Episode 32

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Tom Martin, author of “Invisible Sale,” has been in the agency life for many years. He has spent 20 years driving new business for agencies. In 2010, he created Converse Digital, an agency that focuses on doing business differently.

 

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • How new business has changed over the years
  • Why clients no longer believe in hiring just one agency
  • How to define your value to your clients when delivering ideas instead of “stuff”
  • Correctly positioning your agency in the days when your client first discovers you
  • Painless Prospecting: how to get great leads to find you
  • Can Painless Prospecting work for generalists?
  • The risks of delegating the Painless Prospecting process
  • What your content has to do for your Painless Prospecting process to work
  • Why giving away your secret sauce is never going to implode your business
  • Tom’s propinquity theory on marketing today
  • What you can do right now to get started on the business development path discussed in this episode

 

The Golden Nugget:

“Agencies really thinks their secret sauce is so different, but it’s not.” – @TomMartin Share on X

 

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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. Thanks for checking out this episode of Build a Better Agency. I am Drew McLellan, and I am ready to go today. This is a topic that I love to talk about, and I know you love to talk about. Every agency owner loves to explore the idea of chasing down and attracting and winning more business. So that’s why I know our guest today is going to really knock it out of the park for you. So let me tell you a little bit about our guest, Tom Martin.

Many of you are familiar with Tom. I hope you’ve all read his book, The Invisible Sale. If you haven’t, make sure that that gets on the top of your reading list very soon. Tom has been an agency guy for many years, spent about 20 years in the agency business on the agency side, mostly driving new business for those agencies, and in 2010, decided to create Converse Digital. And now he works with agencies, he works with clients directly, but he is really focusing on the whole idea of agencies have to do new business differently, which is a conversation I’ve had with many of you over the years. And so Tom has developed a framework that he calls painless prospecting. And so we’re going to dig into that and gosh knows, probably several other things as well. So Tom, welcome to the podcast.

Tom Martin:

Hey man. Thanks for having me, Drew. Always good to talk with you.

Drew McLellan:

You as well. So anything in your intro that I left out, anything else that the listeners need to know about you?

Tom Martin:

That I favor a stiff cocktail and good debates, but that’s about it. Other than that, you covered it off.

Drew McLellan:

And anyone who follows you anywhere in social media knows those things about you already, right?

Tom Martin:

Yeah. Usually they go together. The more stiff drinks, the better the debate.

Drew McLellan:

There’s usually a good whiskey photo somewhere in your Facebook feed throughout the week. So I can always count on that.

Tom Martin:

Well, the beauty of doing a lot of work in the liquor space, I’m exposed to a lot of liquor. So you have to support the clients that support you. That’s my philosophy.

Drew McLellan:

You have to embrace it, that’s right. It would be disingenuous to do anything else.

Tom Martin:

Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So let’s talk about new business, and let’s sort of go broad and then narrow in. So you’ve been doing new business for agencies for now 25 years, when I look at sort of your resume. How has it changed?

Tom Martin:

I think, well, in some ways it’s not changed at all, and in some ways it’s changed dramatically. I think it just depends on the agency that you’re looking at. Clients are still doing the RFP thing, though it seems to me, I don’t know. Maybe you can weigh in as well. It does seem that clients are starting to realize the RFP process maybe isn’t the absolute best way to hire a marketing partner. I think they’re also moving away from AOR relationships, though I think that may start to swing back the other direction. And therefore, they’re kind of more sourcing knowledge experts or vertical experts, and then bringing those people in. To me, that’s sort of the biggest change that you’re seeing is it’s not just a, “Oh, I’m going to replace my AOR with an AOR, and I’m going to do an RFP and that’s how it’s going to happen.”

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. AMI does some research every summer and then we unveil all that content at BOLO every year. But for the last couple years, we’ve been talking to CMOs and it’s been very clear in both the 14 and 15 research that clients are really not very interested in only working with one agency anymore. They don’t really like the AOR model. They really want to bring, as you say, they’re looking for experts in sort of key deliverable areas. They expect those agencies to play nice together.

