IQ, will show you how to make more money and keep more of what you made. Let us help you build an agency that is sustainable, scalable and if you want down the road sellable. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency, owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McClellan.

Drew McClellan:

Hey, everybody Drew McClellan here from Agency Management Institute. Welcome back to another episode of Build a Better Agency. Happy to have you back. As you know, if you’ve been following in real time, I’m doing something a little different in the early part of 2022. I decided that I was going to break the pattern of four guests and then a solo cast, four guests and a solo cast. Because there was some things about biz dev that I wanted to talk to you about. And I really wanted you to come out of the gate in 2022, thinking about biz dev differently, thinking about it in a more concentrated way and really getting to it faster. And so this is the fourth episode of this little mini series I’m doing. And I’m hoping that it’s been helpful to you so that’s the preamble for today. So by the way, I have this persistent cough thing going on.

So you’re going to hear my voice is a little scratchy sometimes. I’m fine. A couple of you asked after last week’s episode, I’m all good. It’s just a scratchy throat. So nothing to worry about. Before I tell you about today’s biz dev topic and we dig into it, want to remind all of you that the Build Better Agency summit is coming up May 24th and 25th. If you’re an AMI member, AMI family day is the 23rd Monday, we’re going to come in and do some panel discussions and have dinner together. Then the conference starts on Tuesday, the 24th, amazing speakers, great other agency owners and leaders to hang out with. It’s going to be a great couple days. I’m excited about it. We are capped at 300 people, so we’re about 50% there. So grab your ticket now if you can so that A, you don’t have to pay any price increases as we keep going up closer to the event, but B, so you get a ticket.

So I’d love to see you May 24th and 25th in Chicago the Build a Better Agency, summit. People who went last year are coming back and we would love to have you join us as well, whether this would be your first year or you’re a repeat so happy to see you. So I think it’ll be fun. All right. So I promised that in this week’s episode, I wanted a little bit about sort of how we got to this place where the old way of selling. Agency services is no longer really working for people and that we have to find a new way. And it’s a mix of happenings. And I thought it was really sort of fascinating, Stephen Woessner and I did some research on this topic when we were writing our books Sell With Authority a couple years ago. And sort of found it fascinating to look back at our own industry and sort of think about sort of what we’ve gone through together to get to this place.

So back in the mad men days, when you think about it, agencies made money completely differently. They made money giving away everything we sell today. They gave away creative, they gave away production, they gave away strategy. They gave away account service and PR because they made all of their money on media commissions and production markups. That was the only way an agency made money back in those days. And so you could give away the farm, you could spend all the money you wanted on production and all those other things because it wasn’t really tied to explaining to a client what you were doing. And so agencies were valued for all of the things that we did, but understand that the clients understood that they weren’t paying for it too, that the commission was covering it. Then you get into the ’80s and ’90s and all of a sudden there’s all kinds of things agencies are doing.

So back in the madman days, all they did were commercials really, radio, television, print, but it was all tied to media. And so everything they did had a commission structure tied to it. So they got paid handsomely. So as agencies evolved and sort of spread their wings a little bit in terms of what they offered and they started offering things that weren’t going to ever run on a media that you paid for, then all of a sudden agencies had to start selling things that they gave away. So they start to sell creative and executions like PR, but still gave away strategy. And then tried to augment that income through media commissions and production markups. But once the internet came and all of a sudden we were doing all of these digital things. So 1990s to 200s, now we’re adding websites to the mix and back then very rudimentary digital strategies.

So we still sold the creative, the build, the production of the things, but we still were giving away strategy and attempting to make the money up in other places. It wasn’t really until around the year 2000 and I would say PR agencies were probably ahead of the game on this. But for most traditional creative agencies, it wasn’t really until the year 2000 or so that we started actually beginning to think about charging for strategy and thinking sort of recognizing that what our clients valued most from us was our thinking, was our insights, was our knowledge. It wasn’t that we could make this stuff because by the year 2000, there were tools out there that a lot of people could make this stuff. It used to be we had that secret sauce that clients didn’t know how to produce a radio spot or a TV spot or things like that.

