How to Market in the New Era—Tips from Top Agency Coaches

Editor’s note: Verblio’s CEO Steve Pockross has been sitting down with marketing and agency experts across the industry to bring agencies insight and clarity for the times ahead in a video series. This is a round-up of the agency coaches of the bunch and their advice.

The following post was drafted by one of our 3,000 U.S.-based writers after a conversation with Steve, who then added his own expertise to bring it all the way to publication. This interview with a thought leader, brought to life by a Verblio writer, is a good way to blend expertise in an industry through that company’s content but not require an SME to write content themselves.

Like every business leader right now, when I’m not thinking about the health and wellness of my family, friends, and the world, I’m thinking about what it will mean to our business, to our writers, partners, and to our clients. As our clients and partners are leading digital marketers, that’s who I asked first.

Hopefully, many of you have watched some of the discussions I’ve been sharing on video with these experts and many others. They’ve truly influenced my thinking on managing and marketing through the COVID-19 crisis and I hope they’ve been helpful for you, too.

In addition to the videos, I thought it’d be helpful to summarize some of the insights in each area from some of our experts. The first round is with a unique group of marketing experts, digital agency coaches—the people that top marketers go to for guidance on how to get even better. The questions I asked are focused on digital agencies, but they are generally relevant to all marketers navigating this once-in-a-generation crisis as we deal with both the pandemic itself and the expected economic fallout.

While they agreed on a lot of things—and we’ll get to those later—our interviewees also each had their own unique perspectives on the kinds of opportunities we should be looking out for in today’s world. 

Without further ado, I give you round one of our expert insights from our all-star agency coaches: Jason Swenk, Clodagh Higgins, Karl Sakas, Max Traylor, Brent Weaver, and Kelly Campbell.

Jason Swenk: Go On the Offensive

Jason Swenk

If you aren’t yet familiar with Jason Swenk, you should be. As an advertising, digital, media, and PR coach for agencies, Jason is highly respected throughout the industry and also hosts the weekly Smart Agency Master Class Podcast. Wondering how he’s gotten where he is today? Well, his ability to always find an opportunity might be part of it.

In the current climate, many agencies are focused on how they’re going to have a hard enough time holding on to the clients they have—let alone getting new ones. 

According to Jason, though, there’s no reason to stop outbound sales right now. If you can offer a strategy to help someone thrive in an uncertain environment, they’re going to want to hear about it. There’s always an opportunity, if you’re looking at the right markets.

The biggest companies in the world now have started in bad times like this. So stop looking at it as, “Oh, woe is me.” Yes, you might lose some clients in the short-term, but if you are adamant, and you keep focus, and you keep going, you’re going to come out way ahead, because everybody’s pulling back. You’re going to be able to reach people a lot easier.

-Jason Swenk
Several of the largest companies in the world started during economic downturns
(Credit: Mavenlink’s Brent Trimble’s presentation at DSMW 2020 on April 6, 2020)

Clodagh Higgins: Switch Up Your Offerings

Clodagh Higgins

Based in Ireland, Clodagh Higgins works with the GrowIt Group as a coach for digital marketing agencies around the globe and also spent years at HubSpot growing their various agency programs. Her adaptability to new technologies and changing times has played a role in her own success, and it’s something she’s quick to recommend for any agency navigating the shifting winds of today’s world.

Instead of fixating on the marketing you’re currently doing for a client, identify how you can help them in other ways. For example, are they trying to “remote-ify” their business? (Our favorite new word, courtesy of Clodagh!) 

As an agency, you’ve likely worked with clients across the country or around the world for years, and yet it’s easy to overlook that expertise and the value you bring to your clients as they go through their own forced digital transformation.

You might not just be doing marketing with the agency anymore. Maybe the marketing’s getting paused because they have to figure out, how do we remote-ify this team? And you know how to do that, so go back in there with ‘We can help you. Let’s keep going.’

You could just now go in and be a transition partner, an operations partner, a communications partner, a tech partner. It doesn’t matter. You are going to have to need to rebrand potentially for the next few months.

-Clodagh Higgins

Karl Sakas: Double Down on Content Marketing

Karl Sakas

As a management and agency consultant, Karl Sakas has advised hundreds of agency owners through the inevitable growing pains in the agency lifecycle. His expertise and insight have earned him the nickname of “agency therapist”—and it’s that combo of marketing expertise and real-world wisdom that agencies can use to gain clients today.