Tom Martin:

Yeah. I think they don’t believe that any one agency can truly deliver everything they need, just the breadth of what marketing has become with the channels and the digital, and even the consumers and the way that consumers have changed. A lot of the clients, even our own clients, we’re never an AOR for any of our clients. Oftentimes, they’ll just tell me, they’re like, I don’t think there’s one agency out there that can do everything I need. And so they tend to be tilting more towards a sort of a consortium model, if you will, where they have a group of agencies.

But then, at least in the roles that we have with a lot of our clients, we serve as a sort of master overseer agency, a consigliere to the client and then a sort of master let’s make sure everybody’s pointing in the same direction, and let’s make sure that ideas are being cross pollinated, and let’s make sure that agencies are playing nice together, and levering off of one another, instead of competing, and helping the agencies understand that the way you’re going to grow is not by picking each other’s business off. It’s going to be because the client, which this particular client has many brands, that client’s going to start at adding brands to the consortium. And that’s how every all boats will rise. That’s how it’s going to work.

Drew McLellan:

I think right now that’s where a lot of agency owners are struggling. Number one, when I’m with agencies or agency owners or account execs, and I say, “Hey, let’s go around the room and everybody tell me about your agency.” The sentence full service integrated agency comes out of everybody’s mouth. And I think you’re right. One of the things that our research is showing us is that clients call BS on that, that they’re like you’re 12 people. How can you possibly be an expert at everything? Or you’re 20 people, or you’re 50 people, or you’re 100 people. You can’t know it all. There’s too much today. And so I really do want subject matter experts. And I think agencies are really having a hard time reconciling that idea and learning how to play nice. But to your point, I think when you learn how to be a part of sort of that blended family team, there’s opportunity there, both within the client, but also these have the potential to be great partners that can also bring you in on new business because you do have a different expertise than they do.

Tom Martin:

Absolutely. I think the hardest thing that, at least in my firm, that when I made the decision that I was going to systematically try to pull out of the execution side of our business and really just focus on being that strategic mind and helping clients ideate and solve problems differently. That was really tough because clients actually are, even though they say they want strategy, they really pay for execution.

Drew McLellan:

They want to buy stuff.

Tom Martin:

Yeah. They want to buy a deliverable. And when you’re the “strategy team”, deliverables are far and few between. They’re hard to put an ROI on the quality of an idea and so forth. So it’s scary because it’s a much harder sell. It’s easy just to go, “Yeah. We can do that.” Because then I can deliver something. I can bill for it and mark it up and all that. And so I think it’s just naturally. It’s scary I think for any agency to say no to business, because we’re always worried that we might not have another lead or another client come through the door. So I get it, we all get it. But I think at some point you have to sit down and ask yourself how believable is the statement I just made because I think clients are becoming really, really, really good at seeing through the bullshit.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So in an age where ROI is everything and on the client side they’re being pressured to demonstrate the value that they’re getting for the marketing dollars they’re spending with agencies, now I’m asking you specifically about the work you do, how do you demonstrate value to a buyer who’s used to holding up stuff and saying, “Look what I bought.” And now you’re giving them ideas or strategies. How are you delivering value? Or how are you defining value for them on that?

Tom Martin:

You know what’s interesting? I find that the value … Again, there is a certain amount of a thing. We had a client that says, “Look, you’re our big idea people. You’re the ones that are supposed to be bringing us these macro multichannel ideas.” And sometimes that deliverable is she and I were on a trip and I pulled out a deck and I said, “All right, let’s walk through this while we have the next two hours together on an airplane.” And so in that case, there was a deliverable, there was a set of ideas and her ROI was does she feel that these ideas are fundamentally better than the other ideas she’s getting from her various marketing partners. And how is she valuing that? Are they multi-channel? Are they super expensive to try or can we test them first and then of scale them up if they find traction? Things of that nature.