But as computers got more sophisticated, as they got into more people’s hands, more and more people were able to do what agencies did. And this is sort of the era of the freelancers starting to eat our lunch as well, because now all of a sudden an independent could do some of the things that we were doing. So now you’ve got 2000 to 2010 Google now launches AdWords, and we enter this era of social and digital where agencies are being tasked with all kinds of new things, tied to media that doesn’t necessarily pay us a commission. And so now we’re having to get really serious about charging fees for everything we do. So creative, media, production, but also finally for strategy. And we were making some pretty good progress. And then, 07, 08, 09, the recession came and agencies were scrambling to stay alive.

And so we made a lot of concessions around price and in many cases says the concession around price was around strategy. So post-recession 2010, maybe to 2017, couple of things are happening. Now that we have this explosion of channels, all these new deliverables, most of them not tied to commission, we’re coming out of the recession, clients are now used demanding more and more from us for less and less because of the recession. Content marketing is now a thing, wasn’t a thing before, although we were often doing it, we just didn’t call it that. But now all of a sudden we’re talking to clients about it. But the other thing that was happening between 2010 and 2017 is that the buying cycle changed. All of a sudden, everybody was online. Everybody had a website, everybody had a presence on social and so customers or clients in our case could do a ton of their shopping, where they normally had to do it by picking up the phone and having meetings or showing up at a retail location.

They could do a ton of their shopping online and buying decisions were being made differently. And all of a sudden geography is less of an issue for us. Clients from all over can find us and we have to differentiate ourselves in a different way. And so this is really the era 2010, many agencies were specialists before 2010, but this was the era when agencies began to behave like they were a subject matter expert. And they started using the content strategies and the vehicles on the internet to deliver that subject matter expertise. But now our clients are coming to us for content and they expect us to be able to create content for them. Then sometimes they look at our website and they go, well, if you.. And we’ve sold in content, we’ve talked about how important it is to be findable, fill in the blanks.

And then they look at our website and say, well, are you findable? Do you have a presence in all of these channels? Are you omnipresent? And that’s a difficult question for some agencies to answer. So the truth of it is today, and this was as true four or five years ago as it is today, but it becomes more imperative if we haven’t done it yet, is the channels are going to keep changing, right? We know that, nobody was talking about TikTok five years ago and now everybody’s talking about it and there’ll be something in five years that we’re not talking about today that’ll be the thing. So the channels are going to keep changing. But the truth of it is we do have to establish our expertise, the buying cycle, the buying habits aren’t going to change. Our clients are going to continue to shop online.

Our clients are going to compare us to other agencies and oftentimes with no regard to geography. So if it’s not about geography, if we’re not their local agency that they met at a networking event and we don’t have an area of expertise for a generalist agency, then it boils down to being about price, or we just get disregarded altogether. So we’ve got to plant our flag in the ground. We have to establish who we are and what we’re about. So can you call yourself a generalist? Absolutely, you can. Do I think that is the most efficient way and cost effective way and profitable way to be an agency today? No, I don’t. You know that, that’s my bias, which I will gladly and proudly own as a bias. I have just seen too many agencies that are generalists struggle and struggle and struggle.

And certainly in the last few years really struggled to survive because they didn’t have a toll hold to dig their foot in and kind of climb the mountain that they had to climb. They were just trying to scale them mountain with nothing but their fingernails digging into the rock versus agencies that do have a position or that are a thought leader or an authority, or have a subject matter expertise or have a niche, however you want to call it. They had toll hold and they could climb out. I’m not saying it was easy but what I am saying is they were able to do it better than the generalists. And so I think today’s buying cycle where people are looking for us online, where are they going to find us? How are they going to find us?

What are they going to be searching for that helps them find us? And most clients, when we talk to them in our research, what they care most about is that we have a subject matter expertise. They love it when we understand their industry, they see it as a huge advantage to them that we do. And so if you have a position that aligns with their industry or the audience they’re trying to reach, or the problem they’re trying to solve, whatever it is, you are going to be a more of a considered purchase than somebody else. So what I want to talk about today is what does it really take? What do we have to do? What do we actually have to do to make this work? So I believe that we’re sort of in the era of the emperor has no clothes.

