Episode 28

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Jody Sutter started her career in sales and ended up working in agencies leading the new business teams. Today she runs The Sutter Company, a business development consultancy. She spends a lot of time working with agencies to take a more proactive approach to growing their business with a special emphasis on how they communicate and tell their unique story.

 

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • Why strong writing is more important than ever in our digital age
  • The major mistakes that agencies make when presenting themselves in writing
  • How to avoid making the big mistakes agencies make when responding to RFPs
  • Why editing is so important for improving your team’s writing, how to get good at it, and what you should keep in mind if you are outsourcing the editing
  • How agencies can differentiate themselves through storytelling
  • The Pixar pitch
  • The “5 things that you can do to make your writing better right away” checklist
  • What you need to do to assess whether or not your writing needs improvement

 

The Golden Nugget:

“Writing is 10% writing, 80% editing, and 10% proofreading.” – @jodysutter Share on X

Click to tweet: Jody Sutter shares the inside knowledge needed to run an agency on Build a Better Agency!

 

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Speaker 1:

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 McLellan:

Hey, everybody, Drew McLellan here. Welcome to another episode of Build a Better Agency. So glad you are back with us. Today’s conversation is going to be packed with things that you can put into play right away. My career started in the agency business as a writer, and I have always been very fond of the written word. It’s one of my favorite things to do, and that’s one of the things that I appreciate most when I see the talent in other folks. And that’s why I’m really excited to have our guest with us today.

So, Jody Sutter started her career in sales and ended up working in agencies, design firms and ad agencies, leading mostly the new business team. But at her heart, she’s always been a writer. In fact, a psychic once told her she would end up being a professional writer. And apparently that has come to be because, today, what Jody does is she runs a business development consultancy called The Sutter Company. Jody spends a lot of time working with agencies and helping them put a more proactive approach to growing their business, but with a special emphasis around how they communicate and getting jargon and generalizations and wordiness and sloppy writing out of their proposal and all of the things that they use to promote their agency.

Jody want to step further and partnered with a journalist in a Columbia journalism school professor and created a persuasive writing course for new business, specifically for agencies, in teaching them how powerfully persuasive the written word can be. And so we’re going to dig into all of that with Jody. We’re going to talk about all the places where agencies sort of stumble as they write for themselves and probably for clients and how you could do that better. So, Jody, welcome to the show.

Jody Sutter:

Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to be contributing.

Drew McLellan:

Oh, it’s going to be a great conversation. So, let’s start off with, the demand for writing for agencies I believe is greater than ever before between the buying decision being made so much online now in terms of our prospects are hunting us down on the web and doing a lot of their home work, following us on social media and following our content and checking out the website long before they long before they ever reach out to an agency. So do you think that agencies today, even though we’re in a digital age, are depending more on the written word than ever before? Or am I off base?

Jody Sutter:

No, I think you’re 100% right. It is because we are in a digital age. You think about when 15, 20 years ago, especially in a sales role, the primary tactic of a new business person or a salesperson would be a phone call or an in-person meeting. Unfortunately, I’m old enough to remember the days and I started out in sales, working for commercial production companies, and I remember the days of walking the halls. Right?

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Jody Sutter:

It was interpersonal and it was very effective. Those days are over. But you still need to communicate in that same genuine but succinct and direct and persuasive way. But now you have to do it through the written word, whether it’s email, whether it’s on your website, or whether it’s through your client briefings. Yeah. So first thing that I get people to think about is, how often the written word is the first thing that your prospects see.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. As an agency owner, because I play dual roles, I have AMI but I also still on my agency, I find that when I’m interviewing job applicants or I’m even screening people for internships, I’m sort of appalled at the writing skill level that kids are coming out of college with.

Jody Sutter:

Yes, definitely. And unfortunately, I think college reinforces that as opposed to better habits. It’s very unfortunate.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I think they sort of learn to use language to bloat papers and other things, and so there’s always a lot of hype and hyperbole that doesn’t really need to be there, along with bad punctuation and all the other stuff that I see.

