Login or Join

Close this search box.

How to handle agency business development during the Covid-19 crisis

There’s no need to sugarcoat it. These are challenging times. But agencies can and should continue to engage in business development.

It requires a delicate balance, so Chip and Gini address how to thread the needle appropriately to make sure you are meeting the needs of prospects without unnecessarily alienating those who may be less receptive to your message right now.


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

CHIP: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the agency leadership podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.

GINI: And I’m Gini Dietrich,

CHIP: and we’re here today to talk to you about how it is that you’re going to generate new business in the midst of all that’s going on, not that anything’s going on, it’s kind of a quiet now

GINI: there’s nothing going on. I don’t know what you’re talking about.

CHIP: There’s no news to be had. There’s nothing going

GINI: on news. No. The world’s not ending. No, nothing going on.

CHIP: If the world ends good news is you don’t really need to worry about new business. No, the world’s not gonna end though. So you don’t need to worry about it. You do need to worry about new business.

GINI: You do need to raise awareness. And it’s a really challenging and I would say sensitive topic because you don’t want to be seen as dry. Right? I can see chip space and he’s trying not to laugh.

CHIP: Focus, Jenny focus.

GINI: I can’t you’re trying not to laugh and I don’t know why.

And okay, so as I was saying This is it is a challenging time because you have to be really sensitive to the fact that lives are up ended. And lots of people are homeschooling and trying to run businesses and trying to keep everything going. And it’s a lot. It’s a lot. At the same time, there is I think there’s an opportunity. There’s always opportunity, as you said, In a previous episode, as rahm emanuel said, find it was not this nice, but find opportunity in crisis. Um, you do have opportunity, and doing doing that and going after new business and prospecting is one of the things you should be doing right now. For sure, and just just be sensitive to the fact that everybody’s lives are up ended.

CHIP: Yeah, and look, I mean, you know, we, you know, we we’ve tried to have some levity in the last episode where we talked about this crisis and obviously, a little bit of levity here at the start of this one as well. outlook, you have to have some of that. Otherwise, I think you just too crazy. At the end of the day, everybody here is impacted by this. It’s unlike any other crisis that I think we’ve ever seen there is not a single person that is not impacted on the entire planet in some fashion, either because they’re concerned they might get at a concern a loved one might get it or because they’re infected economically directly. Right, right, better off for it. I mean, so this is this is very different. But you know, not everything can stop, you know, we may have to all sit inside of our homes and, you know, kind of stare out the window and wonder what’s going on out there. But there’s a there’s a need for us to continue what we do, particularly in the agency space. In fact, there are a lot of my clients that are seeing increases in business for certain clients, because there are there are absolutely businesses out there that are producing more work for their communications teams as a result of what’s going on whether that’s crisis work or Because you work for a pharmaceutical company that maybe is working on a potential cure or vaccine or what have you. There are opportunities to be had and make no mistake, there are some businesses that are doing better today than they were three or four weeks ago. I was watching CNBC earlier today. And the President of Goya beans was on and he said that their business is up 40% in the last three weeks. So we now I mean, non perishable, we now understand why people are buying so much toilet paper. No.

GINI: Beans, beans, the Magical Fruit, it’s

CHIP: your fiber. Okay, it’s your fiber here.

But look,

it’s true, right? I mean, there are businesses out there that are doing extra well. So if you’re an agency that serves that space, there’s a need to address that. So yeah, you know, not everybody in the agency community is being equally affected by this. Some are seeing downturns in business. Some are No change in summer seeing increases. But regardless, no matter which of those three buckets you fall into, you need to be focused on business development. If you’re if you’re thriving right now you need to work on it. Because as I always say, time to focus most is when you’re busiest with client work, because otherwise you’re going to get a dip at some point, it’s going to be really surprising. And certainly, if you don’t have enough business right now, you want to be out there prospecting. So, and as you say, Jenny, you know, the The key is to balance it out and be careful about it. So as I like to say, you need to take advantage without taking advantage. Right. And so there are a lot of ways that we can do that.

GINI: I agree. And you know, I think if you start if you stop and listen to what your clients are telling you, then you I think you’ll find opportunities. I have a friend who said to me yesterday, what do you think about this we were supposed to do, or our client was supposed to bring all of their agencies together in person for an agency summit this summer, and it looks That’s going to be canceled. d. And she said, Do you think it would be strange or obnoxious for me to suggest that because of some of my other client experience of creating virtual events that I helped them figure out how to do this online? And I was like, No, that’s amazing. Do that. So you know, finding opportunities like that, that she wouldn’t normally do that she wouldn’t normally put on the in person event for this client, but giving them the tools that they need to put this event on virtually, which she has and she’s done is a huge opportunity for her. I don’t think that’s an actress at all.

