Growing an Agency All Comes Down to This…

A number of years ago, AdAge ran a great article on the occasion of agency Hill Holliday Connors Cosmopulos turning thirty. Hill Holliday, as it is known today, is a great Boston agency whose campaigns for Dunkin’ Donuts, Wang computers, Rolling Rock Beer, LG and John Hancock Insurance are a part of advertising history. Jack Connors, who was an agency founder and then-chairman, was quoted in the article. He said, “…at the end of the day, I am a salesman.”  

On reading this comment, we were a little miffed. After all, the great agencies have always been either slick and account-driven or creative powerhouses. To hear the chairman of one of America’s finest agencies say he was simply a salesman might be construed as a slap in the face to the agency’s legacy.

Then we thought back to our own agency careers. Until he found a partner who was a real sales pro, the owner of our agency (a creative bunch if there ever was one) struggled to make a living. Once we started really selling ourselves on a daily basis, we grew like a weed. 

This is what we think Connors meant when he offered his remark. Creative not-withstanding, account service given its due, Hill Holliday and all smaller agencies that grow larger do so because the principals take it upon themselves to proactively sell.

If you’re wondering how to substantially grow your own agency over the next few years, you must plan an all-out sales effort. Following are some areas we think you should consider.

The foremost way to grow an agency is for the owner to be personally involved in the new business process each and every day. Just the idea of an agency owner picking up the phone on a daily basis and making intelligent prospecting calls to a select list of high quality prospects gives us goosebumps. In our experience, most agency owners do very little new business solicitation. They work hard when they get the chance, but they do not proactively seek opportunities. What can it hurt? Get on the phone tomorrow, and use your skills to call a company president and tell her how much your agency can do for them. If you find that distasteful, then we doubt your agency will ever really grow.

Make your agency your best client. Promote yourself whenever you have the chance with news releases, feature stories, an agency newsletter, etc. It’s what you would do for your clients, so why not do it for yourself?

Be a good public speaker and have an advertising industry speech ready to present any time someone asks. If you cannot speak in public, learn how. Take a Dale Carnegie course or hire a speaking coach. Agency presidents should know how to speak in public. David Ogilvy made it a rule to give at least one important speech a year. It paid off very handsomely as Ogilvy & Mather grew.

Get involved in your community. You would be surprised at how many clients and prospects are already involved. Imagine how much more easily you could get a call put through when contacting someone who has worked side by side with you rescuing lost animals or helping battered mothers.

Go the awards route. It has worked for many brash young agencies. Do some pro bono work that really sings and submit it all over the place. The residual PR value affecting clients, prospects, employees, potential employees, even your mother, will knock you over.

Get some personal stationery printed and write notes to people to whom you owe correspondence. It is amazing how this sets you apart from other agency people and exposes you to potential business. By the way, this is the way George Bush (the elder) got to be President—a lifetime of personal notes.

In the same vein, don’t be afraid to do favors for people. We have found going out of your way to perform simple acts of kindness works to both personal and business advantage. What you give, you get. And remember—people do business with people they like.

We could go on and on about this, but you get the picture. Stop trying to convince yourself that your day is made up of the routine: coming to work in the morning, getting your coffee, looking at the latest press proof, handling a personnel problem, making an account call, buying lunch for the client, spending afternoon time writing a new campaign, looking at last month’s financials, talking to your accountant and heading on home. Make this the year where you, as agency president, become the agency’s best salesperson. We think you’ll be glad you did.