Jody Sutter:

Yeah. I don’t want to generalize because I’m not an academic, but I think unfortunately many academics themselves are prone to that type of bloated language and hyperbole and jargon.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Jody Sutter:

So maybe I should start teaching these workshops at higher education or places of higher learning, which would be kind of ironic.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Jody Sutter:

One of the things that we started teaching in our workshops was to try to get people away from writing in bullet points. One of the things I point out is that, in college, most people, even in high school and sometimes grammar school, you learn how to write in an outline. That’s one of the tools they teach you.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Jody Sutter:

Here’s how you write in an outline form. And again, academia college often reinforces that. And then you get into the advertising world and there is a dangerous but subtle transition from writing an outline form to writing in bullet form, and it becomes this weird, ugly animal. So you’re doing what you think you are told to do in school, and instead you’re writing this patchwork of bullets where, quite frankly, usually, and I’ve analyzed this in a lot of my client’s writing, your most important point is at the very bottom of your list and bullets, usually a second or third sub bullet. And so, yes, that’s an example of the dangerous mix of academic writing and professional writing. Not a happy marriage.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So for the listeners who are all of a sudden scanning their brain for what their web copy looks like and all of that, give us some of the big mistakes that you identify when you look at how an agency presents itself in writing.

Jody Sutter:

Yeah. Well, I think the biggest mistake is relying on the generalizations that almost every other agency uses to describe themselves.

Drew McLellan:

Oh, wait, let me see, full service integrated marketing agency.

Jody Sutter:

Exactly.

Drew McLellan:

Yep.

Jody Sutter:

Exactly. Or you even get some great gems like, “We are true partners.”

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Jody Sutter:

The amount of times I’ve seen that, that sort of makes my stomach turn when I read that, just because I read it all over and over again.

Drew McLellan:

Right, right.

Jody Sutter:

And frankly, that goes beyond good writing because that requires a lot of self-reflection, that difficult self-reflection to figure out how you can go beyond those generalizations. I think fear plays a huge role as well, and fear on lots of different levels. But there’s one just fear of putting pen to paper or putting fingers to keypad. But I think there’s also this fear of, if you move beyond the generalization and you start to stick a claim and say something specific, well, then there’s really no going back.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Jody Sutter:

So, if you-

Drew McLellan:

Well, and when you say you’re about something, by definition, you’re also saying what you’re not about. And I think a lot of agency owners worry about leaving money on the table.

Jody Sutter:

Exactly.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Jody Sutter:

Yes. So a lot of times I help them with that. The other thing that I see a lot on agency websites, is just saying too much, too much all at once, and not letting the work speak for itself. So those are two things that I think can be addressed right away for most agencies on their website when they make that initial first impression for clients who are looking to find them, as opposed to the agencies seeking the clients.

Drew McLellan:

Right. I think a lot of times agencies are guilty of the five pounds of information in a one pound bag where they just try and pack. It’s interesting because this is the very stuff they counsel clients against all the time. But, I think our clients, and in this case, agencies, are so worried that this is going to be their one shot to communicate that they really over communicate, which almost ensures it’s your one shot to communicate because you’ve either delved the senses of the reader or it’s just so dense that they don’t find it engaging enough to come back.

Jody Sutter:

Yeah. I use, and it’s a pretty basic sales principle, is to try to limit your communication to one big message, maybe two, but ideally you’re limiting it to one. Also, if we’re talking about a situation where you’re using the written word to prospect and build a relationship over time, the other thing I counsel my clients is to create a schedule or a campaign of communication. So yes, there’s another reason not to dump it all into that initial email. One, it’s not going to be read; and two, now you have no other reason to come back in a week or two with more information.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Right. Yeah. I think, again, agencies are great at giving advice to clients with the idea of multiple communications using marketing automation or whatever they may be using, but not always great at following it. Partially, it’s because I think most agencies don’t carve out enough time to do their own new business. And so they sort of end up slapping it together and sort of hoping that one big bang will suffice because they don’t have time to prune and maintain it.