So if we continue to promote the importance of content and thought leadership and being findable to our clients, and we are not doing that for ourselves, I think that our clients are going to say, you know what, if you thought it was that important, you would do it. I also think again, it means we have no toe hold. So if we’re a generic agency, a generalist agency, and we want them just to hire us because we’re smart. Sure, a lot of other agencies are smart. We’re personable and friendly and fun to work with. Yes, but so are many other agencies. So it boils down to two things. Were local, we’re close to you, and we’re cost effective. So it’s a price game. So if you don’t want to play those games, then I believe that you have to differentiate yourself in some way. The good news is I don’t think it has to cost you a lot of time and money.

And I think that’s the big misperception around all of this is that agencies will say, we just don’t have the time. We can’t sustain the effort of being everywhere all of the time. And I’m here to tell you, you don’t have to be everywhere. You have to be in a few places, but that’s the misnomer I think of this is that agencies believe, which is ironic because we don’t do that for our clients, we don’t put them everywhere. But we think we have to be everywhere. And that’s unsustainable and you’re right, it absolutely is unsustainable. So there is a sustainable way to do this that allows you to demonstrate who you are and how you’re different and how smart you are in that space so that you can own some real estate in that space. So in previous episodes of the series, we talked a little bit about the ditching down and how to pick your niche.

So I’m not going to get into that. I’m going to assume that you’ve thought about that and that you have landed on an area where you can really hang your hat and say, you know what we are… And again, it doesn’t have to be an industry. So yes, you may be a rural community hospital agency, fine. That is an industry. It’s a niche. You may be B2B considered purchase in the ag space agency. Fine, that’s a niche. But you could also be an audience niche. You could be again, the millennial moms agency, or we understand women over 50 better than anybody else, or we understand the Hispanic market or the gay market, whatever it is. So it could be audience centric, it could be industry centric, or it could be deliverable centric. So again, we’ve talked about this in previous episodes, maybe you’re the Amazon marketplace agency, or you do PPC and SEO better than anybody else.

The window of opportunity in the deliverable niche is smaller because more and more agencies will get good at those things. It’s hard for somebody to catch up with your knowledge about a certain audience when you really understand an audience or a niche. It’s much harder to get caught up on that than it is to become really good at Amazon marketplace. But you have all of those options. And you know, the big one when we talked about this a couple episodes ago is having that strong point of view, that opinion. So not only do I have this niche, but I have this strong point of view around the niche. And so this is how we approach the work. This is how we talk about our agency and we differentiate our agency. And people always go, I don’t think we have a point of view and I’m telling you, you absolutely do.

You absolutely do. It’s sort of like peeling back the onion. You just have to sort of keep peeling away at it until you find out what it is. So ask yourself some questions like these. Like what are some truths that you have learned that influences the way you approach your work? So it might be that people don’t believe paid endorsements anymore, they only like it when they’re from the man on the street. It might be that whatever hospital that mom has a great birthing experience in becomes the family’s hospital for life. It doesn’t matter what it is, but there are certain, there are things that you know, and that you’ve experienced and you’ve seen over and over again, that influences how you guide clients. And so start identifying what some of those are. Or another way to think of it is what recommendations do you always make?

When you’re talking to clients or prospects and what questions do you always ask them because sometimes we ask questions so we can go, yes, I expected you to say that. And here’s why I think that’s true. Here’s what I think that means. We see all 12 of our rural community healthcare clients have experienced that exact same thing. And let me tell you a little bit about how we solve that problem. So it might be what questions do you always ask and what recommendations do you always make? And then what do you do that’s unique? How do you serve your clients in a unique way? And what I mean by that is you bring solutions to your clients. So what do those look like and how are they different from how other agencies would approach the problem or come up with a solution?

