Niche is Not a Dirty Word: How to Find Your Agency’s Target Clients and Build a New Business Program with Michael Gass

October 29, 2020

Michael Gass has developed a reputation on Twitter. The business development consultant and trainer is known for his mix of sales and agency content balanced with family shots of playing with the grandkids or relaxing on his boat. It’s the definition of work-life balance as the face of a brand. And he should know – Gass’s entire business is based around providing a process that helps agencies to better define their primary target audience, establish a positioning of expertise and create a way for the agency owner(s) to become a more visible ‘face of the agency.’ 

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I sat down with Michael to discuss his consulting career, including the early, wild west days of social media, how to sell without ever making a cold call, and why agencies are so afraid of defining a target audience.

Samantha Stallard: How did you get into business development and eventually start your own company?

Michael Gass: I started with an agency in Nashville and worked my way up to account director. We had gone through three new business development people and the two agency owners asked if I would give it a shot. And I learned that I was good at it. I had some natural ability and knew how to be persistent without being a pest. I was recruited by other agencies to help with their business development. Back in 2007, with three kids in college, I decided to laugh my own business as a new business development consultant.

I was under a lot of pressure and social media was just coming up on everybody’s radar, but very few knew how to monetize it, particularly agencies. So, I created a blog called Fuel Lines: Fueling Ad Agency New Business. I quickly discovered that few agencies identify their target client because they’re afraid of being pigeonholed or losing opportunities with other brands. However, without a target, it’s almost impossible to create branding and positioning. 

Many agencies are also caught in this perpetual state of redesigning their website, it made new business more difficult than it should be. And to me, positioning is the foundation of new business, right? That’s why most agencies struggle with it. So, now it was time for me to step up to the plate and practice what I preach.

SS: How did your blog evolve into a consulting business?

MG: A few months after creating the blog, writing content, and developing my online community I had an opportunity to work with an agency on the West coast, over 2000 miles away. When I thought about what it would have taken to get that opportunity using traditional marketing methods, I plunged into social media as if I were back in grad school.

Very few post content on how to generate new business from social media. So, I pioneered my way through it by testing everything. For example, back in 2007, according to the “social media geeks,” if you tweeted something once you weren’t supposed to tweet it twice. But, as I grew my Twitter following, I realized that if I tweeted an article that I posted at two o’clock on Thursday, the vast majority of my audience never saw it. I tested until I found a pattern showing how often I could reshare the same content without losing followers. I kept testing and generated healthy traffic to my site, about 25,000 to 30,000 page views per month.

It’s been 14 years and I’ve never made a cold call for new business. I’ve never had to because of a consistent flow of online leads that has been generated through social media. Today, instead of chasing new business, it’s all about being found. The dynamic of your relationship is so different when a prospective client initiates the call. You do that by creating a positioning as an expert. That’s what prospects are searching for and they’re willing to pay for your expertise.

SS: Tell me about an agency that reached out to you.

MG: I got a call from Kevin Freedman, the CEO of Freedman International. Like with many other agency owners, I had developed a personal connection with Kevin through social media and creating helpful content. When Kevin reached out to me by phone he talked to me like he knew me even though it was our first conversation. His call was basically to check on my pricing and availability. He flew me to London to conduct a new business workshop for his team, that was our first face-to-face meeting.

People want to work with other people that they know, trust and like. Social media is like networking on steroids. To have the right prospect, with the right budget, who already buys into the way I think, and reaches out to me ready to go? That’s a new business professional’s dream.

In the beginning I was criticized for being too passive in my approach, but there was nothing passive about it. Other business development pros didn’t see the strategy behind my tactics. Whenever a new agency calls me, I remind them of who called how. The way my new business program has worked for me is exactly how it works for my clients. You’re not having to sell, they’ve already bought in.

In over 14 years, having worked with over 450 agencies throughout the U.S., Canada, South America and Europe, I’ve never had a bad client relationship. It’s a self-vetting tool. If there’s no chemistry, or they don’t agree with your philosophy and thinking, they never call. That isn’t a bad thing. You don’t waste time and effort on prospective clients that aren’t the right fit. But for those that do buy-in, you can form a very strong connection with your audience.

SS: Describe your role as a consultant. What’s your primary responsibility?

