Ad agency executives often huddle in far-flung resorts to spend extended time figuring out new ways to grow their shops. There are no silver bullets, but there are many paths to growth. Here are a few of the common ones: Do great work and promote it; hire a better business development team; treat your agency brand as you would a client (meaning, set aside a budget, create a strategy and hold yourselves accountable for results); develop new services that clients want and for which there is increasing demand; and join better country clubs.
There's another way to build your shop, and it's not new, but proven to succeed when done properly -- go vertical.
While agencies tend to go wide with their client base, because diversity feeds curiosity and provides economic balance, there is something to be said for building a vertically-integrated strategy. I've done this with my agency, specializing in banking and b-to-b. You can, too, and here are three things to consider in order to go deep and create a specialty within your shop:
1. Show expertise with case studies. You could have the best pitch team on the planet, but a specialist agency will outshine you when it comes to showing results. Assuming you are smart and do good work, clients are looking next for experience in their categories. Even if they say they aren't during the RFP process, remember the popular saying in sales: Buyers are liars. An agency that pitches with six relevant case studies will beat a terrific agency that stretches with one case study, nine times out of 10.
2. Work out your conflicts. Saying you are going to create a specialty practice within your shop -- and actually doing it -- is difficult. But good things rarely come easy. Perhaps the toughest part of vertically integrating your shop is making the leap from having two competing clients (a potential conflict) to landing the third (a specialty). Look around our industry and you'll see healthcare agencies, technology agencies, franchise agencies, etc. Each one has carved out a niche that specializes in an industry or service, and gotten past the tough conversation about conflicts. I truly believe that a trustworthy agency can handle multiple clients in the same category, without compromising confidential information. And the benefit to each client is deep expertise, no costly learning curves and a proven approach.
3. Promote your expertise. You can't just develop an expertise, get over your initial client conflicts, and wait for the business to roll in. You need to get out of the office and share your expertise in front of qualified audiences. Get your agency experts speaking at industry conferences; write about trends in the vertical media platforms; dominate SEO/SEM searches; and become the go-to industry source for reporters. And if you're feeling really ambitious, pen a book about your expertise, which is easier to do today with self-publishing tools. Do this and the RFPs will pour in.
I've heard agency leaders avoid this specialty vertical strategy because they didn't want to be too dependent on one industry, fearing a big setback when that sector is out-of-favor in a down economy. This can be overcome by maintaining diversity of clients while nurturing expertise in one or two verticals. And consider this: Specialists earn more than generalists, so it just may be worth pursuing.