Jody Sutter:

I agree. I totally agree. Again, getting away a little bit from the writing, but that’s often what I will do with some of my clients who are struggling there, is help them. So I guess it is, that you help them, again, come up with that schedule, then that cadence of communications that can be sustained over time. It’s great if there is some sort of automation that’s there, but you also don’t necessarily need, especially if you’re a smaller agency. And then I also advocate that you’re pursuing fewer, more targeted clients or prospects.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Jody Sutter:

You can actually do it manually, but it’s very helpful to come up with at least some kind of structure in the beginning. Because it’s pretty scary, it can also take 15 points of communication, these are the 15 messages that we want to say. Actually, I’m about to come out with my next blog post on a useful matrix that I’d also be happy to share with your audience. I introduced a matrix that shows sort of generic to specific communications on one access and simple to complicated on the other access. So you have your simple and generic, sort of for want of a better term, communications, which is, “We are XYZ agency and we know how to reach baby boomers.” So, that’s something that’s who you are. It’s very repeatable. You say the same thing all the time, no matter who you’re talking to.

Up to things like the simple but more complex, like a case study. So simple, because again, you have the information there, you need to write it well, but it’s there, it’s repeatable. To something, things like special offers that are a little less generic, a little bit more complex. Maybe that’s where you start to develop a special offer, that you think is going to be particularly of interest to that prospect.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Jody Sutter:

And all of a sudden, that I think takes the fear away of like, “Well, oh my gosh, I have to write. I have to think about 15 different ways I can carve out my message.” Well, if you’ve got that matrix showing there’s four clear buckets, then it makes it a lot easier, then all of a sudden you can start to plot out your messages a little bit more efficiently.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So what we’ll do is, we’ll include links to both of those matrixes in the show notes.

Jody Sutter:

Great.

Drew McLellan:

So, folks, as you’re listening, know that you’re going to want to go check out the show notes and be able to access both of those. So that’ll be great. Let’s shift away from the website and the new business thing. When agencies are putting together proposals and they’re responding to either an RFP or a request for proposal, whether it’s formal or informal, what are the big mistakes that they make there?

Jody Sutter:

Well, gosh, where do I start? Well, there are several. I think one is in the planning. Now, a lot of times agencies are not given a huge amount of time, so I will acknowledge that right at the start.

Drew McLellan:

Even when they are, they don’t start usually far enough out that they have a lot of time. Let’s be fair.

Jody Sutter:

That’s true. In fact, that’s a beautiful lead into the first big mistake, is even if you’ve been given only a week, you can still start to organize your time in sensible ways so that you’re not pulling an all nighter the night before, because… One of the best ways to improve your writing right away, is to edit. Editing takes time and editing also takes a fresh perspective. One of the other exercises that we do in our workshop, and I’ll completely admit that we have blatantly stole this from another writing expert named Laura Brown, who wrote How to Write Anything, it’s a great book, it’s almost like a recipe book for writing, but she came up with this idea of the writing spinner. Because as we were saying before, people tend to procrastinate. Right? And I think that’s tied into fear.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Jody Sutter:

Not only because it’s like, “Ugh, I don’t want to do it,” but it’s also something a little bit deeper like, “Ugh, I don’t want to fail.”

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Jody Sutter:

So she says, “Look, starting is the hardest part, but there are different ways to start.” So start to get to familiarize yourself with what is most comfortable for you. So, the writing spinner says, you can start by dumping words on a page, or if you tend to be a little bit more organized, you can start by outlining, or you can start with brainstorming with a friend. But you still have to go through an editorial process, the point is to get comfortable with throwing stuff on the page. By the way, no matter how good or how experienced a writer you are, it’ll always be pretty horrifying. So, you also have to get comfortable with that. The sooner you can get comfortable with that and the sooner you get kind of that garbage on the page, the sooner you can start to see the jewels emerging from the garbage.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Right.

