“We’re a full service integrated marketing agency. We partner with our clients.”  

Sound familiar? Is this how you describe and position your agency? Hopefully not if you want to attract the best clients for your agency. Generalist agencies don’t fare as well as specialists. AMI research shows that CMOs want specialists. They want their agency to understand the unique challenges of their industry so they can understand their specific problems and can help them get to where they want to go. They want an agency with a laser focus on their industry and their unique challenges.     

My podcast guest Michael Gass has perfected that laser focus on positioning your agency. Michael develops marketing strategies designed specifically for agency new business. Part of that laser focus includes niche blogging. This is just one of the strategies that has been key in driving new business to the agencies that he has worked with. If you think you know niche blogging, think again. Michael and I drill down to the specifics on this and other strategies by:  

  • Generating new business through niche blogs
  • Positioning your agency as a thought leader
  • Making these niche blogs truly niche (hint: “healthcare” is not a niche)
  • Why these blogs need to be written by one or two visible authors
  • The pace these blogs have to be written, at least initially
  • Why you should start out with just one niche blog
  • Why a person should be the face of only one blog
  • How to keep this process running smoothly and consistently
  • Why agencies have to add consulting as a service line
  • The differences agency websites and niche blogs have to have
  • The time commitment this kind of program requires
  • The steps your agency can take right now to get this program up and running

Michael Gass is the founder of Fuel Lines Business Development, LLC, a firm that provides business development training and consulting services to advertising, digital, media and PR agencies.

Since 2007, Michael has pioneered the use of social media, content and inbound marketing strategies specifically for agency new business. Michael has originated a system that makes targeting, positioning, and differentiation easier and helps agencies to find, attract and engage their best prospects online. He has trained over 200 agency CEOs and their senior management teams in all 50 states here in the U.S. and agencies in over 21 foreign countries.

To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site (https://www.agencymanagementinstitute.com/michael-gass/) and grab either the iTunes or Stitcher files or just listen to it from the web.  

If you’d rather just read the conversation, the transcript is below:

Table of Contents (Jump Straight to It!)

  1. The Niche Model for Positioning Your Agency
  2. Why You Need to Be the Face of Your Blog
  3. Areas Where Agencies Struggle with their Positioning
  4. Starting Your Niche Blog & Agency Positioning (Action Steps)

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: Hey everybody. Welcome to another episode of Build a Better Agency, so glad that you’re back and that you’re committed to making your agency stronger and better both for you, for your employees and for your clients. So today’s topic is one that is a topic I talk to agency owners about every single day. And that’s the whole concept of, how do you grow your agency by attracting new customers and new clients, but more specifically the right fit clients for your agency?  

And my guest today is someone who has a depth of knowledge around this topic of positioning your agency, and I have no doubt we’re gonna have a lively conversation. Most of you are very familiar with Michael Gass. Michael is the founder of Fuel Lines Business Development which is a firm that provides business dev, training and consulting services to advertising, digital media and PR agencies. He has a very renowned website, Fuel Lines, which I suspect all of you are subscribers to. And in 2015 for the first time, he held an event all focused on new business that got rave reviews and everyone is hoping that he repeats it again in 2016. So with all of that, Michael, welcome to the podcast.

Michael: Good to be with you, Drew.  

Drew: So give everybody a little bit of background of how you came to have this depth of expertise around new business.  

Michael: Well, I started my consultancy in 2007. We had three kids in college at the time. My wife…

Drew: The perfect time to go out on your own then.

Michael: And it’s on the verge of the great recession. My timing was just perfect. I had only worked in two markets pretty much, the agencies that I’d worked with were in either Birmingham or Nashville as a staff member leading business development. And then I decided to go out on my own and start a consulting practice. I used social media right in the beginning to develop awareness. And just had a knack for it, created the blog, it became the central component of my strategy and my fourth client was on the West Coast in Costa Mesa, California and it’s like, you know, I’m all in at this point.  

And so I’ve been able to help a number of agencies who were really late getting into social media develop a social media strategy and to create a blog that was more specific and targeted for new business. Most agencies that I was working with, they were in this perpetual state of rebranding and in a perpetual state of redesigning the website. It was so problematic that we started creating a niche blog off site and building that usually around the agency owner or owners. And what I found was, you know…and you and I have talked about this and you agree, your positioning is the foundation of new business.