MG: First and foremost, I help solve my clients’ positioning problem. With most agencies in a constant state of rebranding themselves and redesigning their websites, I have them create a niche blog, totally separate from their existing website. It allows me to help them drill down to a very specific target group, much tighter than they would ever allow on the website.

We usually build this new blog around the agency owner(s). In practicality, they’re the least likely person to leave. I’ve also learned that the agency’s brand is really an extension of the owner of that brand. It’s their vision, values and culture that they’ve created.

We make the niche blog personal, not corporate. Because social media is about people connecting with other people, not the brick and mortar agency. We don’t hide the owner’s connection with the agency but we don’t lead it.

You have some international brands that understand the power of a person being the face of the brand such as Steve Jobs and Tim Cook as the face of Apple or the brilliant job Sir Richard Branson does as the face of the Virgin brand.

Creating the niche blog offsite is a palatable way to help solve the problem of branding and to gain a positioning of expertise quickly. The riches are in the niches.

SS: But a lot of owners don’t want to be the face of their agency.

MG: Agency owners are extremely important for new business. Nobody wants to talk to the sales person. Prospects want a direct connection with the agency’s brand owner.

Drew McLellan with Agency Management Institute, said agency owners need to spend 50% of their time in business development. So, how do they do that? Cold calling is inefficient and ineffective. There’s a new approach for new business and that’s through the use of social media. .

Community development comes before business development. You build an active community of prospects around your personal social media accounts. And, the way to build that community is to share your thinking and provide content that has value. Most agencies have a Twitter account, Facebook page, and blog, but all they do is talk about themselves, their new hires or awards. They’re not creating conversations that are of value to their audience. That’s why most don’t have new business success across these channels.

Most agencies are also on the content bandwagon. But content has doubled or even tripled since 2015. They’re having little success with it from a new business perspective because it’s just contributing to the deluge of generic online content. It’s not specific to a particular target group and creates very little if any appeal or awareness.

SS: What happens when agencies focus on these niche audiences?

MG: I have a client based in Ann Arbor, Michigan whose primary target is OEM (original equipment manufacturer) automotive suppliers. Being so close to Detroit, the automotive epicenter, the agency has hundreds of prospective clients within a half day’s drive from their office.

Even though the agency has done lots of work in this category they were afraid to claim this niche without the blog, 0 to 60 Branding: Marketing and advertising insights for automotive suppliers. Ernie Perich was invited to speak to the Original Equipment Suppliers (OESA) Summit to address his prospects because he had earned a positioning of expertise to this group.

Another client has been  the Barkley Agency in Kansas City. They currently have three niche blogs. One for Quick Service Restaurants, another for CPG companies and the third, Marketing to Millennials. Because each blog lives offsite, they can fish in different ponds for specific audiences without creating any confusion for clients or prospective clients.

SS: Describe the blog creation process.

Jeff Fromm is the author of the Millennial Marketing blog. In the beginning, Jeff didn’t know much about millennials other than he had three of his own. Today, Jeff is the expert in this space. He’s written three books on the topic, is an keynote speaker, writes for Forbes, and, is often quoted on national news programs and publications. Jeff’s positioning of expertise is a large part of Barkley’s success for new business.

The number one thing prospective clients are looking for is expertise. And the biggest commonality among experts is that they write, so you can quickly establish a positioning of expertise by writing about it.

And I know most agencies are in a predicament — they need to generate new business today. So, I put them on a very rigorous writing schedule. I have them to write 30 posts within 30 days. It helps them to develop a system for content creation plus, the blog looks rich and full. Prospects don’t know that it’s new. They’ll think they discovered it, not seeing the strategies, tactics and tools it took to get them there.

Once we’ve determined their target, we develop a title and tagline for their new, offsite blog and identify the key categories that will help focus the writing. The tighter the content-focus, the easier it is to write.

SS: Wow that’s intense even for a writer like me. How do you develop the content?

MG: It starts with positioning. The lack of positioning is a common problem for most agencies.  Tim Williams wrote one of the best positioning books I’ve ever read on the subject, Take a Stand For Your Brand. I encourage my clients to read it. Once read, many agency owners become excited to get started, but I found that they still  don’t have the stomach to make the hard business decisions and pull the trigger and really identify their niche. All they can think about is missed new business opportunities. They want to be as broad as they can be and try to appeal to everybody. But, when you try to appeal to everyone, you don’t appeal to anybody.