All of that starts to form your point of view. So I think and I’ve given you the example before, but at AMI, our strong point of view is most agency owners are accidental business owners that they didn’t go to school to own a business. It might not have even been their intention to own a business, but all of a sudden they hung up a shingle or something happened and next thing they knew they had a couple employees. And then they’re looking around going, oh crap, I’m running an agency, I’m running a business. I now need to understand how the P&L should look and what a general ledger looks like and how to think about HR laws and all the things that come owning a business. That it had nothing to do with being a great agency employee and being great at serving your clients.

But now all of a sudden you have a whole new host of problems that you sort of stumbled into because you stumbled into owning an agency. And so that’s our strong point of view, but that’s a critical element in this that you have a strong point of view. So again, what truth have you learned that influences your work? And so going back to my example of, we know that where mom has a great birthing experience ends up being where the family does all of their healthcare, their hospital stuff, because we believe in this fictional agency, I just made up, we believe that mom drives healthcare decisions and actions for our family. So that’s a strong core point of belief. So another example from… I think most of you know that I still own my own agency. And our strong point of view about the work that we do is that most clients spend their money backwards, that they spend the lion share of their marketing dollars on chasing after new clients.

And we believe they should spend the lion share of their marketing dollars on their existing clients to grow their business with them. So whatever it is. Another agency, one of the ways they uniquely serve their clients is they believe that the best agency client relationship is when the agency embeds an employee in the client’s office. So those are just three examples, right? But understand that you know what your strong point of view is, even if you don’t know it, you just have to kind of ask yourself some questions and peel back the onion a little bit to figure out what it is. That’s sort of essential number one. And the way that that translates for you is you marry it with your area of specialty. So again, because we understand the community hospital buyer is almost always the mom, we understand that mom buys in most households mom makes the healthcare decisions.

And what sets the course for that healthcare decision is the birthing experience that when a young mom or a first time mom has a great experience, then she attaches all of the warm, glowing feelings with having a baby and having a successful birth. And everyone coming around to welcome the new prince or princess to the world that really cements for her, her affection and her trust in a hospital. And so hospitals that really invest in creating a unique and magical birthing experience begin to build long term loyalty in their customers. So when you marry the point of view with your niche, now you can see how that starts to play out, right? Because airlines need to respond or market in real time today that they are always under the gun to be super responsive. We believe that we need to embed an employee inside the airlines office or multiple employees to support that real time 24/7 response. Again, same thing, niche combined with point of view.

So that’s it. And then the next essential of this is, so once you’ve figured out your niche and you’ve figured out your point of view, now you have to be brave enough to tell the world about it. And this is where I see a lot of agencies fall flat. So you’ll tell me in a whisper what your niche is, but it’s not on your website. Your website is still generic, or it’s not in your social channels, or it’s not in what you talk about on LinkedIn. So if you’re going to plant your flag, if you’re going to say, the world around me is swirling around, the channels are changing, the client demands are changing. I know clients are looking for people with an expertise. So I’m going to plant my flag right here in this fertile ground. I’m going to plant my flag and I’m going to declare a niche and I’m going to declare a point of view.

So when you are willing to do that, and now you’re willing to have all of your social channels, your website, and all of your thought leadership and content built around that sort of core belief, that point of view, that niche, what you know about those people, everything plays off of that. Everything you do should serve that audience and you don’t do it by hiding it. You don’t do it by sort of not talking about it. You do it by declaring it and you do it by owning it. And you do it by being bold and brave about it, which is a problem for a lot of agencies. So a lot of agencies in lieu of that and because they’re afraid to do that, to be that bold, then they create… they still create content, but now it’s generic marketing tips or blog posts or monthly newsletter, but it’s not written for someone specific and it’s not about something specific.

So it becomes by its nature, big and fluffy, and not as meaty and granular and as useful. What you want is you want somebody to read your newsletter or your blog post, or your marketing tip and go, oh my God, he or she is talking to me or about me. It cracks me up if I get emails every week after our newsletter goes out from somebody saying, are you bugging our office? How is it that you know that we just talked about this yesterday? Well, I know because I’m talking to hundreds and hundreds of agencies, but everything I write is just for you guys. And so when you hear me talk on the podcast or you see me write something in a newsletter, you know that I am talking to you and about you in the generic sense, the Royal you, not you, because I swear to God, I’m not bugging anyone’s office. But that all of that comes from not being generic, from being bold and brave to say, here’s who I serve.

