As the cofounders of Blood Sweat & Tears (BS&T), Eric Brown and Nora DiNuzzo bring 30+ years of combined business development experience to the table. Within agency walls, they’ve led business development teams that have pitched hundreds of brands. As consultants, they have supported the growth of 200+ advertising agencies in the United States and globally.
Through the years, they saw the same challenges arise over and over again, preventing their agencies from achieving the success they were after. And they realized most of these challenges were entirely avoidable, as long as everyone was on board to do things differently.
BS&T focuses on helping ambitious agencies that are frustrated by inconsistent growth. They support agencies through development, implementation, and optimization of a custom growth strategy, spanning four key areas – brand, business, content and comms. These four dimensions of strategy allow them to address the blindspots that too-often plague growing agencies.
And they do it together as a true partner – meeting your agency wherever you are today with your goals, and even going as far as offering a risk-mitigating compensation strategy (a business model one client called “madness”!)
We sat down with Eric and Nora to learn more about how they’re doing things differently, the importance of leading with strategy versus tactics to drive growth, and why they’re proudly “indie AF.”
WPI >> Tell me about yourself and your company. What types of agencies do you work with? What services do you provide?
BS&T >> We focus on working with independent agencies struggling to achieve consistent growth.
The agency leaders we work with are frustrated, exhausted, and need a partner to go all-in to support them – because they’ve already tried many other approaches to growth that have been unsuccessful.
We work with agencies across all disciplines and industries – typically <$50M in annual revenue.
The agencies and leadership teams we can best help are the ones that prioritize growth and are willing to participate in the process as collaborative partners with us.
WPI >> What are the biggest challenges you’re seeing agencies face today with growth?
BS&T >> Agencies want a formula for predictable and sustainable growth – but often are not first investing in developing a comprehensive growth strategy. They are leading with tactics versus strategy – and then wondering why their efforts are continuously coming up short.
Or, they are not investing enough in their growth – in time, dollars, or consistency of efforts – and then pivoting too soon when it’s “not working.”
What no agency wants to hear – but is the truth – is that building a foundation for sustained growth is a quarters and years proposition – not a days, weeks or months effort.
From our combined 30+ years working inside agencies as business development leads, and outside the walls as agency consultants – we sadly must report that there is no magic bullet tactic that will guarantee growth. And, there are no 6-minute abs in business development.
We are a relationship-driven business – and relationships don’t form overnight. It’s an intense long-term effort, commitment and investment you must make in yourself in order to be successful.
It’s really not about the tactics – it’s about you and your goals. That goal – what you want to achieve, and by when – drives the development of your growth strategy.
And the strategy dictates the tactics – never the other way around.
The great news is we have the opportunity to invest in your agency, your people, your goals, in a way that is entirely unique and relevant to your needs.
WPI >> What excites you about working with agencies on their growth strategies?
BS&T >> Every agency was founded with hopes and dreams of delivering a caliber of work with certain types of brands in mind. But without focus, those brands will never be clients, and that caliber of work will never get created. A strategic growth plan ensures those dreams can come to fruition.
We are excited by the process of helping agencies properly diagnose their growth challenges at the outset of every engagement.
Over 8-12 weeks, we dig into every aspect of an agency’s brand and business, their niche within the industry landscape, competitive and aspirational agencies – and we conclude with interviews of key agency, client and partner stakeholders. From this 360 degree perspective, we craft a custom growth strategy for each agency we work with that is tailored to their exact growth challenges, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of their team.
By diving deep on this comprehensive growth audit, we are able to help agencies pinpoint very specific strategic and tactical challenges that must be addressed – as well as understand their white space opportunities and areas for experimentation and new test-and-learn approaches.
With the right diagnosis, we know exactly what remedies to prescribe. But we first need to understand the symptoms and root causes of an agency’s distress before we dive into recommending the proper course of treatment (like a doctor prescribing Tylenol or surgery for pain – big difference!)
WPI >> You’ve been told that your business model is madness. What’s so crazy about it and why are you doing things differently?
BS&T >> For those agencies that we work with on an annual basis to pursue a shared growth goal as partners, we have implemented a risk-mitigating compensation structure. This means that if we agree to a financial goal together – and we collectively miss that target, for whatever reason – we give back a sizable percentage of our retainer to the agency at the end of the year.