So for us, it’s about understanding how does a client value an idea? What is sort of their little checklist that they’re checking to see if an idea is valuable or worthy? And then building ideas that fit into their particular framework. And really just being, the other thing I find is that I’ll hear a client say things like, “I feel better after you and I talk.” Or you’ll get on the phone with them, and they’re really stressed out, and by the end of the call, you can tell there’s a little lightness in their voice, they feel better. I don’t know if a client can quantify that value back to me. I’ll find out the next time I have to go up for contract or rate negotiation. If I get a lot of pushback, then maybe they’re not valuing it. But if I push a number across the table and I don’t really get a lot of pushback, then I know, okay, I’m valuing what I’m selling you at the rate you are valuing what you’re buying. It’s a much softer thing.

I think it’s a much harder thing because you’ve got to constantly be proactively bringing that value to them, and bringing them new ideas, and bringing them things they can use, and moving their business forward. It’s a very proactive style of engagement, which I think is harder in some ways. But if you can get to it, I think it allows you to be in a place with a client that’s just a lot more structured and a lot more stable because it’s back to those early days that we all wish we could get to where the agency truly was the marketing partner, was really the, “I’m going to my agency. I’m not making a move without my agency guys weighing in on this.” And man, if you can get to that, it’s a beautiful place.

It just takes, I think, some time and some very concerted effort to get there. And I think a little bit of that is what you and I always talk about when we chat about it goes all the way back to business development. How do you position your agency in the very early days when a client first discovers you? Because the way you’re positioning, I think, sets the stage for whether or not you can realistically get to that place with a client where they see you as that ultimate partner, that consigliere as I call it, versus just you’re the guys that execute ad strategies and you guys build ad campaigns or websites or whatever it is you do.

Drew McLellan:

Well. And I think too, and this is going to lead us right into I believe the whole idea of the painless prospecting, but it’s about being really clear about who you are, because there are some clients, even for your shop, there are some clients who they don’t want to buy what you sell. They want to buy execution, they want to buy SEO expertise or whatever it is, and you’re a bad fit for them.

Tom Martin:

No, I’ve got clients who … Literally, I kid you not, I have a client right now that is having some troubles with finding an agency that really matches well with her. And while she’s been searching, she’s in between shops, my team has been stepping up and doing the execution. And frankly, all the modesty aside, doing a really good job with it. And to the point where I’ve even kind of said, “Well, why don’t you just let us continue to do it? I mean, we’re doing a great job. You’re happy with the work. It’s good stuff.” And she looks at me and goes, “I don’t want you doing it. That’s not my role for you. I like that you are the strategy guy. I like that you don’t have any skin in the game. And when you tell me I should do something I never have to worry about, well, how much of that is because he wants to make money on that, and how much of that is because he really thinks that’s what’s right for me?”

And so it’s kind of funny the way I’ve positioned myself and my firm, especially with this particular client. Like it or not, I’ve pigeonholed myself into a place where she thinks this is what I hired Converse Digital for. They’re not the right firm and Tom’s not going to convince me that they are. So okay, great. I don’t even try. But I think that that’s important is that, again, that’s scary because I’m like crud. Now I can’t expand my … The easiest way to grow your profitability is to get bigger with the existing clients that you work with. That’s the age old model we were all taught and I’m like, okay, well, I’ve kind of cut myself off on that one.

But at the same time, it’s kind of like, well, that’s a really nice, well defined place to be. And if I’m going to talk to another client and they’re having some trouble justifying the fees for the service, I can say, “Look, you know what? Here’s my client, here’s her name and phone number. She’s always telling me feel free to have perspective, and go ask her. Ask her if she feels like she gets the value from what we charge her and so forth. She’ll tell you.” And so it might make it easier to win more of that kind of business.

But that’s what it comes down to. I think it’s just that we, as agencies, have never been very good about sticking a stake in the ground. We have all like to be the generalist. It’s where the model of our industry started. And it’s hard. But if you can force yourself to be defined and really stick to it, and treat like, oh, that client needs that, we don’t really do that. Let me cooperate rate, let me go find another firm in my space. I think, was it you and Jason Falls that were having that very conversation about cooperating?

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Tom Martin:

Yeah, okay. I knew I just heard this on a podcast. I knew it. See I do listen to your podcast.

