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Understanding the Agency Buyer Journey to Win More Business

Understanding the Agency Buyer Journey to Win More Business


A few years ago we noticed a serious gap in the approaches agencies were taking to guide their business development plans and activities: there was no documented knowledge base regarding the buyer journey for agency services.

Significant attention had been paid to the study of customer journeys across a myriad of categories and industries. Much of this important work had been done by agencies. Yet no one had studied the agency buyer’s journey.

So, we went ahead and did it ourselves.

This information is critical to your firm’s planning, strategies, pipeline and new business win rate. Here’s what we learned.

The Agency Buyer’s Journey

I mentioned earlier that we had studied the agency buyer’s journey. We have worked closely with hundreds of senior clients and conducted hundreds of reviews. Our strategy practice also puts us with clients often when reviews are not underway. And just like you often explain to your clients the importance of mapping out a customer journey and utilizing different marketing tactics at different stages of that journey, the same is true for you and your agency’s prospects.

To really understand the prospect, you need to understand their customer journey, just as you do for your clients’ customers. The prospects’ needs, behaviors and interests change as they proceed through their buyer’s journey. Their needs don’t stay the same. Since the prospects’ needs change as they move through their journey, the agency’s strategies and tactics also need to change. By better understanding the customer journey your agency can create journey-specific actions that better meet the prospect’s needs at each specific moment in their journey.

Here’s what we’ve learned about how clients navigate their world relative to the agency buying decision. The agency buyer’s journey has 6 steps.

The Buyer Journey for Agency Services
Let’s review these steps.
Step 1: Pre-Market

What’s going on: The client is not looking for an agency. The prospect is going about their business and life. They know little about the agency market, they don’t keep up with agencies… they don’t really care. They may subscribe to AdAge or Adweek, but they don’t religiously read those trades to keep up with the world of agencies.

Instead, they are focused on their business and building their knowledge and expertise in support of their business. At this stage they are focused on their business and their career.

When they do take a break from the business challenges at hand, they focus their business-related reading and video watching focused on advancing their business and functional knowledge. They read business publications, trade and industry journals. They might attend industry shows/virtual conferences and maybe an ANA conference. They aren’t thinking about or reading about agencies.

So, with key client decision makers going about their business and not thinking at all about agencies, what should your objectives be at this step? Remember, this is the step where clients spend the vast majority of their time. Also remember, they simply don’t know many agencies by name: unaided awareness is very low.

Winning at this stage is very difficult.

Your objectives at this stage are to:

To win at this stage, the agency’s focus needs to be on “readiness”, ensuring the agency:

An agency’s growth depends upon this step in the journey. We have studied the buyer’s behaviors and the agency actions needed to ensure your team is ready when clients start their search for an agency. We’d be happy to discuss this further with any agency.

Step 2: Trigger

In this step, the client/prospect has been triggered. A trigger is a change to the marketer’s situation that causes them to rethink the status quo. The trigger is almost always a change or a challenge. Changes can include new leadership, new channels, new strategies. They could be opportunities like a new product launch. Challenges can include poor business results, new or enhanced competition, or even poor agency performance.  At this stage they are concerned, and they know they need to respond to the trigger.

What does the agency need to do at this step? First, you need to know about the trigger. You need to be aware of the changes facing your prospect. Next, you need to be findable so that when your prospect starts looking for an agency, they find your agency instead of the numerous other options available. Finally, you need to build your reputation for the specific expertise the buyer needs.

Step 3: Plan

Having been triggered by a change or challenge, the client needs to find the right agency. They know they need help… but they don’t know where or how to find that help. Remember, they don’t follow the agency world. They don’t know of many agencies and have little time to learn on their own given their day to day business challenges. At this point in the journey they are overwhelmed.

At this stage they generally do one of three things:

There are steps an agency can take to capitalize on opportunities in this stage, but the odds of success are dramatically greater if the agency has attended to stage 1 with distinction. Your job during this step is simple, you need to get on the list. The odds of being on that list are very low if you have not aggressively addressed stage 1.  If you’d like to better understand your critical objectives at this stage, give us a call.

Step 4: Agency Search

By step 4, the client has begun the search for the perfect agency partner. The prospect is formally or informally conducting a search. It could be a middle manager, a senior executive or owner, or a consultant. At this stage they are determined to find the right partner to help them address their business challenge or opportunity.

At this stage they generally conduct some of the following:

Your objective at this stage is to win the pitch!

The agency mindset at this stage should be to stay prospect centric. We’d be happy to help you refine your pitch strategies and increase your win rate.

Step 5: Select & Close

The client thinks they’ve found the right partner. They want to be confident in their choice. They may need to build the confidence and commitment of others (management, etc.). The prospect wants to feel good about the deal they strike. At this stage they feel nervous, relieved and excited.

Your objective at this stage is to:

The agency mindset at this stage should be focused on making things easy and welcoming. Graciously move through the process offering mutually beneficial solutions, indicating that you are an easy and collaborative partner.
Step 6: Post
Invariably the client is in a rush to address their challenges and see ROI. The prospect urgently needs to get going.

At this stage they are focused on getting results.

Your objective at this stage is to get going quickly!

The agency mindset at this stage is dedicated to showing appreciation and excitement. Thank the client and get to work quickly.
In Summary

The agency prospect’s customer journey has 6 steps. While every step along the journey is critically important to your agency, addressing step 1 with distinction is far and away your best strategy to building a better pipeline and getting more at bats. And the remainder of the steps is essential to master if you are to win more of your opportunities.

We love to see the right agency win the business. The best way to do that is to make sure that you are thinking about your prospects and where they are on the journey every step of the way.

We’d be happy to help.

Lindsay O’Neil, a Director at Mercer Island Group, has participated in extensive research across all marketing practices including Media, Digital, PR, Advertising, and Social. She has led and participated in dozens of agency searches for clients like Envestnet, Zillow, Barre3, TrueCar, Brooks Running and Hitachi Vantara. One of her key strengths as a consultant is her deep understanding of marketing strategy and agency new business development practices.