And most agencies are scared of positioning because all they can think about is missed opportunities. But we created a niche blog and it allowed me to get them much more tightly focused on a specific target group, and create a much stronger point of differentiation than they were ever, ever willing to do on the website. And we started seeing agencies having good success and many small agencies being able to generate some business with national brands. And it was all about this authority marketing, thought leadership and people wanting to work with people that they know, trust and like. So the agency owner is so vested, he’s the least likely person, he or she, the least likely person to lead. So that was a practical…

Drew: Something catastrophic has happened if that happens.

Michael: Right. And usually the development of the agency brand is built around their values and their principles, the culture that they’ve created. And so it’s just really a natural progression and, you know, there’s nobody better at being on point for new business than that agency owner if you give them a system to be able to do it with.  

Drew: That’s a message that I deliver to forlorned agency owners all the time who wanna hire the new business guy or wanna use a service to generate new business. And it’s not that those aren’t useful tools, but at some point in time, the agency owner sort of needs to own it if they really want to drive new business into their shop. So, back to sort of how you came to this, were you doing your business for agencies prior to starting your own consulting? So has that been your background professionally?

Michael: Yeah. Pretty much my entire career in advertising has been spent on the business development side. I started out as an account director and we had an agency owner that asked if I’d give new business a try after we’d gone through three other personnel. And I found that I had just a great knack for it. This was back during the time of the interrupted type tactics and cold calling, direct mail, things like that, but I really excelled at that. Then I had to put into practice as we saw this paradigm shift in the way new business was being acquired. It was instead of chasing new business, it was all about being found.  
And so by me having done it for myself and then being able to refine and improve upon a system to help, I think we’ve done over 200 agency workshops and helping agency owners and select staff to really kind of get this program. And with the input and the history, we’ve been able to refine and improve upon it year after year.


The Niche Model for Positioning Your Agency

Drew: So let’s talk about that paradigm shift. So, you know, it used to be…and now you and I sound like two old men, but it used to be before the Internet was the tool of choice. That really when a client wanted to find an agency depending on the size of the client, they either hired a search consultant or they looked in phone books and on lists of agencies. They might go to the Red Book or they might reach out to one of the agency associations to get a list. But there was really no way for them to vet agencies. And so oftentimes because they were being solicited by agencies, the agencies they talked to were the ones who had sorted them out.

And now as we all know and as every piece of research that I read says that clients prefer to do a lot of their shopping before the agency even knows that they’re on the radar screen. And so clients are telling us, anyway in the research that we’re doing at AMI, that they are 75% down the shopping cycle before they ever make contact with an agency. Which I think supports what you’re saying, which is you need to be found, you can’t count on your outbound efforts alone to be bringing new clients.  

But I think what’s interesting about what you preach and as you know, I’m right in alignment with you on this, is the idea that there are no bad clients but there are certainly bad clients for every agency. And that agencies when they rely on the word of mouth or the referral model that is sort of, “Hey, they’re a great agency,” but it doesn’t go further than that, they get a lot of people who may be interested in hiring them. But they may not necessarily be in alignment with the agency’s core competencies or skills or sort of expertise.

And the model you preach and I want you to talk a little bit more about it is really about…and it starts with… correct me if I’m wrong, but it is starts with sort of, you know, physically know thyself and prescribe exactly who and what you are. And who and what you have a depth of expertise in and kind of claim that. Which as you said many agencies sort of loathe to do.  

Michael: You know, when we develop this process, one of the first things is to help the agency to identify clearly who the target is. And then it’s much…you know, with content marketing which most agencies are on board with but very few people are reading agency blogs because they’re just so general, this makes the content very specific to a target group. And it creates much more appeal much quicker and gets them positioned as being a person of authority. And then the dynamic of the personal chemistry through social media, its own vetting tool. A lot of the prospects that aren’t going to be a good fit are never gonna call.  

So, I think that’s a tremendous benefit because those that you do have an appeal with it’s a very strong appeal. And because they’ve initiated the contact and this isn’t a passive strategy that you put yourself in the way of the prospective client in such a way that they can’t help but find you. And when they’re ready, they initiate a call and when they call, the dynamic of that relationship is so different than if you’re chasing business. That’s when you’re treated as a vendor. But when they call you, the whole dynamic has changed.  

Drew: Right. Well, all of a sudden…first of all, they’re closer to being ready to buy if they’ve picked up the phone or they’ve shot an email out. But secondly, they’ve already decided that you have a depth of expertise. They’ve already put you in sort of a consultant or advisor category as opposed to a vendor category. And you know your point about…I often say that a great brand and that’s really what we’re talking about is what brand positioning is. A great brand’s greatest asset to a business is not that it attracts the right customers but that it repels the wrong ones.  

Michael: Right. I definitely agree.