On the other side – if we meet the goal, we keep all dollars under the retainer agreement. And if we exceed that goal, we negotiate a fair upside bonus structure with each agency that aligns with their specific business model and margin.
We are committed to being a partner to our clients, in the truest sense of the definition of a “partner” – both in success AND when everything doesn’t go according to plan. We win – and lose – together.
WPI >> We’re seeing a trend of brands choosing to work with independent agencies over hold cos. What advantages do you think independence provides when it comes to growth?
BS&T >> We’ve long been ‘Indie AF’ – so we can say with our full chests that independent agencies have so much to offer brands that holding companies simply cannot.
What indies lack in scale or clout, they make up for in speed and agility, seniority and quality of talent – but most importantly, they are the epicenters of innovation.
Independent agency owners are predominantly entrepreneurs – and the most innovative work happens within founder-led small and mid-size businesses (SMBs) and startups.
Entrepreneurs go into business to fix something that drives them nuts – and agencies are no different. We’d put money on these innovative, entrepreneurial agencies any day over the revolving door of holding companies that are largely thinking shareholder returns-first versus innovation-first.
WPI >> You’ve shared that there are two main paths to growth for agencies: tactic-based and strategy-based. What are the key differences in these two approaches and which do you recommend for agencies?
BS&T >> We always recommend that agencies start with strategy. In most situations, an agency has to get its footing and begin finding its way. A strategic growth plan may not have enough structure to be defined at the outset. But as the agency grows beyond key relationships and referrals, a comprehensive, strategic approach to growth must be established to provide stability and a framework for growth. Otherwise, your growth actions (tactics) will be disjointed, internally and externally.
To quote The Art of War by Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, “strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
Strategy and tactics are both necessary for agencies to achieve their growth goals and sustain that growth consistently year over year. But we have to start with our goals – and allow those goals to drive the strategy. Tactics are selected to achieve our strategic objectives for growth – never the other way around.
WPI >> You encourage agencies to focus on four key areas of their strategy – brand, business, content and comms. Talk to us about these four areas and why you believe they are the foundation for growth.
BS&T >> We refer to these as the first-mile strategies that are essential for every business – including agencies – to nail in order to improve their pitching close rate and increase what they can charge for the value of their services.
We view Brand Strategy as the foundation of the agency. Everything is rooted here. Without solid footing in brand strategy, all other marketing and business development efforts will ultimately be unsuccessful.
Business Strategy is adapting to the fluidity and sometimes abrupt shifts of the market. Agencies – as on-trend as they try to be – can still find themselves misaligned with their target audience (brand-side marketers) and their target’s end-users (their customers and consumers) and need to course correct. Effective strategies require a careful balance between knowing how long they need to develop, and market shifts that demand a rapid pivot.
Content & Comms are the strategies (and corresponding tactics) that drive momentum through the funnel. Agencies know their clients’ funnels inside and out – but often ignore or neglect their own. Optimizing the mix of marketing tactics to your audiences – and to the strengths of your team members who are executing the content and comms work for the agency – is essential to upping your qualified lead volume and conversion rates.
Without looking at all four dimensions – and how they are interconnected with each other as part of a holistic growth strategy – agencies continue to have significant blindspots about their businesses, and struggle with achieving consistent, predictable and sustainable growth.
WPI >> You believe in radical honesty as a central tenet of an agency’s growth program. You don’t have to name names, but can you give us an example of the radical honesty that you’ve had with an agency and how it impacted their growth?
BS&T >> An agency’s success depends on putting egos aside. We must be able to objectively assess the internal and external factors impacting our opportunity to succeed.
We will always lead with respect for the business each agency’s leadership has built with their own blood, sweat and tears – but we also require permission as consultants to identify elements of an agency that need to change in order to achieve growth.
Call it radical honesty, or even tough love – that’s what we’re about. And we understand that’s not going to be everyone’s preferred flavor of consulting.
But for those agencies that have tried everything else and nothing has worked, we hope they will be in the right mindset to receive these inputs and do something constructive with them – whether we ultimately help to implement the strategies we develop, or the agency does that themselves with internal resources.
WPI >> Nora, you’ve stated that “the best pitch isn’t a pitch at all – it’s a story and a conversation.” Why do you think storytelling and dialogue are so important in new business efforts?
Nora >> Storytelling and crafting an emotional, empathetic narrative is critical in the B2B selling that agencies do. Because that sale is still H2H – human-to-human.
