Agencies all over the world today are trying to get ‘more strategic’: to position themselves as strategic partners to their clients, to sell higher margin strategy over increasingly commoditized implementation – all in a bid to profit proportionally from the greater value being delivered. Most are failing in this bid, suffering from the same four mistakes that are easily avoided once they are recognized.
There is much appealing about the notion of selling thinking over doing. In addition to increased financial reward, purveyors of strategic guidance earn greater respect, more career fulfillment, and enjoy a slower, more manageable pace in their work than tactical implementers. But in making the transition from doer to thinker, there are four main traps in which many marketing communication firms find themselves caught. Beware.
The Report Writing Trap
The snare that catches the most agencies attempting to move from selling doing to selling thinking is the report writing trap. The agency succeeds in selling a consulting engagement, a diagnostic (such as an audit), or a messaging project then voluntarily piles on the deliverables in the form of a lengthy report to justify the fees commanded. The margin on the lofty fee is then frittered away as the thinker is turned into writer, earning less and less with every minute at the keyboard; every word on the page. He’s gone from selling his time to selling his typing, and in the process created distasteful work for his client: forcing him to read numerous pages to try to glean the valuable insight buried within.
Bear this simple axiom in mind when it comes to strategy: there is an inverse correlation between the amount of deliverables produced and the amount of value received. When you feel confident of the strategy being delivered, you will feel less compelled to prop it up with additional support. The less sure you are of your guidance, the more compelled you feel to justify it with paper.
Little to no deliverables are possible when the client’s expectations are managed early. If in discussing a strategy-based engagement with a prospect he asks, “Do I get a report?” feel free to offer a written summary of your thinking at the end of your engagement but remind him that you are being hired to offer guidance, not to write reports.
When delivering the results of an audit I always present the results orally, suggest the client take good notes, and then send the written summary 48 hours later. This delay gets the focus off of the written document and onto the findings and recommendations being delivered. By the time the brief bullet-point document shows up, the client is already well into acting on that guidance and he’s not measuring the value of my thinking based on the amount of paper it’s written on.
The Hourly Consulting Trap
Selling consulting services may position your offering as more strategic, but once you sell those services by the hour you negate the desired effect of profiting proportionally from the greater value (often exponentially greater) being delivered. Replacing $150/hour creative or media relations services with $200/hour consulting services does not get you a whole lot closer to your goal. I wrote in Battling Commoditization, an earlier issue of the Win Without Pitching Newsletter, that nothing commoditizes agency services more than selling them by the hour. This is especially true for strategic services.
The principals of small agencies taking home seven figures a year do not get there by billing one hour at a time. They charge based on the value received, which has little or nothing to do with the effort or hours it takes to deliver. Value price your strategic services in nice big, round numbers. (e.g.: $50,000) Stay away from transactional pricing that looks like it was arrived at by some formula. (e.g.: $34,750) Once the prospect thinks he sees a formula for your pricing (usually rates x hours) then he knows how to pick it apart, and is essentially invited to do so.
The Process Trap
Process is a tricky subject. It’s important to have a defined process to support your positioning or claim of expertise, but it should never be the claim of expertise itself. It can be a powerful closing tool when presented properly late in the buying cycle, and it’s almost completely ineffective when presented early in the buying cycle, such as on a web site. The process trap to avoid when selling strategy is the mistake of selling the process instead of the outcome. The prospect comes to an agency for a logo, and is sold a proprietary process. The process is the very valuable journey to the destination, and while the prospect is willing to follow the agency’s route, the purchase should always be referred to in terms of the destination, not the journey. He’s not buying a discovery session, no matter how wonderful and proprietary it may be; he’s buying a new visual identity and the agency’s language around the purchase should keep the focus on this outcome.
Selling process over outcomes is analogous to you calling your travel agent to book a trip to Paris, and having the agent go on about the flight, the flight path, and the plane. You don’t care about any of that – you want to get to Paris where the real fun begins. All the talk of the journey leads you to believe that the agent is more interested in selling you a trip then in helping you meet your needs.
The Convergence Trap
With some exceptions, most public relations firm would be well advised to stick to public relations strategies; advertising and design firms, to stick to advertising, design, or brand strategies. The convergence trap is the mistake of backing all the way up the strategic-tactical spectrum past the strategy associated with the agency’s expertise into marketing strategy or business strategy. PR firms rarely fall into this trap, and better design firms usually avoid it too, but there are some very large global branding agencies deeply mired in the convergence trap today, trying to reinvent themselves to compete with the McKinseys, Bains, and Bostons of the consulting world. They seem to have forgotten that there is great value, and all the money and respect that goes with that value, in delivering a visual-based brand strategy without having to delve into the technically sophisticated areas of reengineering businesses, process optimization, or human resource recommendations. The irony is that in this misguided drive for greater margin and respect these global firms still stoop to parting with their thinking for free by pitching it in the buying process, thereby revealing their true valuation of their guidance.
Again, there are some exceptions; some agencies can successfully transcend their creative or PR roots into marketing strategy, but most end up here by accident, in over their heads. The convergence trap is usually a tandem trap. An agency with one foot caught here usually has the other planted firmly in the report writing trap.
There are other traps to avoid when selling strategy, but these four majors constitute most of the mistakes I see in this area. If you’re steering clear of these, you’re likely adding value to your clients’ businesses and being appropriately compensated for that value. Half the battle in avoiding them is simply knowing they exist.