This business was born in a recession and for the first few years we took whatever work we could get. The client, not us, dictated the terms of every contract, and we never negotiated for fear of losing out on precious revenue.
That strategy (it wasn’t really a strategy so much as our only option) worked in 2008-2011 where our number one priority was survival, but it’s not appropriate anymore.
We used to happily take on small retainers, reasoning that £2k a month is better than nothing.
However, this decision had an unexpected side effect that probably seems obvious to you: our creativity (and therefore our results) was limited by our available resources. So on small retainers, we delivered average work – we always met our end of the bargain in terms of our contract with the client, but we weren’t pushing the boundaries with our creativity.
Now some clients are quite happy with everyday PR and comms work, so you could argue that we should have been happy with their £2k a month retainers – it’s all revenue, right?
But average work has two unexpected side effects that probably seem obvious to you (cut us some slack – we were still learning!). Firstly, above average people do not like to work on average projects. So, our own people were left uninspired by these less-than-inspirational accounts. This don’t-turn-away-perfectly-good-revenue strategy was affecting staff morale, and therefore retention – not great for an ambitious business like ours.
Secondly, clients with bigger budgets and bigger appetites for creativity want to work with agencies that have proven they can do outstanding work. But when you are doing average work, you have average case studies, which means it’s quite difficult to bring on great new clients – something that is kind of critical to the success of this business and affects the whole staff morale thing as well.
Brilliant work requires investment.
So in 2014, we decided to stop taking on small retainers and projects (unless there’s an incredible strategic reason for doing so). If this seems self-interested, it is – but not entirely.
We’ve been designing and delivering comms campaigns for years now, and we’ve learned that the best B2B marketing strategies have two things in common: they are integrated and they are evolutionary. Getting one major, significant and obvious win through a single channel that affords you the luxury of ignoring all other approaches is vanishingly unlikely (if it does happen, then you’ve found the answer and you really don’t need us – but let me know because I love hearing about successful things). Which means we really don’t want to take your £2k a month to get you into the media or to write a few blog posts.
It’s not because we can’t do it – I’m willing to bet we can do it better than any other agency – it’s because we can’t see how this level of activity focussed on a single channel will impact your business. We can churn out press releases, media interviews and blog posts with ease, but these activities on their own won’t lead to a better reputation and more leads and we don’t want you to pay us to do something that isn’t going to help your business grow.
Comms success doesn’t typically happen in a vacuum: chances are, you’ll find that it requires a combination of stuff (your comms strategy should define which stuff and in which combination). Viewed in isolation, the results of each activity may not seem like earth-shattering, boundary-smashing, paradigm-exploding stuff. It’s like how little bits of stone and glass come together to make a mosaic; you can’t pinpoint the one fragment that makes it art. Over time, however, these cumulative wins can amount to a massive, resounding – and ongoing – victory.
But you won’t get there without the right level of investment – and we’re talking about time as well as money. In 12+ years of doing this, I have yet to find an agency that can make a genuine impact (one that looks pretty in a graph that you want to share with your board) on a shoestring. We can’t, and we won’t pretend we can, which is why so we don’t consider retainers that allow us less than 45 hours of activity a month.
We also require a minimum commitment of 12 months, because we know that success takes time – it can’t just be switched on. It’s kind of like the Charles Atlas pitch: you may start out as a scrawny, 95lb weakling, but by the end, you’ll be able to bench-press a school bus and you’ll look incredible in a pair of swimming trunks.
At times it can seem like marketing is full of overpromisers, underdeliverers, and poor tippers. At TopLine, we’ll say only this: within a year, we’ll show you exactly how much difference it can make.
And we’ll do it because we have to. We want that great case study. We want to keep working with you until we can boast about working with you – and ideally, for a good while afterwards.
And with a good client, we’re always able to. When you invest the right amount of money and time (and meet your end of the bargain throughout the contract) amazing things will happen.
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