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How to punch above your weight

‘How to punch above your weight’ lies partly in playing the big agencies at their own game and trying to match them, where and when appropriate, and partly in accentuating your differences. DBA Expert, Jonathan Kirk shares his top ten tips on how you can ‘punch above your weight’.

There is sometimes a romantic notion that the client’s heart wants the creativity and fresh thinking of the smaller, independent agency, but their mind graduates towards the reassurance that the big agency brings and the ‘I won’t get fired for choosing them’ scenario. The reality is more complex. The real answer to ‘how to punch above your weight’ lies partly in playing the big agencies at their own game and trying to match them, where and when appropriate, and partly in accentuating your differences.

1. Think ‘BRAND’

Brands make choices easier. The big agencies have spent a lot of time and energy developing their brands. Clients tell me that big agencies tend to have a well-defined corporate ethos, a unified, professional way of behaving. Their experience of small/medium sized agencies is often more haphazard.

Spending time thinking about your own brand, whether you are 2 or 50 people, is time well spent. Who are you, what do you do, how do you do it better and differently from your competitors? The important thing is to go beyond mere hygiene factors (‘Well you would do that wouldn’t you?’) and aim for real differentiators.

If you already have a positioning – is it real? Does it have depth or is it just a line of copy? Is it consistently expressed in presentations and case studies? Do staff know and understand it? Is it an internal rallying call or just an external sales line?

The big agencies tend not to have engaging personalities. Their overall message is big, corporate, global, professional, slick. There is an opportunity for small/medium agencies to better define and express their personalities. This is about more than pen portraits on your website. A Marketing Director said to me recently, ‘In this age of Facebook and celebrity culture, we all want to know more about people and companies more quickly.’ Agencies who are shy and retiring in this respect are missing an opportunity and may seem out of step with the times.

Social media has a part to play here. Apart from anything else, agency websites with no evidence of social media are starting to look old fashioned. Social media is one of the burning issues for all clients so if you are not involved, then are you part of their world?

2. Think ‘CHALLENGER brand’

Successful challenger brands break conventions, worry the brand leaders and usually stand against something. Is your small/medium sized agency doing these things or simply conforming to an industry standard?

If I was in a big agency pitching for a major project and there was a small/medium-sized agency on the pitch list, what might worry me? I might be concerned about the level of personal service you could offer, the consistently senior level of client contact you can guarantee, the fact that this client will be more important to you and the consequently greater passion and commitment that might shine through. I might also be concerned that you would appear more flexible. Big agencies are notoriously rigid in their processes. A client told me recently about a big agency, ‘I felt we would have to fit with their way of working, rather than the other around’. So how are you thinking like a challenger brand and accentuating your differences versus the big agencies?

3. Are you grown up enough?

boxingbag_l_30729023_462I meet many agencies at vastly different stages of growth. However, length of time in business is no guarantee of business maturity. This starts with the agency owner(s) – are you working on your business or only in it? Many agencies founded 20 years ago have a serious lack of defined approaches. Big agencies tend to be good at defined approaches so how can small/medium agencies improve?

For example, what is your approach to client service? What are your guiding principles, promises and guarantees to clients? What is your approach to brand positioning or brand naming? What about your internal systems and processes? Do you have real company meetings or are they just a morale raising beer? Do staff understand where the business is heading and, more to the point, do they believe that you know where the business is heading?

The most common reason for staff leaving is, ‘Next year will be the same as this year.’ Does every member of staff have something to aim for and understand what is expected of them next year?

Ultimately, it is this type of internal professionalism that shines through externally.

4. Pitches – Cut through advice

Pitches are here to stay. For a big project clients just see it as due diligence, good business practice. These are often cold situations where you only get one chance so small/medium sized agencies with aspirations for growth need to excel at pitching.

Big agencies are not great at giving cut through advice. They might have a lot of people working on a pitch and it can be surprisingly tricky to actually arrive at the core thought. This is where small/medium sized agencies can differentiate themselves. Clients want to know what you think so don’t get a quarter of the way into your presentation before you do this. Don’t meander in but state your big thought at the outset. The rest of the presentation is an argument to prove that assertion.

Imagine the client came in now – 2 days before the pitch when, of course, it isn’t ready – and said ‘I’ve got 5 minutes. Tell me in a nutshell what you’re going tell me in 2 days time.’ If you can do that, then you may have something good.

Clients are often confused. They are looking for clarity so don’t leave clients more confused than when you arrived. Remember that there is no such thing as several big points – they simply become several little ones.

5. Pitches – Exude reassurance

Client/agency relationships usually go wrong over client service and delivery issues, rather than the quality of creative work. There is often one person on the client’s pitch panel that is waiting for reassurance on this issue – can the small/medium-sized agency actually deliver?

It is a mistake not to labour the point. The ‘who’s who’ diagram of the agency team and their responsibilities should be in the presentation, not just in the supporting document. Many clients are quite process orientated. They might be impressed by the creative work but now they want to know how it’s going to be made real and delivered.