CHIP: No, and I think you’ve mentioned one of the keys here, which is to listen, you need to listen to your clients. You need to listen to your prospects. You need to listen to the industry that you’re focused on or the industries that you’re focused on. And you need to figure out what are the gaps that you can help fill because there’s a lot that is changing in the current environment. And you need to find those opportunities where you can take your expertise and your experience and fill that gap. And it may mean that you have to reinvent how it is you’re presenting your services or absolutely adapt, you know, if you’ve, if you’ve always taken a hammer and hit a nail and then they stop getting your nails and they give you a screw you don’t want to keep hitting it with the hammer, it’s not gonna work. Right? It’s just gonna sit there and knock, you want to go find a screwdriver. So hopefully, maybe so you know, you need to be thinking in the same way about your business and look at how things are changing if you’ve done in person stuff you absolutely need to find other ways to do it. But it may not be just okay I did an in person training I’m just going to submit a webinar and that may not be the right way maybe you want to find some sort of a more creative solution some small group things on on zoom where you’ve got the video so it feels a little bit more in person. I heard I was listening to someone recently was talking about how they were pivoting to remote events. And they were sending physical packages to the attendees cool yeah that they felt like they were you know, it’s more part it felt a little bit more like the in person experience down to the they said that they were including snacks The package just like they would have in a conference room or whatever. So you need to think creatively. And don’t don’t just go in a straight line and say, Well, this is how I’ve always done, I just need to keep doing this. I just, you know, if you keep making the same prospect calls over and over again to the same people selling the same thing, it’s probably not going to work today, you probably need to make some changes.

GINI: Yeah, and I would say to that, although I’m very big on process and I’m very big on saying to a prospect, this is how we do things is I would say that right now is the time to toss that out the window because you saying this is the way we do things and this is how much it costs is just it right now is coming across as inflexible and not being able to pivot to a client’s need or prospects need. So look for ways or opportunities that you can address the immediate need. And then eventually, it might be a year from now or 18 months from now or two years from now. You can go back to your process and what you know what you know works. Right now your job To save your business and protect your cash, and whatever you can do to do that, do it.

CHIP: Yeah. And even more than that, it’s to innovate and maybe find a better model. So absolutely, yeah, maybe that. I mean, you may have had a wildly successful process and model that that’s worked great until today. But maybe you can find one that’s even better. And yeah, you have to be open to that. And it may be that you just find through happenstance that this is the right mix for you, and you’ll stick with it. So don’t be afraid to try things. Yes, it’s about the near term survival, but it’s also about the opportunity to see what might work for the future might be even better. You know, it’s sort of like, you know, we tell our kids try this food, you know, maybe maybe maybe some hotdogs, make better things. hotdogs,

GINI: No, probably not. But yeah,

CHIP: but you know, you can find other things out there and you may find things that work better for your business. So, be open to it. Don’t Don’t be stubborn. This is not a time to be

GINI: this is not a time To be stubborn, absolutely. We actually had this conversation in the spin flex community because people were talking about, you know, they typically do strategic planning sessions that go that last, you know, 10 to 15 hours over two days. And how should they do that? Can they just replicate that on zoom. And I think to your earlier point, it doesn’t replicate in the same way. Because having somebody sit on zoom for seven hours a day, not gonna work. So think about ways that you can sort of chunk that down, I would call it you know, maybe it’s two hours over the course of a week or 10 days, but figure and have a specific deliverable or milestone that you’re hitting in each of those two are meetings. Because if you’re trying to do a two days in person strategy session, just on zoom, you’re going to lose people fast. So I think there are exactly some new opportunities for you to look at how to do things differently.

CHIP: And let’s take that particular example because I think it’s a great one. And, frankly, it sort of it matches up with one of the challenges in my own business which is not an agent’s But you know, there are certain similarities to it. And, you know, prior to all of this happening, you know, my focus had been on multi day on site, right writing sessions, right ticket type things. And so, you know, obviously, that’s out the window, at least for the time being. And so you know, looking at different ways to do it. So you can still do some of those, but maybe it’s, you know, maybe you spread out the group things over a couple of days. But maybe you don’t do the whole thing as a group. I mean, let’s think about, you know, how often have we done in person things, and we’ll do a day long session, we’ve got a whole group of people in there, but you know, only two or three people spend most of their time talking. And yeah, and so you know, the people did they really need to be there the whole day. So it’s an opportunity to rethink it and say, okay, should I do a series of one on ones, so maybe I do a two hour group workshop, but then I do, you know, a series of one on one or one on two type sessions, you know, so you get a little bit more personal. with individuals in that group. Maybe you get some more insight, if it’s a planning process, or maybe you get some additional training to them. If it’s you. In that direction, there’s a lot of different ways that you can look at this and it doesn’t have to be the same, or it may be that you’re looking at, I can provide similar services, but to a different group. So yeah, so you know, one of the things that I’ve looked at in my own business is, you know, right now, the people who are hurting the most need the most help are the really small agencies. And so, you know, do I spend more of my time developing services for that segment right now, because that if you got 25 5075 100 employees, you know, you’re gonna get through this in all likelihood, as an agency, you have to make some adjustments. It’s that, you know, sort of under 25 group that has a lot more challenges. And so, you know, I’m trying to find ways to service that piece of the community more because they’re the ones most in need of help now, but it’s a different model.