Drew McLellan:

I love that. Now I owe you $20.

Tom Martin:

What y’all were talking about really was that cooperative of, “Hey, I don’t really do this. How about I bring you in to my client? And then if you’ve got a client that I really do something well that you don’t, you bring me in. And let’s just let all boats rise.” I think that’s a very powerful way to build business nowadays. It fits the client’s natural inclination. I think it actually helps those of us that are smaller scale better and compete. But it does require you to be disciplined. It requires you to be really, really good and truly be best in breed at what you do, and not just talk about it, which that’s a whole other thing I think agencies are really guilty of.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely. We have taken the fake it till you make it probably to an extreme.

Tom Martin:

Yeah, definitely.

Drew McLellan:

But I see the financials of a lot of agencies and I will tell you that while it might have been at some day a luxury to be a specialist, and people could get by with being generalists, I think marketing has gotten so complicated and so sophisticated. And I think back to how it was even before you and I were in the business, back in the ’50s and ’60s, and the really ridiculously small number of channels and all of that, to what it is today and the sophistication, especially on the digital side. But the reality is it’s pretty tough for anybody to be a generalist. And in on top of that, I’m telling you now, when I look at the financials, the agencies that are hitting the best practice dashboards and their financial metrics are not the generalists. They’re the ones who are struggling, and ones who are struggling. They’re being so commoditized that they have to really make compromises and where they’re making compromises is in their profitability.

Tom Martin:

Yeah. Well, that execution is probably, gosh, I think it was probably about, gosh, a long time ago, probably 5, 6, 7 years ago. I wrote a piece for Ad Age where I talked about what was agency 5.0 going to be. And in it, I talked about I really did think the future of our industry was that you were going to have agencies that were going to elevate to that sort of strategic partner realm. And then you were going to have agencies that were going to sort of go down the ladder and become really just executioners. And they were going to be the people who really cranked the machine, and they were not going to make as much money, and they were not going to have as big a profit margins. And it wasn’t going to be maybe as much fun because the real money was going to be up in those people who really could think and ideate and make a grow a client’s business.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, right. Somebody who understands the client’s business or the industry or is sort of staying at that top level.

Tom Martin:

Yeah. And you’re kind of seeing a little bit of that. I think clients in a perfect world, they’d love to get an AOR again. I know they say they don’t in research, but it’s a lot simpler to only have one team to call for everything. It makes your life easier. They just don’t believe that that AOR really exists.

Drew McLellan:

Right. So let’s talk about the whole idea of painless prospecting. Give us a little idea, give us sort of the macro view of what that is, and then let’s dig into it a little bit.

Tom Martin:

Well, the macro view is that when I started out in biz dev, my life was really my database that I was working. And I would say, “Oh, we want to go work with company A and B and C.” And I did what all agencies do. I would call and direct mail, send 3D clutter busters, and try to convince them to give us a shot. And painless prospecting really flips the model on its ear and says, “Well, I’m going to let the prospective clients select me instead of me selecting the perspective client. And I’m going to do that by simply publishing, speaking and really resenting my ideas and my thoughts and my processes and how I think marketing works, and really become known for knowledge, knowledge that can be found in a Google search or on a stage at a conference, in a podcast, whatever, that someone can listen to that and be intrigued, and then come back to a home base, my web website, where they can find years of writings and additional thoughts and white papers, et cetera.”

And they can really do their research the way you and I would like to do our research, which is without somebody looking over our shoulder. And kind of figure out like, “Wow! These guys seem like they have a really good hold on a problem that I currently have that I’m not able to currently fix, and none of my partners are able to fix.” And then what happens is that results in an inbound email or phone call with somebody saying, “Hey, can I talk to you? I have a problem. I think you can maybe help me fix it.” And now I’m talking to a prospective client, but I’m so far down the sales process. It really a yes or no, can I really help you fix that? And if so, what’s the cost structure look like. And then, okay, is that going to work or not? And it’s just I wake up and I open my inbox, and there’s a lead there versus me having to wake up, open my inbox or my database and go create that lead.