So, I found a solution to the problem creating the niche blogs. To get started, I usually conduct a full-day new business workshop. I reserve the end of the day for the discussion on positioning. A lot of the agency owners read the agenda for the day and want to discuss positioning first thing in the morning. I say, trust me, we’ll get there. I want to show them the strategies, tactics, and tools, first.

Owners are always amazed at how easy it is for them to figure out their positioning. I found that most agency owners really know where they need to be, they just need to find a way to implement it without the risk. That’s why creating the niche blog works so well. Because it lives offsite, it doesn’t create any conflicts with prospects outside of their niche. But, for their primary target audience we can create a sales funnel through the niche blog. It allows them to have a most consistent flow of prospects and opportunities and larger accounts because of their positioning of expertise.

SS: What other agencies have successfully defined and gone after their niche?

MG: I had a client in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. When I flew into the Lehigh airport, there was beautiful ads on the walls featuring Martin guitars. Then, when I got to the agency, they had guitars on the walls and I learned that the two agency owners played in a band together. Martin was their client. It was a small agency, maybe 15 people, and they had a major brand as a client. I knew we needed to leverage that.

Through the positioning exercise during their workshop, we found that there were thousands of companies in the musical instrument and equipment manufacturing category. We defined it as the niche. They started creating content for their blog building awareness and appeal for their audience. When they attended an annual musical instrument and equipment conference in Anaheim, California for their target audience the owner of Peavey Electronics invited the agency’s partners to dinner, the asked to visit their headquarters in Meridian, MS which was followed with a marketing proposal through creating a niche.

SS: What are some skills that you developed in the beginning of your career that you still use today?

MG: Always create value. You’ve got to create true value for your prospective clients. The first agency I worked with was Holland + Holland Advertising in Birmingham, Alabama. Stephanie Holland was the president and creative director. It was a small agency and I asked them how they were different from everybody else. They gave the usual responses — we’ve got great creative, we’re strategic, we’re fun to work with… the same thing every other agency says.

If I’m a Midwestern-based brand, why would I want to fly over hundred of other creative, strategic, fun agencies to work with you in Birmingham?

While researching a niche, we couldn’t find another female creative director in the entire state of Alabama. Then discovered that 97% of all creative directors at that time were men. Which is especially crazy because women are usually the purchasing agent for their families. So, we positioned Stephanie as the face of the agency and detailed how the good ole boy creatives were missing out on their primary marketing target, women. We developed the niche blog, She-conomy: A Guy’s Guide to Marketing to Women, and lead with the stat that 85% of all brand purchases are made by women. One day, Stephanie let me know that she was hired by Porsche to develop a marketing campaign targeting women to buy their luxury cars. They would have never gotten that opportunity without her positioning.

SS: Inn my experience at agencies, we only looked for new business after something bad happened, like losing a major client.

MG: Another commonality among small to midsize agencies, they’re good at servicing their clients. But, almost to the detriment of new business. As soon as they land an account, that becomes their focus, so new business activities cease until you lose another account. That’s why agency new business is like a roller coaster. Develop a new business program that you can maintain even when you’re at your busiest. Never turn it off. You always have clients you want to trade-out. You want bigger accounts that have longevity and that are a better fit for your agency.


About Michael Gass

Michael is the founder of Fuel Lines Business Development, LLC. The firm provides business development resources, training and consulting services to advertising, digital, media and PR agencies. He is also the author of the Fuel Lines blog which has been rated among the top 100 marketing blogs in the world, according to Ad Age’s Power 150.

Since 2007, Michael has pioneered the use of social media, content and inbound marketing strategies specifically for agency new business. Michael has originated a system that makes targeting, positioning and differentiation easier and helps agencies to find, attract and engage their best prospects online. He has trained over 450 agency CEOs and their senior management teams in all 50 states here in the U.S. and agencies in over 21 foreign countries. 

Along with providing consulting services and training for individual agencies, Michael also speaks at events and conducts training for agency groups such as the 4A’s, Mirren New Business, TAAN, The Magnet Global Network, MCAN, DMA and the American Advertising Federation. He delivers more than 40 presentations each year.

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