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Biz dev when you’re just starting an agency

You have decided to take the leap and build your own agency. But how do you find clients?

In this episode, Chip and Gini share their thoughts on how to acquire your earliest clients.

They also look at the steps you should take to build a consistent new business engine that will serve you well for years to come.

Key takeaways:

  • Gini Dietrich: “Figure out where it is that you excel and then focus on building your network that way.”
  • Chip Griffin: “When you’re starting out, if you’ve got three or four decent clients, you’re probably in really good shape. So don’t focus on the quantity side. Focus on the quality side.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “It’s a lot easier to grow and scale as a new agency owner than it is for somebody who’s been in business for a very long time.”
  • Chip Griffin: “From day one, carve out that time to continue to network, to continue to have meaningful conversations with prospects or people who can refer work to you, because that’s how you will make sure that you’ve got a real engine for growth in the future.”


The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

Chip Griffin: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: And I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: And we’re gonna talk about getting started with business development today, because I have nothing… I, I don’t have a funny intro, so I’m just telling you that’s what the topic is. Getting started with business development. That’s it. After this,

Gini Dietrich: You’re on your, on your game today.

Chip Griffin: I, yeah, I mean, I, I screwed up the intro, so we had to, to restart the recording. Y’all will never hear that. Sorry. But, you know, it’s, and, and I, it threw me off my game, and I wasn’t able to come up with a cutesy little intro. So we’re talking about business development.

When you’re just getting started, you just, you’re just starting your agency. You wanna know how to grow business and do it consistently. That’s what we’re gonna talk about. Easy peasy.

Gini Dietrich: Easy peasy. All right. How do you do it?

Chip Griffin: Oh, I have to have an answer? I, I thought I was just introducing the topic.

Gini Dietrich: No, you have to, you have to have an answer.

Chip Griffin: Well, so I mean, really the, the, the first and best answer is that you started with at least one client. Yes. Which is I think true of the vast majority of agencies. Most, most folks don’t hang out the shingle without a client already on the line, usually, or not usually. Sometimes that may be your last employer.

Yep. Sometimes it may be someone who was a client of that last employer. Yep. Sometimes it may be someone that you’ve had a previous business relationship with and you’ve talked to them, and so now you can use that as your jumping off point. Yep. So chances are you’ve got some kind of revenue right out of the gate. Not enough to sustain you, probably.

Not enough to, to sit there and say, oh, I’m happy now, but at least it gets you started. And so it’s helpful to, to figure out how to get that first client. If you don’t have it, if you’re just hanging that shingle out and you don’t have a client, just focus on getting that first one in the door because part of growing it is having that initial client to start getting used to how you win a client, how you sign the contract, how you start servicing them and onboarding them. You’ve got to get all that out of the way before you can really look to the longer term.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, absolutely. So when I started my business, I did that exact thing. I, I started with a client and my goal was to have my salary, my benefits, and my car covered.

Um, because I think we all know that I have a car fetish. So I had to have those three things.

Chip Griffin: But until recently, no license.

Gini Dietrich: I had a driver’s license until 10 years ago, and then I never drove the car because I live in the city. And so it came due. I had to go like to the D M V to get it renewed. It was a big pain in the butt.

And I was like, I literally never drive. I always take the train and when I travel, I take Uber, so I’m not getting it renewed. And then Covid hit and I had to get the dumb thing renewed. So now I have a driver’s license again. But I still love my car.

Chip Griffin: Okay. It’s just, it’s most car people have licenses and don’t go without them for 10 years, that’s all. I realize I’ve taken us off track, but that’s my role here.

Gini Dietrich: So I wanted to make sure that I had salary, benefits, and my car covered, and then, then I was ready to, to go out on my own. And I had one client that was, that their retainer covered that, which was great. I joined PRSA.

The board of PRSA so that I could network that way. I did a lot of community events and networking and that kind of stuff. But the biggest thing for me was I developed relationships with the big agencies, and for them a $200,000 client, they wouldn’t even look at. But they would say they had a referral list and they’d say, well call Gini or call so-and-so, so-and-so, and I got a ton of, of referrals from that, just from that.

Then we got to the point where we got big enough that they were like, yeah, we’re not sending you our scraps anymore. But that was probably one of the – between PRSA, being on the board of PRSA and having the relationships with the big agencies. Those were the two big things that really helped fuel my growth in the first couple years.

Chip Griffin: Well, I think when you’re getting started, it’s, it’s really critical to find those one or two things that are gonna give you the opportunity to connect with more people and it’s not, it’s not gonna be the same for everyone. Sure. Some people may join groups as you did or may tap into previous networks.