Jody Sutter:

You could start to go back, start to edit out. My writing style, I’m a bit of a word dumper, I tend to just start writing stuff. But what I find is that, rather than writing stuff and then going back to it, I find that once I get going, then the story emerges. Usually, for me, a lot of times, it’s all I… Not all I have to do, but a lot of times the first thing I have to do when I go back to edit, is just delete the first two paragraphs. And then I realize I’ve got actually something that’s pretty good shape. So I’m sort of the ramp-up person. I need that running down the runway before I take off.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Jody Sutter:

But again, other people may need to take a more organized approach, “I’m going to do this. My first opening statement is here. I want to make these three points and conclude here.” But the point is not to feel like you have to get stuck in one method. That’s actually not right for you. So yeah, give yourself time, give yourself the freedom to be messy and unsuccessful on that first try, but then go back and edit. Give yourself several rounds of editing.

Drew McLellan:

And what about having other people edit? How critical is that for agencies when they’re creating responses to some sort of proposal request?

Jody Sutter:

I don’t think anyone has asked me that in that form. So my first response was, I personally think it’s very important to edit yourself. But I think what often happens with a lot of agencies is that, usually there’s one person who’s in charge of it. I think even with smaller agencies, there’s one person, whether that’s the agency president, or whether they’re lucky enough to have head of new business, or if it’s the strategy person. But typically, there’s also sub-assignments.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Jody Sutter:

So I may be in charge of writing 50% of it and organizing the rest, but I’m assigning things out, so is that central organizer. Yeah, there’s a requirement to… Your contributors, they want them to be able to communicate with their own voice if they feel comfortable, but then you have to be the one who then edits that through the filter of the agency brand.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Jody Sutter:

That’s advanced, I’ll fully admit it, and it takes practice. But good and seasoned new business people, that’s something that they’ve been able to develop over time. But for something like that, that’s a tricky thing. I’m so used to editing my own work that rarely do I have other people edit for me. I think what is really important, in fact, crucial, is proofreading.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Jody Sutter:

That’s when you definitely want a difference set of eyes on your own work.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I find sometimes, even in my own writing though, that I’m so clear in my own head about what I want to communicate that sometimes I will take kind of a shortcut in my writing. And it’s not always as clear to a reader as it is for me, the writer, in my own head, because I’ve got the whole context in the backstory. I know sometimes when we’re working on new business pitches and things like that, I may be the lead architect of the document, but it’s helpful throughout the process to have somebody else coming back behind me, maybe not to edit, but to sort of review and go, “That’s a little unclear,” or, “Did you mean this or that?” or catch jargon, that sort of thing, throughout the process. So that’s, for us anyway, a helpful way to make sure that what’s in my head actually gets on paper and I’ve articulated it clearly.

Jody Sutter:

You really are absolutely right. And I suppose, I’m also thinking, when I work with clients, often I’m in that role.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Right.

Jody Sutter:

So I think one of the keys is also to make sure you have someone who you trust, who’s editing it for you, who’s looking at it, and then also be willing to take their input, be willing to assess it critically, accept it, and then use it if the person is right, and maybe don’t use it if it doesn’t feel right to you. But, the important thing is, don’t let your ego get involved.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So, obviously, in most cases, when an agency is submitting some sort of written proposal that other agencies are also submitting proposals, I think a lot of agencies think that their stuff is really unique. But when you see a lot of it, like you, or I do, I think you very quickly see that it all sounds pretty much the same. How can agencies really differentiate themselves in that sort of a written document so that their work or their proposal does stand out from the four others that are being presented?

