How to sell stuff to advertising agencies

There’s this myth floating around that selling into agencies is impossible, regardless of whether they’re media agencies, full service or digital. Having done it (more or less successfully) over the past couple of years, I’ve discovered it is not. It’s just hard, but it gets easier once you get the hang of it. I think I have, and I’d like to share some of the learnings with you. But there’s one little amendment I’d like to make before going into it: we don’t actually sell to agencies, we sell to people in agencies. And these people are busy, under pressure to deliver results (cheaply and quickly) and they get pitched a lot. Oh, yes, and they don’t understand technology very well.

I remember about 18 months ago, I had just moved to London and was trying to get into a top advertising agency in the UK. I didn’t know many people back then, so I started cold emailing. After about 5 emails, someone answered and I somehow managed to get a meeting. The first part of the meeting went well, as I showed them some demos showcasing clickable interactive videos built with our BrainStudio. But then, I told them it’s self service (they will have to use the product themselves), that it helps them create more brand engagement & uplift (but weren’t sure how to measure the uplift) and then went into the technical details. All the wrong things, basically. Needless to say the meeting went nowhere. It took me quite a while to figure out why so here it is, I hope you don’t make the same mistakes I did.

Cold emails work, but it’s a painful process. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a 10% response rate. That means you’ll contact 100 agencies to get 10 answers, which will probably convert into 5 meetings. That’s hard work, and it takes a lot of time. What works really well is intros. People in agencies like recommendations from people they know or have worked with, and nine times out of ten they’ll take a meeting. It’s a no brainer, I know, but I don’t think we do it enough.

Make sure you’re selling the right thing. I’ve failed a lot on this front. In the bottom of my heart, I still hope agencies will want to use our BrainStudio themselves without us hand holding their hand so much. And the best way to find out is to ask them. Make the following three questions part of your first meeting: 1. Do you think this is something you would pay for? 2. Would you use it? 3. What’s your biggest problem with this or that (video, in our case). Agencies want you to solve their problems, so they will tell you everything you need to know. All you have to do is ask and listen.

Create something simple that generates results. In the ideal world, they should give you money and you should give them reports that they forward to their clients. That’s it. That’s what they want, because it frees up their time, so they can go and get other clients or attract more budgets or play foosball. By simple, I mean something that’s so simple for them to use or integrate that they don’t even think about it, they just do it. As soon as there’s even a sign of complexity, they’ll push back.

Build a relationship. It’s very unlikely that people in agencies will buy anything until they get to know you a bit. The exception to this rule is if you have a kick-ass product with tons of references that can generate immediate results for their clients. Then, they’ll buy even if you suck at sales or business development. But more often than not, startups get there a few iterations after starting to sell their products. So make them trust you and they’ll give it a shot. I send hand-written thank you notes each time we get a new agency signed up for a trial. It works.

All in all, there’s no silver bullet when it comes to selling to people in agencies. You just need to create something they want, make it simple for them to buy or use it, generate real value and build a relationship. There’s very little that can go wrong if you do all these things right, and it takes years of practice. I still fail at it sometimes, but I think I’m getting there.

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