In my case, when I started my first agency, I started writing a blog/newsletter called Primary Scoop that was about the New Hampshire primary because my clients were all in the public affairs space and so in trying to stay in touch with them. I took advantage of the fact that I had moved from DC to New Hampshire.

I had a great network of folks in DC who knew nothing about what was, what was going on in the New Hampshire primary back in the late 1990s, because there wasn’t nearly as much internet coverage of things back 20 years ago as there is today. And so it was a great way for me to remain top of mind for the people in my network who would be prospective clients or could refer prospective clients.

And so you need to find the things that are gonna give you the opportunity to be out in front of people. And so that could be any number of different tactics, but the, the key is not to focus on too many things. Focus on things that, that you know you like, that you know have worked for you in the past as far as developing relationships and just lean into them in the early days, because otherwise you’ll just be going in a million different directions and, and dilute all of your efforts.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, and I would say, you know, blogging for us today is probably the general driver of business. So to your point, like, try different things and, you know, say, okay, well I’m going to go and I’m going to serve on the board of an organization, or I’m gonna go and I’m gonna build relationships with, you know, people that can refer business to me at from the big agencies.

Or I’m going to blog and I’m gonna be really consistent about it. Or, heck, I’m gonna create a TikTok series and I’m gonna be really consistent about that and reach the right audiences. Like figure out where …it has to be something that you’re going to enjoy and that you’re passionate about. Because if you, if you really hate blogging or you really hate TikTok or you really hate networking, it’s not going to work.

So figure out where it is that you excel and then focus on that and building, building your network that way.

Chip Griffin: Well you touched on something important there too, which I think folks need to, to think about, which is where your prospects are. Yeah. So you, you have to be careful about doing something that, that you enjoy, but ends up talking more to your peers than to your prospects.

And I think we’ve talked about this on the show before. I’ve often made the mistake of talking to my peers instead of prospects because it’s kind of fun. Right. And it, and, and you, you can speak in a different way when you’re with peers because they have a base level of knowledge and so you can, you know, it’s sort of like the graduate level conversations, right, that you have with them.

But you need to have the undergraduate conversations oftentimes with prospects. And so you need to think about that when you’re creating content, when you’re doing networking, when you’re participating in events. And if you don’t have a match with your prospective client, then a lot of your energy may be wasted.

Gini Dietrich: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean that just like you’re gonna do with your clients. Figure out where your audience hangs out and then spend the time there. But it does have to be something that you enjoy doing. So if your audience hangs out, if your audience hangs out at. . Like there’s a group of people here in Chicago that go to this specific bar every, every Thursday, and they drink and they play cards, and, and that’s how some of them network.

For me, that sounds miserable, so I, I never join that. But for some people that’s, they get a lot of business. They refer business back and forth, and it’s a really great networking point for them. You know, for me, for someone like me, I tend to be a little bit more introverted. I would prefer to sit behind my computer screen and write.

So, blogging works for us. And our audience of course is, is reading. They’re reading about the PESO model. They’re trying to understand, you know, how they implement it inside their organizations. If they’re big corporations, they’re trying to figure out how to educate their internal teams on it so that, that works for us.

So it has to be something that you enjoy as well as being where your audience is.

Chip Griffin: Right. And, and I think it’s also important to consider that, particularly when you’re just getting started, you don’t need a huge roster. No. We, we often talk about how successful agencies usually have 10 to 15 clients. When you’re just getting started you don’t even need that many. No. If you, if you’ve got three or four decent clients, you’re probably in really good shape. So don’t focus on the quantity side. Focus on the quality side. And focus on consistency. And, and the consistency is something that’s really easy to lose sight of because as you start getting clients on board, you start focusing so much on keeping them happy because you’re like, well, I need to make a good impression.

I need to make sure that I’m retaining them. I need, I need them to say good things about me. And so you overinvest in the the client service side of the business. Often to the detriment of business development. And you need to make sure that from day one, you’re carving out that time to continue to network, to continue to have meaningful conversations with prospects or people who can refer work to you, because that’s how you will make sure that you’ve got a real engine for growth in the future.

And you’re not just focused on, you know, bandaiding a problem today because, oh my God, I lost a client. Or Oh my God, you know, I need some more revenue because you know, I’ve got to pay this bill or whatever.

Gini Dietrich: That’s such great advice because you know, I came from the big agency world and we had to bill 90% of our time, and so I went into starting my own business and I was like, oh, I have to bill 90% of my time, which was great as long as we had the clients to fulfill that capacity.

Right? But. What I, what, it was a really hard habit for me to break and a really hard lesson for me to learn is that I had to scale that back and about 50% of my time should have been billable to clients and 50% should have been spent spent on working on the business. So you’ll read lots of books, you’ll read lots of articles, you’ll hear lots of podcasts of people advising that you should work on the business not in it.