Content marketing has always been about providing value, and that aspect becomes even more crucial in tumultuous times. An overbearing sales pitch will fall flatter than ever in today’s environment, so double down on the power of content marketing to offer your audience useful content that’s relevant to them now.

Look for ways to be in touch with your prospects, albeit not with a pushy sales message.

…For instance, I did an event related to agencies and COVID-19 and it gave me an opportunity to reach out to invite people rather than saying, ‘How are things going on our sales conversation from a month ago?’ I could say I have this event coming up, it’s free of charge. I think you might be interested. And even for people now that the event’s already happened, I can follow up with the recording.

-Karl Sakas

Max Traylor: Seek “Essential Status” to Your Clients

Max Traylor

Max Traylor is an agency consultant helping agencies productize consulting services and formerly owned his own agency. His resourceful approach to figuring out ways to build meaningful productized consulting services for his agency clients is on hyperdrive in quarantine.

As he says, “I refuse to sit on my hands and wait for this thing to blow over. I want to lean into this, I have something to contribute.” He’s already implemented a “pay what you can plan” and has isolated the 10% of what he does that is essential to clients right now, in this exact moment in time, since many clients aren’t going to be able to afford his normal prices at present.

We’re all in quarantine. Because there’s panic everywhere, agencies are losing 15 to 30 percent of their retainer business overnight. Before this all happened, I started writing my book, Agency Survival Guide: How to Productize Consulting Services & Do Other Things Better Too.

The whole premise is that we need to focus on what is most valuable and difficult to replace. We need to create a brand around the strategy that we bring to the table: some unique methodology or some unique formula that solves a specific problem for a specific type of company. And that will take you from a replaceable commodity that can’t charge price-premiums for to an indispensable partner in the eyes of your client.

Now, that’s a heck of a lot more relevant today because the more replaceable you are, you’re just getting put on ‘pause’. I think now, more than ever, aside from replaceability, we need to figure out what is essential for our clients right now.

-Max Traylor

Brent Weaver: Changing the Time-Frame Helps Put Business In Perspective

Brent Weaver

Brent Weaver is CEO of UGURUS, an online educational hub of programs for agency owners to run their most effective businesses. He formerly ran and had a web design agency acquired before starting UGURUS.

We talked to Brent on April 22, well into the COVID-19 crisis, and he had some valuable insights on checking in at this stage of the pandemic and how planning as an agency for the worst-case scenario (in his view, 18 months of this) helps put your agency business and your clients’ businesses into perspective and can empower you (and therefore your clients) to make more long-term decisions, versus the initial knee-jerk reactions that happened mid-March.

If clients are having trouble making revenue today, for example, they aren’t going to jump for longer term projects. Brent challenges agencies to deliver “more timely solutions to your clients” during this time.

Some of my clients that were struggling hardcore a month ago, having a lot of really hard conversations, they are seeing some results with coming back to their clients, being persistent with new strategies…

We’ve been pushing with our members to be persistent, be compassionate, be empathetic. Everyone’s gotta deal with some really immediate challenges around generating revenue, around retaining clients, but whatever you can do to protect that core business is going to be important.

I think the tide is starting to turn, and people are coming back to agencies now that weren’t doing that immediately, and they’re starting to spend a little bit of money to try to solve these [marketing] problems.

-Brent Weaver

Kelly Campbell: Fuel Positive Change

Kelly Campbell

Though we didn’t have a chance to chat before this post, Kelly Campbell also generously shared her own wisdom for agencies in the midst of this global crisis. Having started, scaled, and sold her own award-winning digital agency, Kelly now consults with leading agencies looking to transform and take their business to the next level.

That transformative power, as Kelly told us, is exactly what agencies need to tap into at this moment. In any crisis, we have the opportunity to use the fear and uncertainty to fuel change in ourselves, our agencies, and the industry at large. Times of stress can open our eyes to our biggest vulnerabilities and force growth and innovation, if we’re willing to embrace it.

I’m continuing to record and deliver valuable video podcast content—with a focused direction on awareness, mindfulness, meditation, empathy, vulnerability, deep communication and human connection as a means to become better leaders and redefine success for our agencies.

I truly believe that we are in the midst of a paradigm shift, and that we will all arise from this experience more connected and with more understanding than ever before.