GINI: It’s a different model. Yeah, for sure. And it’s, I mean, I’m in that I don’t have more than 25 employees, and this is this is a scary time for me. I think with the recession, even though it clobbered the crap out of me. I didn’t realize what it was doing at the time. You No, like it was just, even though I knew the recession was coming, because they’ve been talking about it and all this stuff, I didn’t really know how it would affect the business at the time. So I went into it really naive and ignorant. And now, there’s, I think there’s some some advantage to that, because I just had to go with the flow. And now I’m looking at Okay, what are my contingency plans? I mean, I’m planning for the absolute worst, what if I lose all my clients? I might, right? What if I do, what does that look like? So I’m planning for the worst and hoping for the best. But it’s, it’s a real challenge. And it It definitely is a different challenge than somebody running a larger agency.

CHIP: Absolutely. But you know, I think the other thing we have to remember is that there there continues to be that business development opportunity out there. Absolutely. I mean, there are a lot of people who want to hear from folks right now. You’re not necessarily saying hey, I want to spend money, but they at least want to have conversations because they’re trying to have as much sense of normalcy as possible. Right. And so You know, we are and I think we talked about this on the last episode. But we are very fortunate to some degree in the agency space in it, most of us can do our jobs remotely. Obviously, in some cases, we’ve been doing them remotely already, right. But we have the opportunity to escape from a lot of what’s going on around us. By delving into work. There are lots of people I know who are in industries where they’re not working, they’re not getting paid, and yet, they’ve got nothing to do all day, except Think about it. So so we’ve got an opportunity here. And there are a lot of folks that we may serve as clients as our primary contacts, or as our buyers who are sitting home right now, and they have less work than normal to do so they have an opportunity to have conversations that you know, are useful from a business development standpoint, or pick your brain standpoint, or, you know, just a general networking. I mean, all of these things are open to us. And so it’s important that we continue to do it. I mean, the biggest thing I see is people saying, oh, nobody wants to hear from you right now. It’s middle of crisis. Wrong, you’ve got it wrong, you, you that’s wrong to be out. Yeah, you know, you don’t have to be out there trying to sell them hard, you know, and say, you know, buy this now buy that now, but you least have to be having conversations because otherwise, you’re going to put yourself way behind the eight ball.

GINI: I will tell you that. Earlier this week, I sent an email to our entire lists. And I rarely do that. But it was just an email to say, you know, I keep hearing the the, we’re all in this together statement. And we’re not, we’re not all in this together. We’re all in this at the same time. But we’re all coming at it from different perspectives. And to your point, some people don’t even have jobs, so they don’t have things to think about. So I just sent an email and said, you know, we have the free spin sucks community if you need, you know, resources or brainstorming or anything like that, but it takes a tribe. And at the end, I said, if there’s anything that me, my team or I can do to help you, please don’t hesitate to let me know. And do you know that people are taking event taking advantage of that and they’re saying, I mean, some people are just saying, I really need Did this message Thank you. And some people are like, Oh my gosh, can you do a webinar for us in New Zealand? Yeah, I can. So there are opportunities there that I don’t think would have come about normally had I not sent that email so and it wasn’t selling our services. It wasn’t sent, you know, talking about any any of the stuff that anything that we’re doing, but it was just a message of what I hope is hope. And you know, it takes a tribe and we all have to work through this together.

CHIP: Well, look, I mean, the reality is, with what we do in the communication space or professional services, generally, more often than not, you get business from being helpful, not Yes. Selling and that that helpfulness may be making connections, it may be creating content, it may be you know, just being there for somebody and so this really is an opportunity for that and you know, I’ve seen you know, various people you know, mocked companies mocked for the messages they’re sending out similar to what you say, you know, sir, you know, I’m here for you, but I think that’s silly, because, you know, while 95% of the people may not need that message 5% May. And so, you know, you’re speaking to that 5% and, you know, like you I’ve sent similar messages to my lists. And I’ve, I’ve gotten feedback either, you know, there was one in particular, it resonated where I explained. And I think I talked about this in the last episode, why I don’t see this the same as 911. And I actually got a couple of people saying, you know, I lived through 911, I’ve been troubled by this, you’ve kind of put it into words the way I wanted to hear it. And then I’ve also been offering anybody you know, if you just want to hop on the phone and talk I’m Yeah, yeah, you know, I will, I will talk through your challenge. For a business standpoint, I’ll just talk through challenges. Generally, it doesn’t matter. I’m surely not a therapist. So, you know, right, right. Right. No, beware. But I’m happy to listen. And there’s