Drew: Because I think agencies…anybody who’s listening who has had their agency for more than six months has had a bad fit client who on the surface looked awesome and there was a big stack of money on the table. But at the end of the day, they sucked you dry in terms of either energy or what it took to try and satisfy them because they weren’t quite…what they wanted to buy wasn’t quite what you really are good at selling or doing. And three, whether it was a cultural fit or something else, it was off. And in many cases, I think when agencies really conjure their financials, they find that they’re actually paying for the privilege of working for those clients.  

Michael: Right. You know, I encourage agencies, they’re very…most common trait, I think, among most small to mid-sized agencies is that they excel at taking care of clients. I think the common problem that they have is that they’re very inconsistent, they really suck at new business. And so when they get a client in the door, a lot of new business activities cease.

Drew: Right, the feast to famine model.  

Michael: Right. And I have built a program and a process that helps them to be more consistent and I tell them, you know, when you’re generating new business, it’s the time to step on the accelerator not the brake. Because every agency has clients that they’d like to trade out and to have a perpetual pipeline of leads allows them that opportunity. To continue to get better clients that are a better fit for the agency and are willing to pay a higher premium for their services.

Drew: No doubt about it. So one of the things that you talk about that I think is sort of most important for agencies to hear is their idea of niching is saying healthcare or financial services and that sort of flies in the face a little bit with how you coach and teach. Can you talk about the importance of drilling down a little deeper than that?  

Michael: Yeah. You know, and doing the niche blog allows them to do this.  We’ve got an agency, that academic medical centers.  So it’s not just in the healthcare arena which they generate a lot of other healthcare clients, but their primary target is academic medical centers. And that’s been the bread and butter that has sustained the agency through three major recessions without a single layoff. And another agency that focuses in on cardiovascular marketing because they’re targeting hospitals that are 350 beds or more. Another that targets specifically community hospitals.  

So even in the healthcare arena, it can be very broad and this allows you to tighten that focus, because it lives off site much more so than you would be willing to do on the website. And it doesn’t create any kind of confusion for other prospective clients that might come that way.  

Drew: Well, I think that’s one of the things that’s distinct about your methodology, is this idea of an agency’s website is, if you will, their sort of corporate brochure and stays a little more generic. And then they build a separate blog site or landing page with blog content around one of these sort of micro-focused niches. So can you talk a little bit about that?

Michael: We had an agency, it’s primarily a media agency with a very small creative department of three. Kroger had been their biggest media client for the past 17 years but they’re wanting to grow the creative. And they wanna use that expertise that they’ve developed with Kroger over the years without having to mention Kroger all the time. We created a niche for them, their target was multi-unit retailers. Anybody that wasn’t associated with food that would have been a competitor of Kroger.

But we developed it around an expertise that they had with Kroger about starting stores, they helped them start a lot of stores. So we created a blog called thestorestarters.com, and it’s built around the agency president and the creative director. Both are partners in the agency and it allowed them in a very short period of time to generate work with a national brand. They won Burlington Coat Factory, a major project in helping them start 22 new stores this past year. That would have never happened…  

Drew: Not bad for a three-person creative shop.

Michael: You know, a three-person creative shop, but it was based on the expertise of the agency owners. And then that’s helped them to build their creative department. It’s given them the opportunity to catch a really big fish and that’s the way it can work.


Why You Need to Be the Face of Your Blog

Drew: So, talk a little bit about…a lot of agencies, I believe, mostly because the owner doesn’t wanna do it, a lot of agencies have sort of multi-author or anonymous author blogs on their website or maybe a separate site. Talk about the value or the concern you have around that model.

Michael: Well, you know, when you have a team and you try to build this authority marketing, this positioning of expertise around the team, it just doesn’t work well. You know, it’s like a lot of those who are listening to this podcast are maybe fans of Mashable. But often in some of the workshops that I conduct, I’ll ask them to identify one single author from Mashable and they can’t do it. And that’s the problem.  It usually is one or two persons that you want to gain this positioning with. And you get them out there and speaking at events that are populated with their best prospects.  

They are instantly recognized as authority figures primarily because of the invitation to even speak at the event. And so it quickens and accelerates that kind of positioning and it gives the prospect a direct connection with the agency owners. And I’ve been preaching this past year, you know, this, I think, is the year where we’ve seen corporate communication turn on its head through social media. And it’s becoming one of the prerequisites for any CEO that they’ve gotta be social. And they’ve gotta be able to connect and to share that vision and to broadcast the brand and personalize the brand.  