And that’s what they mean is you’ve got to, you’ve got to carve out the time to do business development. So that when you lose a client or when you -you know, because things happen. It’s not like you’re gonna go around and lose, be fired all the time, but, you know, we have bad economies. People are, there’s mergers and acquisitions, people like your direct day-to-day contact may leave the organization.

There are lots of reasons you can unexpectedly lose a client and you have to have that pipeline full to be able to replace it.

Chip Griffin: Right. And it’s really just a matter of consistently having these meaningful conversations. And I think that a lot of folks think that it needs to be a, a very defined sales process and we need to, to target companies A, B, and C and, you know, I need to go in there and I need to ask for their business, and I need to propose this or that.

And, it’s really not that. Growing an agency is not about traditional sales, and so if, if you start going and buying a bunch of sales books and think about sales funnels and all that kind of stuff, you’re gonna be miserable. Yes. Most, most agency owners hate that kind of thing. Frankly, with good reason.

And it’s, it’s not the way that you grow an agency. You grow an agency by developing relationships, right? Agencies are a relationship business, both on the client service side as well as on the business development side. And so you need to find people that are good matches for you. And so that means that you just need to try to find a reason, an excuse to go have a meaningful conversation in person, on Zoom, on the old-fashioned telephone on a regular basis.

Have two or three of those a week and good things are going to start to happen because it’s about being at the right place at the right time with the right person.

Gini Dietrich: And you are, I’m, I’m not as so much of an advocate of this as you are, but I think this is smart advice coming from you. Is that you, you don’t mind the, can I pick your brain conversations.

Chip Griffin: I love them.

Gini Dietrich: You don’t mind, yeah. Like that doesn’t bother you, you love, because I think, I think you’re right that things come out of those kinds of things that you don’t expect. So be willing and open to have conversations that may never amount to anything. Or maybe they do, or maybe they’re one of your number one referral sources because you had that one can I pick your brain meeting? .

Chip Griffin: Right. And, and I mean, I even go so far as with my current business, I give away free 30 minute consultations for whatever anybody wants, anytime. I don’t care. Basically no questions asked. Yeah. And if you, if you read classical sales literature and you listen to all of the so-called experts, they’ll all tell you that’s a terrible idea.

You shouldn’t do it. Guess what? I get most of my business on the backs of those calls. Right. And, and they are truly what they, what I describe them as. They’re free consultations. You can talk to me about anything. I’m not going to pitch you on my services. You want to ask about it. And most people do at the end of the call, they’ll ask, how can I work with you?

 And the close rate on that is astronomical. If they ask, how can I work with you? Most of those close within 24 hours.

Gini Dietrich: Hundred percent. Right. That’s great.

Chip Griffin: So, and if they don’t, that’s fine. You know, but I’ve still built Goodwill. I’ve learned a lot because I’ve learned about what the challenges their agency is facing, and I can use that in the rest of the work that I do.

And so I’m not telling everybody here that they should offer free consultations. It doesn’t work for every agency and every agency owner, but think about the kinds of things that you can do. Think about how you can be just generally helpful to your target audience. If you’re helpful, good things will come back to you. I guarantee it.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. I mean, we help galore and it it does, it does come back. You also get taken advantage of, but I think that, that’s less…

Chip Griffin: It’s relatively small, particularly for something like this where I do the free consultation because they have to invest their time too.

Sure, sure. Right. And, and so if, if they’re saying, Hey, it’s worth 30 minutes of my time to talk with you. You know, the odds of it being, you know, useless or scammy or being taken advantage of is, is really small. And frankly, if I can solve someone’s problem in that period of time and they don’t ever need to talk to me again, they probably weren’t going to be a particularly good fit for a client anyway.

Right, right. They’re just not. So, you know, I think people are, are far too afraid of having these kinds of conversations and particularly when you’re just getting started, I would use any excuse to be on the phone with somebody. Any excuse whatsoever because you just don’t know where it’s going to lead.

Particularly if you’re new and you haven’t run a business before, you haven’t run an agency before. You can’t accurately predict in advance which calls are going to be useful and which aren’t. Right? So do more of them. Right. Also, try different kinds of clients. You’re going to come in with an idea of, this is the kind of client I want to work for, and it’s probably going to be, oh, I want to work for the Fortune 100, because they have the big budgets and the great logos and all this kind of stuff.

Guess what? That may not be the best fit. At the same time, you may say, Hey, it’s easier to work for small businesses. They can just say yes on the spot. Yeah, sort of. You know, there’s usually a happy middle ground that you’ll end up gravitating to eventually, but try different things so that you can find out what works.

