Episode 92

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John Heenan is a former Chief Marketing Officer / New Business Leader at a variety of small and mid-size agencies responsible for business development and agency marketing. Before that, he worked on the client side managing advertising and agencies for big global brands like Sony, Phillips, and Uniden.

He has created and managed successful business development programs for small, medium, and large agencies generating millions of dollars in agency revenue. He has managed multi-million dollar ad budgets as a client, hired talent, built competitive advantage, and inspired great outcomes in support of business objectives.

John has also worked with some of the top innovative brands and aggressive advertising agencies in the world in both traditional and digital channels. Having been on both sides of the client-agency relationship, he has a unique understanding of what clients want and what agencies deliver. Today he is putting that experience to work for a small group of agencies who struggle to grow.

 

 

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • The experiences John had on the client side that led him to working on matching up agencies and clients
  • Why cohesive culture throughout the agency matters for clients
  • Why you must treat your agency as your #1 client
  • Crafting the first impression that leads will have of your agency
  • The importance of getting crystal clear on what your agency is selling
  • Director of Delivery: an important role inside modern agencies to make sure agencies deliver to clients
  • Why agency owners need to get out of the day-to-day and focus on new business
  • What John does differently to help agencies with new business
  • Why your agency needs to be rapidly changing

 

The Golden Nugget:

“Small to mid-size agencies can only -- and should only -- take on a few new clients every year.” – @jheenan Click To Tweet

 

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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 Agency Management Institute’s, Build A Better Agency podcast presented by HubSpot. We’ll 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 us 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody Drew McLellan here. Thank you for joining us for another episode of Build A Better Agency. As you know, my goal is to bring you information and guests who are all dedicated to helping you make your agency stronger, more financially viable, able to weather the ups and downs of agency life, and most important for me, a place that you love to go to work every day, and that serves your family and your financial needs and makes you happy to go to work. So that’s what we’re all about today, and today you’re going to love my guests.

So John Heenan is a former chief marketing officer and new business leader at several small and midsize agencies. He was often responsible for business development and agency marketing. Before that, John worked on the client side, managing advertising in agencies for big global brands like Sony and Phillips and Uniden. So he brings both sides of the equation to our conversation today.

But what John is doing now is, he is working with agencies to help them build out their new business programs, has managed multimillion dollar ad budgets as a client, hired talent, built competitive advantage and inspired great outcomes and supported business objectives. And he’s bringing all of that to his agency clients. And that is what we’re going to dig into today. So John, welcome to the podcast.

John Heenan:

Hey, thanks Drew. I appreciate being on the show and sharing my experience.

Drew McLellan:

So it’s like you have spent a lot of your career in the new business side of marketing, whether it was on the client side or the agency side. What made you head in that direction to begin with?

John Heenan:

Yeah, that’s a question my wife asks me every day. I started my career out, working on the client side, helping hire, manage and fire agencies for the brands that you had mentioned. And in that process I really got intimate with some of the best agencies in the world and came to know how they go about servicing their clients, the work that they do, the relationships that they have. And through that process I really was underwhelmed. I thought “We’re paying these agencies a lot of money and they have top reputations and yet they’re not really treating the client as well as they should.”

And so I thought, “There’s got to be a better way to match up a great agency with a very deserving client.” And so after about 15 years on the client side, I decided, “Maybe I can find a better way to match up agencies and clients.” So I jumped over to the agency side. And as you mentioned, I’ve been working inside of a variety of agencies, small and midsize agencies, doing just that finding great clients for those agencies and making that process work much more efficiently and effectively for those agencies. And so I’ve spent the last 15 or so years on the agency side and I really enjoy the hunt for new clients and the process for matching them up. And most importantly, really the joy of a great agency-client relationship and the success that comes from that.

Drew McLellan:

So when you jumped on the agency side, I suspect perfection was not present on day one. So what are some of the mistakes that you made early on that you now can fold into the teaching that you do when you work with agencies?

John Heenan:

Mistakes? I never made any mistakes. What are you talking about?