B2B companies are great at identifying problem-solution sets – but less focused on empathizing with their buyers and their emotions or mindset. What keeps them up at night? What are they afraid of? What gets them out of bed every day, excited to build these brands?
In B2B, we seem to forget that the same principles of B2C selling that tap into human psychology still apply – namely, that humans are NOT rational. In fact, we are highly irrational and emotional! And we are influenced and guided by snap judgments and instinctive reactions (thanks, lizard brain!)
Humans also have goldfish brain – an attention span of <9 seconds. So not only do we have to appeal to our buyers’ emotions and irrationality – but we have to convey that message in 8 seconds or less! TLDR is for real – and a lot of B2B marketers really seem to struggle with that, in terms of our verbosity (ahem… 100+ slide capes decks?)
Don’t forget to think like the client. Would they be interested in this information – or bored to death by it? If you can’t figure that out on your own, we highly recommend you phone-a-friend on the brand side and run your pitch by them.
We are weirdly afraid to ask for what we need from brand-side marketers. But remember – there is nothing more instructive and directive than first-party research with your ICP. No me-search – ask them directly what they need, and what they think of your offer and value proposition.
WPI >> Growth can come from net-new client relationships, but it can also come from expanding work with existing clients. Which area should agencies focus on? Is one type of growth more fruitful or efficient than the other?
BS&T >> Balancing both net-new client relationships and the expansion of existing ones is pivotal for every agency’s stability. But we take it a step further – we advise agencies to strategically leverage three key growth factors:
Retained Revenue + Organic Growth: Retaining clients is often more cost-effective than acquiring new ones. It’s essential to establish systems that prioritize client retention and identify opportunities for organic growth.
Net New Revenue: Pursuing new clients provides agencies with vital options. It enables them to consider expanding resources, parting ways with mismatched clients, enhancing their portfolio, and reducing financial dependency on any single client.
Profitability: Frequently overlooked, profitability is a crucial metric. Agencies must question the profitability of potential assignments. A focus solely on new business can overshadow the importance of profitable growth. This underscores the need for a robust growth strategy, accurate forecasting, and a well-managed pipeline.
Our goal is to empower agencies to maintain and grow their existing client base, develop a strategic approach to new revenue opportunities, and always maintain a focus on profitability thresholds for all projects.
WPI >> The prospect of working with a new client is always exciting, but not all new business is good business. What advice would you give to agencies that are trying to evaluate whether a potential client is the best fit?
The thrill of acquiring a new client is undeniable for any agency. However, it’s crucial to temper this excitement with strategic evaluation. Agencies should ask two key questions:
Alignment with Agency’s Direction: Does this potential client align with our agency’s current situation and future goals? It’s essential to ensure that the client fits not just for the immediate gain, but also the long-term vision of the agency.
Profitability Threshold: Can this client meet our minimum profitability requirements? Every new business must contribute to the agency’s financial health – and not just its client roster.
To effectively answer these questions, agencies need a tailored decision-making framework. This framework should take into account various factors such as the agency’s current situation, short- and long-term goals, resources, service offerings, industry trends, and the dynamics of the client’s team.
Developing a custom lead qualification approach will ensure that new business is not just exciting, but also a strategic fit that supports the agency’s sustainable growth.
WPI >> With the current economic instability around the world, what advice do you have for agencies as they search for new growth opportunities?
BS&T >> Any agency that has done the work to understand the needs of the clients they serve – and to develop a strategic plan to ensure they show up where their clients are – has a high probability of navigating volatile market conditions.
Having a pipeline of right-fit assignments solves many problems within an agency. We recognize the overwhelm that most agency leaders feel when considering this endeavor. But it’s work that, when done correctly, generates results. We’d challenge any agency to be thorough in the development and the execution of this process.
It’s hard to see the forest through the trees. So find an expert you trust that will give you an honest assessment of your business challenges – and provide options for how you should approach any deficits to a cohesive growth plan.
In these times of economic uncertainty, the adage “the best defense is a good offense” holds particularly true for agencies. Key to navigating volatile markets is a deep understanding of client needs and a strategic plan to meet them where they are.
This article is an installment in a series where Worldwide Partners speaks with experienced consultants and service providers that are part of our WPI Faculty. Check back for more interviews with our industry’s leading consultants in PR, business development, financial services and more.