And here are my people and here’s how I’m going to talk to my people and then doing that, right? So this leads to the panic that some people have of, I can’t possibly produce that much content. We don’t have time. We can barely get it done for our clients. So it’s really about understanding what Stephen and I call in the book, the cornerstone and cobblestone concept. And the cornerstone, that’s a great phrase. The cornerstone or the foundation stone or the setting stone, those are all words that mean the same thing is when you’re building something, you’re building a building, it’s the first stone that is set. And then all the other stones get set in reference to the cornerstone. So that determines the positioning of the entire structure is this one block, this one cornerstone. And what we want for you is we want you to have a cornerstone.

So it’s one piece of big meaty content that you can then slice and dice in a bunch of ways to create a lot more content without actually creating more content. So for example, I can take this podcast and I can grab five, one minute snippets and I can grab quote cards and I can grab, when I have a guest, I can grab two or three things the guest said. So it’s pretty easy to make. And I could do a video about the podcast. It’s pretty easy with this one piece of cornerstone content, the podcast episode to create let’s call it 10 or 15, we have a list it’s much longer than that. But 10 or 15 other pieces of content all from this piece of content all without not having another new thought in my head. It’s just, I’m going to just emphasize what was already been said, but I’m going to deliver it in different ways.

I’m going to do a quick little a video. I’m going to do some quote cards, I’m going to use different channels and different media to catch people’s attention, all to bring them back to the cornerstone. So all of that is true if you are a specialist. So if you just cannot buy the specialist thing, you’re like, you know what Drew, we’ve been a generalist agency for 40 years, seems to be working fine, not rocking that boat, not going to go to a niche, that’s fine. But then you need to think about yourself in terms of, okay, if I’m the generalist or we serve everybody, the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. And probably we serve everybody within a few hour radius of where we live then we’re sort of like the local general practitioner, the local country doctor. And a country doctor needs to know a little bit about everything because they’re literally taking care of babies and old people and everything in between.

And they really only service their local community. So that’s a point of view that you can say, you know what, we believe actually that the best marketing comes from an agency that is close to home. That is going to be with you from birth to death and understands all of the nuances of that and works with people that are our neighbors and our friends. That’s a point of view too. So you could still build content around that, but that’s basically the model, right? And the result of doing these things, of having this strong point of view around something around your niche, and then claiming it boldly, just drilling that flag into the ground is you become more than a business owner or an advisor. You actually are elevated to being a thought leader. You are elevated to being somebody… a subject matter expert, a trusted subject matter expert that ends up getting on other people’s podcasts and speaking at conferences and all those things.

And you get all that borrowed esteem, which makes you more than what you are just as an agency owner. It elevates you. And so then the trick is to take your one piece of cornerstone content and we believe that people are either writers or talkers. And so, as you’re thinking about what that cornerstone content should be ask yourself, writers tend to want to get it down on paper and then they want to be able to edit it. And they want to really be able to be precise in their language. So they’re going to do things like write a book or do a blog post series or things like that. Whereas talkers are people who are more comfortable speaking off the cuff and winging it and improvising. And so they’re going to do a podcast or a video series. So what you decide your cornerstone is, is kind of irrelevant.

It really needs to do two things. Number one, it needs to produce a piece of content that has enough richness and enough meat on the bone that you can thin slice it in a bunch of ways. And then disperse all those thin slices out into the world. So number one, it’s got to be big and meaty. So it can’t be a three minute video. Number two, it has to work for you because you want to build credibility with this, which means you want to keep doing it. So don’t choose writing a blog post if the idea of writing a blog post makes you want to stick a pencil in your eye. And don’t for the love of pitch, who’s doing a video series or a podcast, if you hate the sound of your own voice and you’d never want to see yo