This gives them that opportunity to do that, but when you’re trying to build it around a team, it just waters down the whole approach. And a lot of agencies wanna do that because they feel like, you know, it’s just easier. Nobody likes to write and writing is the toughest component of this. But there’s a way that we can build even a helpful writing team that can ghostwrite some of the articles, who can provide the research and a lot of other helpful information to get it done. And a part of the process, when I’m working with agencies, we wanna to build a base of content so that that blog looks rich and full. And so I help them to write 30 posts in 30 days and…

Drew: Do they cry?

Michael: They cry, they bitch, they complain, but what happens is when you put it on a tight time frame, it replicates everything that can go on in an agency on any particular day. And all the problems and the chaos and we work through that to develop a system to create those 30 posts. Once we’ve reached the 30th post, they’ve got their own customized system in place and then it’s much easier to generate one or two posts per week.

Drew: Right, to sustain it.

Michael: Right.  

Drew: Yeah. You know, we even do that on the agency side of my business, we even do that with clients when we’re launching that kind of a website with a blog. Is we make them…we call it working behind the veil. So before we go live, we put them through the same kind of exercise. And in my case for that, part of it is to help them sort of build up their muscles, but also if they don’t have it, if they don’t have the capacity, far better to figure that out before you go live.

Michael: Right, definitely. And then most agencies need new business now they can’t wait very long. And so within that 30-day period when you’ve got the blog with 30 posts, nobody knows there’s only 30 posts. They wouldn’t know that there’s not 300 or 3000. The blog has an appearance of age, we’ve created calls to action like adding consulting as a service line as a first step for a prospective client to take with the agency or the agency owner.

Drew: Or an assessment or something.

Michael: Speaking in a brand audit, market audit, just some kind of an initial step. But what it allows for is a paid engagement on the first face to face meeting. And that eliminates those that wanna just pick your brain for free.

Drew: Right, the tire kickers. Well, the other thing it does is, you know, one of the things that again our research shows us is that clients don’t really wanna talk about marketing.  They wanna talk about the challenges of their business. And if the blog content is around the challenges specific to a specific business or a business, for example in a hospital as you were talking about subspecialty. And you’re talking about the business challenges and how marketing or communication is gonna help solve some of those, that gives the prospect the comfort level to pick up the phone or shoot an email and begin having that level of conversation. Which also keeps you elevated and out of the vendor status.  

Michael: Right. I’m working with the Barclay agency in Kansas City. Jeff Fromm, whose father started the agency is the face of their millennial marketing blog. They own millenniummarketing.com and all of this helpful insights, even some primary research that the agency had launched and they do an event. Jeff is speaking not just all over the country, but literally all over the world at a lot of these major retail events. And being put in front of the primary target group time and time and time again, he’s often quoted in Time or Newsweek when they want somebody that’s an authority on millennial marketing to talk about it…

Drew: Sure, because the reporters are reporting the same thing, right?

Michael: Yeah. And the agency is willing for him to be out on the speaking circuit and doing all of this because it’s generating a lot of new business without having to pitch, without having to go through the RFP process. You know, they’ve associated this thought leadership with Jeff and then that’s the connection back to the agency. And so, you know, it’s just a tremendous tool and this is actually their third blog. They have one that’s specific to QSR, Quick Service Restaurants, and have replaced the business that they lost with Sonic through that niche blog. And they’ve got a different face for that niche. And another that is for CPG companies.  Then they’re generating business, and they’ve got a person position for thought leadership there.  

So it’s like a fishing expedition and you can have multiple blogs out there with different niches and different faces with very specific targets. And again, it allows them to generate their income with some very big clients that they wouldn’t have an opportunity otherwise.  

Drew: Okay. So two questions from what you just shared. One, can one person be the face of multiple blogs and multiple topics? And two, can an agency owner do this if they are still quagmired in the day to day business of client service or whatever it is that they grew up doing?

Michael: Usually it’s best to have a single person or persons that are associated with one blog, and I’ve found that if you’re doing multiples, you know what they’re searching your name and all of this other stuff is coming up, it can create some confusion. But I would assign someone who at least had a vested interest in the agency that they weren’t likely to leave.

Drew: Right. So a minority partner or a department head or something.

Michael: And usually when I give some examples of how to do this, agencies immediately wanna start two or three blogs. That’s the wrong thing to do. The first is to, you know, pick that primary target create a blog and a niche around that. Have success with it and build a process and a program that you can replicate. And then build…

Drew: Let’s walk before we run.

Michael: Right. And then most agency owners tell me, “I can’t add another thing to my plate.” You know, and, “Don’t ask me to do anything, I don’t have the time.” And you’ve gotta convince them, you’ve got to reprioritize your life and what you do. And there are some things that you’re currently doing that you need to do away with, and there are some new skill sets that you need to employ. And what I love about this process and program is what Jeff Fromm…Jeff said, “You know, I didn’t know a thing about millennials other than I had three.”