Drew McLellan:

All right. Let’s call them experiments that might have gone wrong.

John Heenan:

Yeah, you’re so right. After any agency pitch or client engagement, I always try to do a postmortem with the client to understand really what that experience was like from their perspective. And I tell them, the number one objective is to gain your trust and win your business. But second to that is to learn why we didn’t and what factors went into the decision that my agency can learn from and grow and be better. So with the average agency pitch win rate being around 25%, there’s a lot of opportunity to learn what your mistakes were and how you can do better next time.

Drew McLellan:

That’s for sure. Yeah.

John Heenan:

So the experiences really span the gamut. And in one case, we had a client, a national restaurant chain who wanted to come do a chemistry visit. And we had brought leadership in from two different offices and they thought the conversation went great. We talked about their needs and their challenges and the experiences we have and concluded with firm handshakes. And a couple days later, the search consultant calls and said, “The conversation was really good, but the client could really tell the difference in cultures between your two offices.” And that really worried them about the working experience.

So I’ve heard a number of people talk about whether culture in a agency-client relationship matters. And certainly, in this case with millions of dollars at stake, all the other factors being good, that cultural problem, not having great synergy between the people in the offices was really what happened. So that was a great learning experience to be able to make sure that the people that are in the room are in sync with each other, that it reflects and really expresses the culture of the agency so that marketers don’t have to be worried about that.

Drew McLellan:

One of the things I’m always harping on is that agencies are often underprepared when they go into pitches. Their idea of rehearsal is practicing it in the car on the way over.

John Heenan:

Yes.

Drew McLellan:

And I think sometimes it translates to the awkwardness that feels like chemistry is off amongst a team, even when the chemistry is great. But when you’re in a situation where you’re uncomfortable or feel underprepared, you can really come off overwhelmed and awkward. And I think sometimes that’s misinterpreted as bad chemistry.

John Heenan:

No, absolutely. I had an agency whose president didn’t want to rehearse ever, didn’t think she needed to rehearse, felt that as leader of this agency, she knew what she had to say and basically take it or leave it. And while the rest of the team was very serious about getting the story straight, making the right points. And so it was always a very frustrating experience to prepare, as you said, leading up to that meeting. And to her credit, sometimes she was awesome but other times you just stand there listening and thinking, “What is she talking about?” And you see that same expression on the face of the client and you go, “Oh no, here we go again.” But that preparation piece is so critically important, especially because you put so much time and effort into being successful with this particular pitch. Many people work long hours to make sure that it’s the best it can be. And then one link in the chain doesn’t perform and that’s it.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and oftentimes I think it is the agency leader who gets in the way of rehearsing. I think usually the staff wants to rehearse.

John Heenan:

That’s right.

Drew McLellan:

It’s a combination, I think, of, I’m too busy and a little bit of arrogance on the leader’s part. They know that they’re a great presenter, but what they forget about is that it really is an orchestra that’s playing this music and if everybody’s not playing it well together, it’s very noticeable.

John Heenan:

No, you’re so right. And I’ve seen it time and time again where people will say, “Well, the president isn’t that important. It’s really the creative director or the strategist or whatever the service offering is.” But in fact, a client wants to see in that president, a leader, somebody who knows their business, knows their market and has the wherewithal, the focus to steward this team, whoever is configured for that client to be able to make sure that the business runs properly for them to do the things that they have to do for the client. And when they don’t get that sense of confidence or trust at the level of the president, then the rest don’t even matter.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Right. I agree. So I don’t want to miss out on another one of your experiments gone bad. So give us one more where early in your new business career, you stubbed your toe and learned something valuable that you now bring to your agency clients.

John Heenan:

Well, I had a agency who happened to get a piece of pharma business because of a relationship that the account director had with a brand director within that pharma brand and pitch process took place. But we knew, I don’t know if the other agencies knew, but we knew that it was wired for us. So we went through that process, won the business and started the relationship off really very successful doing very well. So because of that one single instance, the leadership of the agency decided, “We’re going all out on the pharma. This is a category that’s big and rich and lots of money to be made. We had this one success and so we’ll probably be able to-

Drew McLellan:

Surely that makes us an expert.