6. Pitches – Entertain

‘There is no excuse for any presentation being boring nowadays.’ (Dianne Thompson, Camelot CEO). ‘These days there must be some degree of entertainment value in everything you do.’ (Marjorie Scardino, Pearson CEO).

Big agency presentations are tending to be increasingly slick with high production values and more use of moving image. Video testimonials are on the increase. There are more references to popular culture to make wider points. Think well-crafted documentary, not conventional pitch presentation.

Many big agencies also have pieces of insight that they can use in multiple pitches. In this respect, small/medium sized agencies can often be at a disadvantage. They tend to reinvent the wheel every time. It’s great to develop some insights and viewpoints that you can take off the shelf and use again and again.

7. New business – Be brave

boxingcorner_l_51228375_462Most agencies have one client story which is the famous one. It’s the one your Mum will recognise and appreciate. Shout this one from the rooftops and cut it 15 different ways. Be able to make this case study relevant to any brand or market.

Then re-assess the rest of your crown jewels. How can you start telling your case studies differently? Clients aren’t interested in stories of projects that differ little from one agency to another. They are looking for insight, how you made a difference and knowledge that will be useful to them in their situation. Remember that clients are not really interested in you per se. They are interested in how you can help them in their world.

Contrary to popular belief, good new business is not a numbers game. What most small/medium-sized agencies would really like is another client to match their biggest and best. This would transform their business. It isn’t about a scattergun approach, using exclusively credentials-led material and getting bland ‘credentials presentations’ into the diary. It is about canny targeting, playing to your strengths, and new business approaches rich with insights and points of view. Don’t conform to the beauty parade.

8. Client relationships – Add value

There is a natural temptation for clients to see big agencies as the strategic ones and small/medium agencies as doers. This perception has to be fought at every turn.

This is about being seen as: an agency to be consulted and not just briefed, at the heart of the brand not just about execution, constructively challenging the client not just ‘yes, yes, yes’, proactive not passive.

Adding value to client relationships can be done in so many ways – trends updates, competitive reviews, quarterly strategy meetings with the client even when there is no current project, self critical reviews with the client – ‘How can we do even better?’

Consistency is vital. The design industry is good at flitting from one self-promotion idea to the next – the newsletter that doesn’t get beyond issue number 3, the one off event. Compare this to professional services firms who are admirably consistent in these things.

How much do you really know about your clients? An independent Client Survey can reveal how clients really perceive you, your strengths and weaknesses, how you can make improvements in client service and client retention. It can also highlight business development opportunities. What is more, clients will be impressed that you are going to the trouble of asking them.

9. Teaming up with others

In these tough times there are more agencies joining together for pitches and looking for link ups and associations. For a small/medium-sized agency this can be a positive means of showing greater depth and breadth. Clients are also probably more relaxed than they have ever been about choosing the right team, as opposed to simply the names above the door.

However, clients must be convinced about the link up. For example, in a pitch presentation there should be an integrated feel, not different chunks. There should be dual branding and a joint rehearsal. Clients are quick to spot when the link up is not credible and wholehearted.

10. Specialisation

There are thousands of small bits and pieces agencies in the UK. A potentially fantastic way to rise above this and create real differentiation is to decide to specialise. In this way, scale becomes less important. By virtue of being a specialist, you can potentially compete with anyone.

Of course, specialisation does not mean by discipline (e.g. packaging or digital). Specialisation could mean the consumer type (e.g. youth or grey), the market (e.g. financial or arts/cultural) or a looser specialisation (e.g. luxury, challenger brands).

Specialisation can bring advantages and challenges. It rarely pleases designers who tend to enjoy variety but it does bring new business focus. It is labour intensive because true specialisation involves writing articles, speaking at events and conducting original research. On the other hand, it is highly likely to raise the financial value of your agency if done well.

About: Jonathan Kirk, Founder, Up to the Light Ltd.

Up to the Light advises a wide range of agencies regarding all aspects of business improvement and growth. The consultancy challenges some of the ingrained assumptions that exist in our industry and offers more effective, insight-led advice. 

Jonathan is unusual amongst consultants in the level of contact that he has with clients. Up to the Light is the leading provider of Client Surveys to the UK design industry and publishes the annual ‘What Clients Think’ report, supported by the DBA. This year’s report is based on 420 client interviews conducted on behalf of design agencies.

The consultancy also partners with agencies to provide brand positioning and brand strategy for end clients. Jonathan is continually involved at the sharp end presenting, pitching and delivering high profile strategic work for major brands. This is of huge benefit to all his clients.

His senior roles have included New Business Director of Fitch, the global brand design group, and Business Development Director of Havas EHS, one of Europe’s largest direct response agencies. He is a member of the DBA’s Experts Register and is a frequent conference speaker and trade press contributor.

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