-Kelly Campbell

3 Clear Themes for How Agencies Should Respond in the New Era: What Our Experts Agree On

For all their unique individual insights, however, these five experts also agreed on a few major themes. 

Let’s take a quick look at three points of consensus to keep in mind as you steer your own agency through the times ahead.

1. Communicate with Your Stakeholders

At the risk of stating the obvious, people are scared right now. They don’t know what’s coming around the bend, and they don’t know how their jobs and their business are going to be impacted. 

Reduce what uncertainty you can by providing ongoing, transparent communication to your stakeholders—including your employees, contractors, clients, prospective clients, vendors, and suppliers.

Karl Sakas

All things considered, people would rather hear bad news if it’s true and realistic, than to hear rosy projections and then suddenly find that the company’s going out of business.

-Karl Sakas

Get personal. Talk to your clients as one business owner to another, recognizing your shared challenges. Acknowledge the different positions that your employees or contractors may be in compared to your own, and do what you can to help.

What’s most essential is that the salespeople are building and strengthening relationships and gaining momentum with people who were in the pipeline…so when budgets unfreeze, they’re the first deals that go through.

…When you come up with a collaborative idea together [with a client], it probably means that you’re going to be coming up with a different way to help your client.

-Max Traylor

As more work is conducted from home and kitchen tables replace office desks, the line between professional and personal lives invariably grows fuzzy. Recognize everyone you come in contact with as human first and foremost: be mindful of the various stresses they’re dealing with and make space for the emotions at play.

2. Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

Like communication, self-care is another component that now, more than ever, is crossing personal and professional lines. Whether you’re someone who was already intentional about maintaining a healthy structure in your life or not, you need to be now—both to set an example to those looking to you as a leader, and to ensure your own ability to continue helping them moving forward.

If you’re a leader, everyone’s expecting you to help them. You need to help yourself by making sure you put on your own oxygen mask first.

-Karl Sakas

Above all? Don’t panic. We all know the importance of keeping a level head when making business decisions. 

While it’s easy to get swept up in the alarm surrounding us, staying calm and focused on your own next steps will not only help those around you but also ensure you and your agency come out of this even stronger than before.

As opposed to taking on others’ fear and anxiety, if you remain calm, you can hold space for those in your life who are struggling.

-Kelly Campbell
Jason Swenk

If you keep focus, you’re going to be fine, and this is the time to learn and invest in yourself.

-Jason Swenk

3. Brace for Impact on Revenues: Prepare Now for the Worst, Pray for the Best

While the bottom line of businesses and agencies will undoubtedly be affected, the answer to “how much?” depends on a number of variables, from your industry to your location to the measures that your own clients are taking.

For industries in the United States that aren’t among those most at-risk—like travel or hospitality—look for anywhere from a 10 to 30 percent drop in revenue. Internationally, our experts say the impact could be higher, from 50 to 70 percent.

There’s still room for optimism, though. Clear communication is crucial now, and agencies are vital in helping businesses provide that.

Most clients will be tentative with budgets, but I don’t believe the vast majority will have a knee-jerk reaction and fire their digital agencies. They need them now more than ever for effective communications, collaborative web-based tools, digital campaigns, and guidance above all else.

-Kelly Campbell

The other good news? There’s never been a bigger audience. From the increased popularity of Facebook Live events to the growing demand for ebooks and long form, people are craving more content while they’re stuck at home. 

While it can be tempting for businesses to batten down the hatches and pull back on content creation, those that recognize the opportunity—and embrace agencies to help them do it—will see their efforts pay off.

Continue to help your clients pivot out of this. If this goes on for 18 months, you can’t save your way. You can’t cut back your business and maintain if this goes on for 18 months. That strategy only works for a month or two.

-Brent Weaver

Digital marketing agencies have a huge opportunity if they pivot in the right way, and serve people the right way.

-Jason Swenk

For more expert guidance as we move through these uncertain times together, catch the full videos of our conversations with agency experts. A huge thank you to Jason, Clodagh, Karl, Max, Brent, and Kelly for their time and wisdom. 

From all of us at Verblio, we wish you, your teams, and your families all the best.

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Steve Pockross

As CEO, Steve brings more than 20 years of startup, nonprofit, and Fortune 500 experience to not only running the business of Verblio, but also setting the culture, vision, and purpose of the team. Outside the office, Steve enjoys ultimate frisbee, telemark skiing, hosting jazz concerts, and spending time with his two boys.

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