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How Digital Agencies Are Going To Survive The Next Few Months

Posted by Mike Lieberman on Apr 9, 2020 9:15:00 AM

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Digital Agency Survival GuideI’ve been through 9/11 and the financial crisis in 2008. Both events caused a massive and shocking shift in the world’s economy and what we’re all dealing with today is equally shocking.

I am in touch with close to 100 agencies in some way or another and it seems most are seeing a small to medium sized impact right now. Of course, if your agency specializes in any of the decimated industries, the situation is much more dire. 

However, it seems like right now most agencies have seen a handful of client pauses, reductions or cancellations. At Square 2, it's been a small group, less then we can count on one hand. The bigger issue has been new business. It’s out there and we’re talking to prospects, but rightly so, people are slow to move forward.

The questions for us and what I’m suggesting you focus on is how to navigate the next few months so you’re around when things start to settle into what will be a new normal.

Create Plan A, Plan B and Plan C

Contingency Planning for Digital AgenciesOne of the best ways to get through the next few months of uncertain times is to do some scenario planning and come up with some alternative plans. For example, if we continue to lose more clients, here is what we can do.

If we continue at our current pace, here’s what we should do. If business starts to pick up, here’s what we’ll need to do.

Do a worst case scenario. It might sound morbid but having thought through this scenario means you’ll be prepared for it. Do a most probable scenario. This is the one you’re most likely to have to execute. Then do a positive scenario. It’s going to be the most fun. Do this one last. While not likely, if it does happen and it could, you’ll be prepared too.

For example, my perspective is that in a couple of months people are going to be working again. Businesses that were closed will be opening up and those CEOs are going to need to catch up for the lost few months of revenue. That means ramping up marketing and sales and doing so quickly. How are you going to help? Are you really going to ask them to wait six months for results? What can you do differently? How do you staff it? How do you price it? How do you manage that engagement?

Here's another scenario. While less optimistic, it's still positive. Businesses are going to realize they have to function in this new normal. They have to market, they have to sell, and they have to keep their businesses moving forward. Hoarding cash is holding them back. Their competition is out there, and they need to be too. How are you going to help? What can you do to be creative with their payments? How can you give them flexibility?

Figure it out now and you’ll be in a better position to thrive sooner.

Double Down On Your Own Marketing

If you have less work, put those people on your own marketing. You have a story to tell as we all do, and we all have to tell it. Now is NOT the time to cut marketing and sales. Now is the time to lean into it and do it digitally, do it more efficiently, and do it more directly.

The only way to get that story out is to focus on your own marketing. What can you do to help companies in this challenging time? Highlight those services.

How are you accommodating businesses that are facing their own challenges? Highlight special programs.

What advice are you giving clients that prospects might be missing? Highlight your creativity in light of these new challenges.

Increase communication, increase content creation, increase your use of tools like chat and increase your own sales efforts regardless of the outcome. If you can create a pipeline full of people ready to get started, as soon as they get even a little comfortable with the world returning to some degree of normalcy, you might find yourself with a slew of new clients.

If you wait, you’ll be playing catch up over a very short time horizon.

Lean Into Your Clients

Now is the time to form even stronger bonds with your clients. I’ve been reaching out to clients regularly and they have appreciated it and provided us with more online reviews in the past few weeks than in the past few months combined.

We’re being flexible with them and they appreciate it. We’ve offered free consulting to help them pivot their businesses, come up with creative options for services, redesigned their messaging to make sure it's appropriate for today’s time and adjusted their marketing strategies to focus on channels they do have, instead of those that have been eliminated.

Help your clients understand the importance of marketing to their customers. We’ve focused on this with almost every single client and have received high marks on our creativity. Some have done crisis communications, others have done innovative marketing campaigns using virtual reality, video or live communication sessions.

Companies are starting to get their feet under them and are going to realize they need to find ways to continue doing business. As their partner, this is a great opportunity for you to be there for them. Help them adjust their marketing strategy accordingly, encourage them to market to customers, work with them to adjust their story so it's empathetic and teach them how to realize digital transformation of their business is the future.

Trim Any Dead Weight In Your Shop

It goes without saying, this is a time to let anyone who isn’t a rock star go. I’m speaking from personal experience when I say that I’ve kept people for too long because they do an OK job or are an OK cultural fit and looking for their replacement. Onboarding their replacement and risking a mistake here is worse than putting up with their mediocrity. Don’t do that.

You might feel upset or disappointed that you have to let anyone go at this challenging time, but you’re actually doing them a favor in the short term and definitely in the long term. Short term, they can receive unemployment and start looking for freelance and contract work. Long term, they’re going to find a better fit at a better company for them and be happier in the end.

I’ve actually run into people in the past who have said to me, “Thank you for firing me. It was a wake-up call and I’m doing much better today.” I know it’s surprising, but true.

This is an opportunity to pair back your agency to only your A-players and rock stars. If in doing this you lose a key skill set, find a few contractors who have that skill set and start working with them until you find a freelancer who you love and who does amazing work. They are out there and today there are more than ever who will be thrilled to get work from your agency.

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There Is New Business Out There

I’m noticing a few different kinds of companies out there right now.

The Shelter In Place Companies – They’re hoarding cash, cutting everything and just trying to get by. They’re going to get their stimulus money and hold onto it.