John Heenan:

… That’s right. We ought to be able to parlay that into a big global pharma agency. And so optimism reigns and the agency, despite my best advice decided to focus entirely on pharma. They had other good verticals with great successes, even better successes, but they ignored those and really wanted to leverage that pharma experience, they hired people and consultants and others to really make a go at this and went out into the marketplace. And we talked to pharma companies and presented our capabilities. And in every single case we were dismissed for really not having the creds, not having the expertise, was just a very frustrating experience.

Drew McLellan:

And it sounds expensive.

John Heenan:

Well, absolutely. It was not only expensive for that effort, but then the other clients of the agency began to wonder, “Well, what is this agency that I’m working with? I didn’t hire a pharma expert agency, so what are they doing and how do I fit into this?” And in fact, a number of them ultimately ended up leaving. So not only was it expensive to go all in, but the collateral damage was even greater.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Yikes. Okay. Well that certainly sets the tone for this is tricky stuff and you need to do it well, I think. So when you are working with your agency clients now in your consulting business, what are some of the immediate things that you look for and identify as trouble spots?

John Heenan:

Agencies have just a terrible time really treating themselves like they treat their clients. And they should be their number one client because the success of their business depends on it. And in the same way that they know the success of their client, the marketer depends upon how well the agency performs. They just don’t get the fact that they too need to do those fundamental things of marketing that ensure their success. And so the first thing I do is really try and look at what the marketplace impression is of that agency. How do they represent themselves on their website, in any of their communications? What does their client list look like? The people that they hold up, what categories are they experts in? What services do they offer? Just getting an overall sense, like a marketer would upon first visiting an agency, because, Drew I’m sure you know that hundred percent of marketers check you out before you even know it.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely.

John Heenan:

And so, if that first impression isn’t the right impression, it’s just baffling to think about how much business you’re losing then and there. And so even down to the little thing, like a contact form on your website, I just rail on this subject, because if I were a marketer, why would I want to put my information into a generic contact form? If I’m interested in checking out your agency, I want to talk to you. I want to connect with your top person and not throw my details into something that I have no idea where it goes and who can see it. Because again, if I’m looking for a new agency, I probably don’t want other people knowing that particularly my current agency. So, that first impression is a job one for any agency. But where the conversation often goes is that the agency isn’t really clear on what that first impression should be. And so-

Drew McLellan:

No, they look like everybody else, right?

John Heenan:

… Well they look like everybody else or they look like somebody they’re not, or they just look like a mess. They have this capability and that focus and this and that. If you think about it and I do a lot, I have used web tools that tell me who’s visiting the website, how much time they’re spending, what pages they go. In addition to Google analytics and other things, there are other software available that can give you greater insights. And you can see when marketers come to visit your page, if they’re three seconds and out, there’s a big fail there. But if they’re a minute and a half or two minutes of looking at pages, then something’s working right.

The first thing for an agency to really come to terms with is, what is their product? What are they selling as an agency? Is it an AOR? Is it a digital specialty? Is it the experiential? Whatever the case may be, decide what that is. Really sharpen and focused to what it is you are selling, what is your product? What is the marketer buying from you? And once you clearly articulate that, decide it amongst your agency and say it in ways that people understand, then all the rest of the things that you do, really up very nicely with that. But if you don’t do that hard work at the start, then you’re going to be flip flopping around in many of the different ways. So always the first thing I do before talking to an agency is, gain that understanding and do it with this fresh and objective and approach so that I have a good point of discussion with them. Also-

Drew McLellan:

Hang on a second. I want to stay there for a second. So I find that agency owners either, A, really can’t see themselves accurately at all, or B, are really, really hesitant to identify categories or niches or areas of specialty, because it feels like they’re leaving money on the table. So as a result, they end up looking like everybody else and very generic. How do you help an agency owner or a leadership team see themselves the way the marketplace sees them and then tweak that position and perception by being willing to be about something which by default means that you’re not everything for everybody.