You know, three of his kids were millennial. “Outside of that I really didn’t have any expertise.” But because of all the work, the focus of the writing, Jeff truly is an expert and he became an expert in a very short period of time. But it’s all about that focus, and so you have your own professional enrichment tool so that every day you get up knowing you’re entering a classroom, you know what to read and what to write. You know what networks to be affiliated with, you know other thought leaders, you understand the competition. You know, it truly brought provides such a focus that we stop becoming such a generalist and really do become specialist in a particular arena.

Drew: But you have to be willing to step away from the day to day…if you’re in client meetings every day all day, you can’t be out speaking.

Michael: Correct. Well, again the agency owner should be on point for new business. It should be one of the primary responsibilities that they have.


Areas Where Agencies Struggle with their Positioning

Drew: I agree. In fact in my model as you know, I prescribe that an agency owner should spend 50% of their work time on new business at least. So I’m right there with you. So you’ve watched a lot of folks do this and, you know, I know you’ve coached a lot of folks and you’ve also probably seen other people do it on their own. What are the pitfalls? Where can this go wrong? Where can you make a mistake or a misstep and have this not work well?

Michael: Well, again it’s the consistency and if…and you’ve gotta have a very integrated program. You usually have to have somebody on point that manages the process. They are the rudder of the ship. They’re the person that makes sure everybody is doing what they should be doing. And instead of the agency being its own worst client, it becomes its best client. But you’ve got somebody that’s responsible for keeping all of the processes going. And someone who is detailed and can manage it and staying on point so that come hell or high water, you know, these things are gonna be done.

But when I do reviews and help those I’ve worked with in the past, and they’re kind of stuck in a rut and you go back and they’ve stopped writing.  That stops the enewsletter from going out. Because there’s a lack of content and repurposing content through Twitter. You know, they’ve stopped the initiatives of community building and I believe community development comes before business development. So there are certain things that they have to do to be engaged, getting agency owners to kind of let their hair down and be personal. You know, many are resistant to even use their Facebook account. But I tell them, “You know, this is where you’re gonna get really emotional connection with your audience.” And they need to know a little bit of who you are outside of work.

Drew: Well, and as our mutual friend, Bob Sanders, preaches and he has been a guest on our podcast as well, is so much of new business is about chemistry and if they have no…if you come off robotic or so stiff or professional that they don’t get a sense of who you are. Either you need to maintain that facade when you’re with them in person or there’s an immediate disconnect. And on the flipside, when they have a sense of who you are as a person and what matters to you and how you sound and talk when you’re more conversational than when you’re sitting in a meeting room for the first time, that familiarity makes them feel at ease and allows them to continue in that know like trust model faster.

Michael: Yeah, and this is networking on steroids. You can connect with so many people. I told folks long ago when I started my consultancy, one of the detriments I had, I’m located in Birmingham but really in a suburb of Birmingham, and I would have had to put Alabaster, Alabama on my business card. And I thought, “My goodness, nobody would take me seriously in the advertising industry.” But now I wear that proudly because…you know, and I’m above my garage in my office, my international headquarter is here in Alabaster. And the amount of networking that I can do from here is just absolutely incredible.  

Drew: Well, and I think when you have established yourself as an expert and a lot of listeners of this podcast, their agencies aren’t located in New York City or LA.  They’re in the Midwest or a small town in the south east or wherever. But most agencies don’t live in advertising agency Mecca cities, and so…and a lot of agency owners, I think, have sort of…I won’t say an inferiority complex, but they feel almost like they have to apologize for not being from a bigger market.  

But the reality is that when you have…you know, your example of the three-person creative shop that landed Burlington is the perfect example. When you demonstrate you have a depth of knowledge, the reality is your clients don’t…in today’s world, they don’t really care where you live.  

Michael: Right, that’s so true. One of my first clients was a very small agency here in Birmingham and I’m asking them how they’re different from everybody else. They’re telling me the same kind of stuff, you know, “We’ve got a great creative…”

Drew: Full service integrated marketing agency. We partner with our clients.

Michael: Plus we’re fun to work with.

Drew: Of course they are, right.  

Michael: But it doesn’t give companies outside of the market a reason to do business, and when you create this differentiating position as we did with them, we built a blog called She-conomy, that’s she-conomy.com around Stephanie Holland who is the agency owner and also serves as creative director. They had never been in a national pitch, but with the positioning created around their blog,