Drew McLellan:

Okay. So now they’re all going, “Oh, that’d be awesome.” Because as you know, every agency owner, they love to talk about new business, but they don’t really love to do new business. And so the idea that they would open their email and magically there would be leads, I think you’ve got a couple agency owners who are sitting at the edge of their chair, and you have a couple that already have tears in their eyes. So how does somebody actually do that? How do you make that happen?

Tom Martin:

Well, I think two things. One is you got to take a long scale look at it. It’s you start a process like this. And I’ve actually done some anecdotal research with other consultants. And what we have found is that it’s going to take you nine to 12 months to really get a system like this to where it’s spinning out good leads for you because it’s just going to take you time to really build your base of influence.

But I think the core is that you really have to build a framework, and you have to approach this as a process and you have to feed the beast. You have to feed the new business machine with new content, maybe not every day, but every week. And you have to just work the process, work the process, work the process, and believe that it’s going to actually spin out the desired outcome, which is these leads. But you can’t give up on it. And I think that’s what happens in agency world is folks give up on the process too fast, or then worst case scenario, it starts working, they start getting busy, and they take their foot off the machine that’s producing the lead. And then all of a sudden the leads go away.

Drew McLellan:

Right. I think that is a big challenge. It’s sort of a feast or famine model of biggest client gives you some hints that maybe they’re going away so all of a sudden you scramble for new business. You get a good size new client, which is all consuming, and then all of a sudden you stop looking for other clients and you just cycle in and out over and over and over again, which is a killer.

Tom Martin:

Yeah. And I think that the beauty of this system is that in the five years going on, it’ll be six years this spring, I haven’t had to send any unsolicited direct mail or clutter busters or compete in a competitive pitch. And granted, I’m a different model. I’m a small boutique. I’m not a big 50 person agency. So it’s different. But I haven’t had to do any of that stuff because I started from the get go using a painless process of saying, “I’m going to be known as the ad agency guy who understands social media and digital. And if you want that perspective, if you want somebody who really has that 20 years of traditional experience and understands PR and media and all that, but also can do this new digital stuff, and you want somebody who’s going to give it to you in a straight up, “Look, this is how this really works,” mentality, this is the team you call right here.”

And that works. That’s what people want. They want to be able to do that. Now, I think for agencies, one of the biggest challenges, if you think about agencies, oftentimes they’re run by creative people or people who came out of the creative side of our business, which tend not to be framework process kind of folks.

Drew McLellan:

That was very nicely said.

Tom Martin:

Yeah. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way.

Drew McLellan:

It’s not their thing.

Tom Martin:

It’s not how creativity works. But even the account people who run agencies oftentimes they might be great account people, but they’re not maybe necessarily great sales people. And biz dev is a sales process. And as much as you might hate that, make 100 calls, get 10 people to follow up, that process. There is a process to sales. And that’s all this is. It’s a different process that uses different tools, and it’s a much easier process, because you’re not cold calling. You’re not trying to get somebody to give you their attention. Instead, you’re just putting a lot of content out there. You’re creating a name for yourself and you’re allowing people to self select you. And that’s what ultimately makes it painless because like I said, they already kind of know that they want to do business with you or they think they might want to do business with you. And so that first call is a completely different call than what most of us in the agency business are used to.

Drew McLellan:

So you mentioned earlier when you were talking about sort of how you positioned yourself that you’re an ad guy who really understands the digital and social space. Do you think a generalist can use this model? Or does this presuppose that the agency is willing to, in some way, shape or form, define here’s who we are, which also defines here’s who we’re not?

Tom Martin:

I think they can. Yeah. I think it defines. I think any agency can do it. You just have to decide what do you want to be? Who are you? Who are you not?

Drew McLellan:

That’s what I’m saying is if an agency is unwilling to do that, because as you know, a lot of agencies really buck against the … They want to be a generalist. Does this work as well for a generalist? Or do you have to do some level of definition?

Tom Martin:

Well, I’ll tell you, it’s an interesting question. I think it can work at a generalist level, but it’s different because at a generalist level, you’re going to have to say,