John Heenan:

Yeah. That’s the million dollar questions certainly, and the real struggle for agencies. Because the agency owners, the leaders, they have so much emotions invested in what that agency is and does and the success, and it’s very, very hard to take that objective view. So I think that my experience in working with a wide range of agencies on this very subject combined with my experience prior of looking at these agencies and who to hire and how they’re communicating to me gives me somewhat of a unique perspective in this regard. But I also don’t trust myself. What I also do is get colleagues, marketers, people that I really trust their opinion and ask them to go look at this agency, tell me what you think, tell me what you get from your experience here, the good, the bad and the ugly.

And I find that my colleagues often enjoy doing that, take five minutes of their time, but really get insightful feedback about the problem areas or the interpretation the agency lingo that makes no sense to the marketer or missing the important things that they’re looking for. And so that’s really the way that I approach it and I’m able to give good feedback to those agencies. And it’s often a very hard conversation because they’ll say, “No, we are this. And we needed to say that, and this is really important to us. And we’re very proud of that.” But who cares if it doesn’t matter to the prospect that you’re trying to win.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I think that’s part of the challenge is, as helping agency owners see it from the buyer’s perspective and that I get that you love this, or I get that this makes you proud or whatever, but if nobody wants to buy it, it’s not relevant in the marketplace. That’s a tough conversation.

John Heenan:

No, that’s right. And so to your other point, you’re absolutely right that people in general are worried about focusing to risk losing out on other opportunities. And we’re our own worst enemy in that some piece of business will come our way for example, the pharma case that comes our way for all the wrong reasons. It’s great, but it’s just a coincidence or serendipity or whatever. And that trains us to think, “Oh, well I can get business here or I can go after that. But really, your chances are better winning the lottery, but yet still it happens.

So getting agency leaders to really say, “No I’m going to forgo any wild chance of winning that to focus on these areas that I really do well with, that I can really help clients with and that they can appreciate the things I’ve done.” And that always makes for a much better conversation, a much greater clarity in the process. And in truth, if you think about it from an agency standpoint, you want to be focused and your time and attention and your resources should be focused because there are only so many hours in a day. And if you’re off chasing things that aren’t going to end up making you money, then you’re losing out on those things that can. And so that discipline and focus is just critical right from the start.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and I think the other thing agency owners forget is, it’s not like they need 25 new clients to have a great year. In fact, most small to mid-size agencies would choke if they had to onboard even double digits of new clients. So it really is about being very specific and hunting down the two or three at the most sweet spot clients that are going to be so aligned with what you do well, that they’re going to not only walk in the door and be happy to hand you money, but B, they’re going to stick around for a long time. So you don’t have to replace them in 12 months.

John Heenan:

That’s right. Yeah. I just got back yesterday from meeting with an agency in Pennsylvania and they were a classic case of being all things to all people and the leadership of the agency while they knew they had some specific areas of expertise. They were diligently trying to do the things to grow and thinking that they had to be in these other categories and these other verticals, and they know about these other opportunities and their limited staff was just spread so thin and really demoralized on a miserable pitch rate. So the idea of focus was so appropriate to them and really the topic of our discussion.

Drew McLellan:

And how do you get somebody over the hump and recognize that they literally are choking themselves and their team by trying to be so diverse that they are a mile wide and an inch deep?

John Heenan:

Yeah. It’s funny in this conversation, yesterday, the head of delivery was just giving me this most sour look the whole time and I was talking about focus and you could just read it on their face, “Not another effort to go after every anything, please don’t do that to us.” But by the end of that conversation, I think, the frown turned into a smile when you’re talking about [nope 00:23:38], let’s really figure out what stories you have that are most compelling to a marketer in what are those categories, what are those kinds of business? What are those services that go into that? So that you can say to that marketer, “We know this category because we worked with this client and achieved these results, we worked with that client and we achieved these results, we marketed to this consumer group and we got these excellent results, and that’s why we can do the same for you.”

