When Growth Stalls For Ad Agencies

I’m pleased to welcome Steve Mckee for this guest post.  Steve is president of McKee Wallwork Cleveland  a full service ad agency in Albuquerque, NM. Steve has gained national attention for his agency through the ADBOWL, his columns for BusinessWeek.com and other articles published in the New York Times, USA Today, Advertising Age, Business Daily, just to name a few.  He’s the author of the new book, When Growth Stalls, released this month.

steve_midengthloTimes are tough for all of us in the agency business. My agency’s clients have cut their budgets significantly, some by half or more. Fortunately, we have been following a consistent marketing program for several years and recently won a big piece of business that’s tiding us over. Still, things look like they’re going to get worse before they get better. What’s an agency to do? The answer is hidden in the headline of this post.

You may have thought When Growth Stalls For Ad Agencies was simply referring to what’s happening at our firms these days. But it’s also a suggestion; my new book, When Growth Stalls, is a timely read for ad agencies. Based on five years of research among struggling companies, the book identifies the external and internal factors with which client companies—your clients, to be sure, but also those of your competitors—are likely to be struggling.

Our research found that in a normal year, some 15 percent of companies are stalled, which can be defined as zero (or negative) revenue growth. In a new American Express poll of midsize company ($100 million to $2 billion) CFOs, however, an amazing 59% predicted that their growth would be flat or negative in 2009.

Chaos like that spells opportunity for enterprising agencies.

Here are just a few things that, based on my research, you can almost be certain is happening in the boardrooms and hallways of your target prospects:

  • They’re scared. Yes, that means they’re cutting back on marketing spending (as your own clients have probably demonstrated), but they’re also more open than ever to new ideas. And they’re going to hold their current agency’s feet to the fire; if they can’t perform it will open the door to a potential change.
  • They’re compromising. They may be resorting to discounting in a desperate attempt to generate short-term revenue. They may be dumping a longstanding branding campaign in favor of a promised silver bullet. Or they may be trying something new every day to see what sticks. In any event, they may very well be doing long-term damage to their brands, and sooner or later they’ll realize it.  Helping them see the light could be a great trust-building opportunity.
  • They’re bickering. This was one of the most interesting findings of our research—the infighting among management teams that stalled growth portends. If you’ve been in this business for any length of time, you know from experience that when client teams fight, the agency often gets the most bloodied. But as an outsider, knowing that your prospects are likely to be experiencing internal discord can be a door-opener.

Armed with the knowledge that what’s going on inside your prospect companies is hindering them at least as much as external events gives you a whole new angle of approach. Every time I have presented our findings at industry events or corporate retreats, I see heads nodding as I reveal what’s been happening inside the companies of those in the audience without ever having set foot in them. It’s a tremendous credibility builder.

By demonstrating an understanding of what these companies are dealing with internally, the advice I offer helps CEOs, senior marketing people and others on their management teams see how easily (and often significantly) they’ve allowed their brands to stray. Whether they’re ready to address their challenges immediately or feel they need to wait until the economy picks up, these struggling companies will be surprised at how weakened their market position has become. That’s a condition for which a talented, capable agency is just what the doctor ordered.

When Growth Stalls wasn’t written as a new business book for agencies. But anytime you can start with solid research, genuine empathy and insight into your prospective client’s needs, you’ll definitely have a leg up. And if your firm happens to be struggling itself, When Growth Stalls may be a good prescription for what ails you as well.


Steve McKee new book, When Growth Stalls released just this month. Steve has been generating pre-sales using FacebookLinkedIn and Twitter. I’m sure the book will provide additional promotion for his agency and greater positioning as an industry leader.

About Michael Gass

Consultant | Trainer | Author | Speaker

Since 2007, he has been pioneering the use of social media, inbound and content marketing strategies specifically for agency new business.

He is the founder of Fuel Lines Business Development, LLC, a firm which provides business development training and consulting services to advertising, digital, media and PR agencies.

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