Don’t feel that you’re so locked into one point of view when you get started with business development that that is your singular focus, and that’s the only thing that you’re going to do, because you have a lot to learn. I still have a lot to learn, and I’ve been advising businesses and running my own businesses for a long time.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, I mean, things change consistently, so you’re right. There are, there are things you’re learning constantly and things that used to work don’t anymore. I mean, you know, I, like I said, I started my business kind of on the backs of the big agencies where they were sending me their “scraps”, and that didn’t last very long.

It lasted maybe three years and then I had to switch, switch my, I had to shift my strategy. So you will continue to evolve and the industry or your industry focus that you start out with now will evolve. You know, we, we started out by saying we really, my background was food and so I really wanted to work with restaurants and I found out fairly quickly that’s not such a great audience. It’s not, they don’t make a great client. I got, I got fed lots of great food, but unfortunately that doesn’t pay the bills. So I found that out pretty quickly and had to shift my strategy. So you will, you will always evolve, you will continue to shift and where you start to get good is when you’ve done enough calls that you understand, okay, these are the things that are going to convert, these are the types of questions I should be asking. These are the types of conversations I should be having, and you’ll be able to gauge that. But you won’t know that unless you actually do it.

Chip Griffin: Right.

And, and if you view all of these things, all of the change that’s coming at you, view them as opportunities. Don’t view them as problems, you know. There are a lot of things that, that you can do today that you couldn’t do three or four years ago. Yeah. Right. And, and some of these things really help from a business development standpoint because business development used to mean that you had to go meet somebody in person.

That’s a much larger time investment than what we can do now where we can meet by video conference. And, you know, pre pandemic, I couldn’t get anybody to get on a zoom call with me, even though I personally loved the technology. Everybody wanted to either do a phone call or coffee in person.

Yep. So, and now you can, you can meet that way, which means you can talk to a lot more people, a lot more efficiently, because you’re no longer investing two hours to do a 20 minute coffee with somebody. Right, right. You can do a 20 minute conversation and it’s 20 minutes.

Gini Dietrich: 20 minutes. And I think you know, pre pandemic, you’re right that not many people wanted to, to do video chat.

And now it’s pretty much what everybody does. Like, it, it’s not even a question. And I, you know, when I’m setting up meetings, I don’t even ask. I say, okay, I’ll send a link. And then, and people just expect that. They’re not expecting that I’m going to meet them in person. Almost never.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. I, I can’t tell you the last time I did a work call on, well now my cell phone because I don’t even have a phone on my desk.

And the cell phone doesn’t even really work here because of where I live. So I, and so I just, I do everything by, and same thing. Nobody even, they don’t bat an eye. And yet it’s so much more effective, particularly when you’re dealing with someone you’ve never talked with before.

Being able to see each other on screen is so much better than just being on a, a plain old no video, telephone call. It just makes a giant difference. Yep. And so from a business development perspective, it allows you to cast a much wider net to have more conversations, which means that ultimately business development becomes a lot easier to do at scale and to do consistently.

Gini Dietrich: Absolutely. Yeah. I am a, I’m a big, big fan. You know, when we, even like internally when we were able to start using video chat for meetings and one-to-ones and things like that, it changed. It completely changed the dynamic and the culture. So I’m a big fan of that for sure.

Chip Griffin: So find the things that, that you like to do. Find the things that you can do consistently. Make sure you’re carving out that time. Cast a wide net. Talk to lots of people. Try a lot of different things. And you’re going to end up with success as a new agency owner. Or an old agency owner.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. And guess what? It’s a lot easier to grow and scale as a new agency owner than it is for somebody like me who’s been in business for a very long time.

Chip Griffin: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean it’s, and so you as a new agency owner, look at this as an opportunity. You have, you have a ton of flexibility in front of you and you should be able to take advantage of that and not have to deal with all of the baggage that us old timers have to deal with.

Gini Dietrich: That’s right. That’s right. Yep. That’s awesome. Congratulations. Do your thing. It’s awesome.

Chip Griffin: And with that, that will draw to an end, this episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: And it depends.

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The Hosts

Chip Griffin is the founder of the Small Agency Growth Alliance (SAGA) where he helps PR & marketing agency owners build the businesses that they want to own. He brings more than two decades of experience as an agency executive and entrepreneur to share the wisdom of his success and lessons of his failures. Follow him on Twitter at @ChipGriffin.


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, the lead blogger at Spin Sucks, and the host of Spin Sucks the podcast. She also is co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Follow her on Twitter at @GiniDietrich.

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