The We’re Killing It Companies – For whatever reason, these companies were in the right place at the right time and are doing great, but still don’t think they need to do anything different or focus on upgrading marketing. Sales are coming and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The Distracted Companies – These companies never worked remotely before, they’ve been having all employees come into the office every single day, they send salespeople to meet with prospects and go to up to 20 trade shows a year. They might still be wearing suits to work. They’re still doing business, but their general operations have been turned upside down and they’re trying to figure out the basics of business. They want to do marketing, but they are so distracted that it is not a priority right now.

The Perseverance Companies – These companies are working through their challenges in every attempt to push through. They are continuing with their initiatives, although slower than normal. They are discussing adjustments they need to make and starting to emerge from the shadows with a plan.

The Proactive Companies – These companies see this as an opportunity. They want to take advantage of the downtime; they want to invest now to emerge stronger when this situation is behind them. They know, the changes they make now will pay off over the course of the year and will position them to catch up by the end of the year and be in a solid position to make 2021 an amazing year.

The first two types of company shouldn’t be worth your time. There is nothing you can say to them that will get them to consider any recommendations you might be providing them. If they are even talking to you, I would rank them a secondary priority, but I wouldn’t spend any time reaching out to them.

The distracted companies need your help, but you have to be empathetic. Marketing is not their top priority but it's going to be in a few days or a week or two. Stay close to them. Keep educating them. Let them know you’re there to help. Give them ideas. They might not respond, but they appreciate it. The more attention you pay to them—while asking for nothing in return, the better your position when they get around to tackling marketing and sales execution.

The last two types of companies are your best bet for new clients in the short term. They’re going to proceed cautiously. This is where your sales process needs to shine. It needs to be a Guided Sales Process. Take your time, answer ALL their questions, be patient. Ask them a lot of questions and get to them. Ask them the hard questions. Ask them questions about how they’re dealing with the current situation. Don’t ignore anything. The more helpful and the more empathetic, the safer they’ll feel.

Also, since people are nervous, anxious and cautious, consider starting with smaller projects or cheaper retainers. Retainers are dead anyway, so you should consider a project by project approach. Limit the scope to keep the cost down with the option to do more when they’re ready.

This is how you’ll continue to keep your new client pipeline full and how you’ll continue to close new clients in this tricky time.

Start Thinking About The Future

Did you know that more new businesses and more cool ideas were started during the financial crisis in 2008? Now is the time to spend energy thinking about what your agency is going to look like in a few months. It’s going to be smaller. How will you deal with this?

What services are you going to provide when everything starts to get back to normal? How are you going to sell? How are you going to manage your team remotely? What about your office? Do you need it?

Agencies are going to look different. Your clients won’t care if your people are YOUR people or not. They’re going to want value for the commoditized services. They’re going to want help with technology and some of that might not be typical products like HubSpot. They’re going to want chat, video, remote events, virtual trade shows, and augmented reality tools. Your tool kit is going to change.  

If you’re smaller, how do you quickly ramp up? There will be a ton of companies who want to get back in the game, don’t want to hire and need help. Start thinking today how you get access to those resources quickly. How do you organize them? How do you communicate with them? How do you compensate them? How do you help them understand what you need from them to be part of your new distributed freelance team?

Now is the time to start thinking this through.

Don’t Do It Alone

A lot of you have had remote or distributed teams for a while, so working at home isn’t a big change. However for some of you it might feel isolating. Trying to keep your teams organized, motivated, focused and having to share bad news with them can be challenging when you're not in the same room.

You don’t have to deal with this on your own. There are several ways to connect with other agency owners and get feedback, advice and counsel from people who are going through similar situations.

Reach out to other agency owners and check in. I recently emailed a few of the top HubSpot shops just to see how they’re doing, and the responses were enlightening. We’re all in the same boat.

There are other groups of agency owners who get together regularly, most of them remote. Our own Mastermind Group meets monthly and talks about issues that group members are dealing with and big industry wide challenges like the ones related to Covid-19.

New Inbound Agency Mastermind Group. Join Today! Seats are limited.

Just hearing what other agencies are going through, how they’re dealing with it and the creativity our industry is known for makes the time and (if necessary) money well worth it.

We used to do annual planning, manage quarterly initiatives, break those initiatives down into monthly goals and have weekly meetings. Today, those rhythms are obsolete. Today, it's daily huddles and that’s it. What do we need to do to get through the week?

I think that’s appropriate given the nature of our emergency. For the next few months, all long-term planning is out the window and everyone of us should be in short-term survival mode. This will ease up and business will return to normal for most agencies.

Start Today Tip – One way I’ve gotten the days to go as quickly as they did back before the world changed is to start every day with a list of things I want to accomplish for the day. It sounds basic and it is, but it keeps me focused. Write a blog, get our email out, talk to three clients, meet with a prospect, talk to four team members and make sure they’re OK. Just having that list each morning means I have a purpose and a focus. Add strategic items too, like starting to think about what the agency might look like next year when this is six months behind us. Are you going back to the same structure? We’re not. We’re looking at what the agency of the future might look like and planning on building towards that. That type of work is exciting, energizing and rewarding. Make sure you do some of that too, it will also help get you through the next few months and it's going to pay off big time.

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Topics: digital agency strategy, Response to Covid-19

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