And when you can have a very simple conversation like that and set the stage of credibility, confidence, and success like that, then you can really get into the details of those discussions and the great work you did and how great the agency was or is and that’s really where that conversation should flow. So the marketer can say, “Yep, I get that. Yep. That makes sense. That’s my problem. Yep. You accomplish that. Yeah. Let’s talk about how you can do that for me.”

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I just have to ask, this is a great example of agencies making up words that the clients don’t understand. What is a director of delivery?

John Heenan:

Director of delivery is someone that makes sure the agency delivers. So what they promised to the client for the budget that they have been given on the schedule that they have been given, and that the work is perfect when it goes out the door. So it’s a particularly important role in today’s world of fragmented media and so many different channels and so many different ways of engaging with the customer that to keep all of those things working together and getting out the door in the right way is becoming more and more complicated. And so the director of delivery role is really becoming more important for an agency to be successful, especially those that are delivering-

Drew McLellan:

I have never you in all my work with agencies heard that term. Normally that would be an account manager’s job to make sure they’re overseeing their client work. So does that person sit in the account service department or in the production department or where?

John Heenan:

It’s typically over the production department and in the operations that really they connect up into the operations and maybe into the CFO range. So being able to schedule and do the work for the money that’s being paid is important, the utilization of staff time, so that you don’t miss deadlines, you make sure that you have the resources, all those kinds of internal things that the client could care less about, because all they’re expecting is great work done on time and on budget and out in the marketplace, but internally, really managing all of those different resources becomes pretty complicated.

Drew McLellan:

Right? Yeah, it absolutely does. Okay. So I think the other thing that agencies struggle with, and I’m curious if this is your experience as well as, it’s like a new year’s resolution. They get off the gun and they’re all excited and they’ve got this elaborate new business plan with all of these moving parts and all this other stuff. And by February the gym is empty. And so by then the agency efforts are quiet because they got busy with client work or whatever. Do you see that with your clients as well that they have great intentions but horrible follow through?

John Heenan:

That is one of the most frustrating things from my perspective, and so absolutely true. On one hand you can certainly understand the very busy nature of running an agency and especially with the leadership being pulled in so many different directions. But I had a agency who was determined on January one to make this year the best year ever. And so we did the hard work of really defining the agency and getting a crystallized point of view and understanding what the verticals were and who putting together the prospect list for those verticals and doing all the right things to make for a very successful program and then put it out into the market, they got connections going set up phone calls and meetings with the president and other leadership, and in almost every case, the president would blow off the meeting. Would get too busy, client emergency. “No, but I’ve got Mr. CMO here waiting to talk to you.” “I’m sorry, I can’t make it.” Or they’d say, “Oh, well have this junior person fill in for me.”

And so all of that effort just totally went down the drain, and one reason for that was some client crisis that really, you don’t lose your current clients while you’re trying to get new ones. So of course you got to put your effort and energy into that, but the result was a completely failed effort after the first couple months. And so your analogy about the gym is spot on.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Well, and part of that is too, agency owners and this is another discipline issue, they have got to get out of the day to day business of being the client contact. You can’t be in the agency and work on the agency at the same time.

John Heenan:

That’s a good point.

Drew McLellan:

And agency owners absolutely need to be focused on new business. No one’s more committed to growing the agency than the owner. No one has more skin in the game and no one’s more credible to a client. And so the example you just gave is the perfect example of why you cannot straddle that fence. That you really do have to have good people in the agency taking care of your current clients. And it’s not that you take your eye off the ball and you don’t have any contact with the clients, but you cannot be the person they call in an emergency.

John Heenan:

Yeah. I imagine you find it a lot, where senior level person or agency owner, they just don’t have the confidence in their bench or the next level of people. And just like new business, they don’t have the time to properly train or mentor those people to make sure that they can take on those roles and be a part of that