Jody Sutter:

Yeah. Well, I think, first of all, it does go back to be really clear about who you are and what you do best. And that goes beyond the writing. It’s difficult. It’s self-reflection. It’s that painful process. But once you get there, then the writing becomes so much easier because once you can articulate who you are and what you do well and what that brand means, then it’s a natural transition to start to develop that editorial voice. But one of the other exercises that we introduce to our clients is storytelling. And I think that is often neglected. And again, it’s sort of ironic because advertising agencies are very good at storytelling on behalf of their clients, of-

Drew McLellan:

Right, right.

Jody Sutter:

… weaving a story throughout a campaign, but they’re not so good when they’re talking about their own material. So we introduce the concept of a story arc, and we relate it to stories that we all know, the idea that you start with a certain level of stasis, then the surprise and setbacks as you go on the journey to a climax and to a resolution. I’m really abbreviating it there. But what we point out is that, while that makes sense for something like a Harry Potter, or a Wizard of Oz, we then say, “Okay, let’s look at that in the context of, say, a case study.” And I usually use case studies because they’re really the most obvious, in fact, case studies are stories because it starts out with some sort of stasis with the client. The client was bumping along quite happily until something happens, some trigger, like a new competitor in the market place or the economy tanked.

So, that’s when the agency has handed that challenge of how to fix the problem, and the agency then proceeds to go on its journey. During which, there are surprises and setbacks, and that’s throughout their research phase, that’s throughout developing their insights and their strategies, that’s throughout their creative development, even the creative execution. I think sometimes agencies can take things for granted, like the fact that maybe they’ve decided for a particular client or campaign that they’re going to use a new technology, new and untested technology. Well, something like that is a wonderful way to add a certain amount of tension in that story, in that case study because we don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s a brand new technology. So you’re telling a good story, but the underlying messages are: We are an agency that knows how to take smart risks for our clients. We’re an agency that’s creative. We’re an agency that doesn’t say no. We’re an agency that’s-

Drew McLellan:

We’re innovative.

Jody Sutter:

Right.

Drew McLellan:

We’re always on the cutting edge of what’s new. Right.

Jody Sutter:

Without having to say, “We are innovative and on the cutting edge,” which doesn’t really tell them anything.

Drew McLellan:

So really, what you’re saying is, it’s one of the ways to make that kind of a document different than everyone else’s, is to show more than tell.

Jody Sutter:

Show more than tell and do it within a story format. Because even though your competitors may also be using story formats, they’ll be telling a different story.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Right.

Jody Sutter:

It’s only you can tell your own story.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and many of them, probably to be concise or telling the story in bullet points, which to your earlier point, (a) a lot of times you get the importance out of order, but (b) it’s pretty difficult to put any emotion into bullet points.

Jody Sutter:

Exactly.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Jody Sutter:

Exactly. And I think, again, it’s letting go of that fear a little bit. I think, sometimes, why the story format can be really useful is that, it becomes a device also to remove some of the apprehension. Am I going to sound good? Does anyone really care about the story? I think you can sort of follow that path. Another thing that we use, something else that we blatantly ripped off, is a thing called the Pixar Pitch. I first learned about it in Dan Pink’s book To Sell Is Human.

Drew McLellan:

Which is a great book.

Jody Sutter:

It’s a wonderful book for almost anyone who runs an agency and is involved in this development.

Drew McLellan:

Yep.

Jody Sutter:

And he got it from a former Pixar story artist named Emma Coats. What she did is, she discovered that all Pixar stories can be boiled down to a really simple format that essentially goes, “Once upon a time, this thing happened. And because of that, this thing happened. Because of that, the other thing happened. Because of that, finally, they came to this conclusion.” And again, I’m oversimplifying yet. I’m sorry, I don’t have it in front of me to be loyal to it. But it essentially takes in all the elements of the classic story arc, but it’s super simple. So a lot of times we’ll go through that exercise to get people to bring new life to a case study or an agency bio,