GINI: value I think in in talking to your peers, you know, they say it’s lonely at the top for a reason. And it is and you can’t have conversations like I can’t have conversations with my team. about what happens if we lose every one of our clients. I mean, we certainly from a leadership perspective, have contingency plans in place, but it’s helpful to be able to talk to somebody else who’s going through something similar,

CHIP: right. And I think that, you know, one of the challenges is to balance the planning for the worst case, along with focusing on the opportunity. Because if you, if you dwell too much on, you know, the negative, then it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. If you only look at the opportunity, then you put yourself at real risk. So you’ve is striking that balance. But I think, you know, that’s where having as many conversations with as many people as possible, is so vital right now. And so, you know, it’s it’s, it’s, it’s having conversations to find out what are those gaps in the market? So talk to people in the space that you’re in and understand what are the challenges that they’re seeing, you know, what are they What are they looking to for the future? You know, what do they see? As their challenges, you know, three or six months down the road and obviously, to some extent, we’re all guessing, right? Because none of us, none of us know when we’re going to be allowed to walk out of our house again. Right now it’s, you know, stay home Don’t do anything. Yeah. You know, some people say it’ll be over in two, three weeks. Some people say, it’ll be a year and a half. Who knows? one day at a time. One day at a time, as I said, when we were having dinner with his family the other night, you know, if it lasts a year and a half, then the virus is probably not what will kill somebody here. Now, so, you know, hopefully, it’s not that long. And I honestly I don’t think it’s likely to be that long, but who knows. So, you know, it’s keeping the lines of communication open, it’s listening. It’s having those conversations, and people are out there to have those conversations with but if you don’t reach out, you won’t have that opportunity. Right. And most people want to help each other right now. There are you know, this is this is in that Since it is like the post 911 period where, you know, everybody want, how can we help? Yep. And so you know, if you have that opportunity, take advantage of it. But you have to, you have to be willing to ask for help. You have to be willing to open yourself up and ask questions or explain your concerns. If you do that good things are going to come from this, but you need to take that first step.

GINI: What is it that Wayne Gretzky says? You miss every one of the shots that I take?

CHIP: Yeah, you go. That’s absolutely true. And, you know, I think that if you’re lucky, if you take advantage of this opportunity to be learning by talking to people that will also help you regardless of whether it generates new business directly, it will absolutely increase your knowledge base. So that you know as you are having new business conversations, whenever we’re allowed back out, you know that it will help you so really take advantage of it. I know I’m kind of harping on this, but it’s because I’ve seen so many people who seem to be taking sort of the approach of, you know, nobody wants to hear from me. You know, it’s, and lots of people are being critical of marketing messaging and I that’s one of the things that really frustrates me it’s just people you know, attacking people for the messages they’re sending out. Yep. Right now and look, some of the stuff that I’ve seen it does appear tone deaf, and it doesn’t make sense. And when I hear things like, you know, some cruise marketer is telling For Bookings on cruises, I, you know, isn’t that okay? Right? Doesn’t seem okay. I mean, that you know, that’s not okay. I would not advise that. At the same time. You have to remember that, you know, people are in a difficult situation. Some people want to just be doing something, they need to feel like they’re not just sitting there so there that’s the explanation. I think for some of the emails that are going out where a business send something you’re like, Okay, I don’t I don’t really care what you know, this company has to say about But

GINI: you’re giving everyone else.

CHIP: Remember, there’s a human on the other end of it, who’s sending that message? It’s not Yes, you know, it’s not the car company itself or the bank itself, right, some human on the other end. And they may just be looking for that sense of doing something themselves, whatever it may be. It may be if it’s particularly if it’s a smaller business, it may be that someone’s afraid for their job or afraid, you know, for their business. And so, you know, they may get more aggressive with some of their communications. As a result, you know, give people space right now, let them make some mistakes. There’s room for you to make mistakes. And if someone pushes back and says, Why would I want to talk to you right now? Don’t take it personally. Different people are coping with this differently. So just say, okay, fine, I’ll move on to the next person. But for the most part, I think folks are going to find if they’re reaching out and talking to people, you know, in their prospect base, folks are going to be willing to have a conversation or at least be civil about it. And so don’t be afraid to do that.

GINI: Yeah, I’m 100 percent agree. And yes, there is some pushback on marketing messages. But I always say to myself, those who don’t do criticize. So those are the ones that are criticizing or not the ones that are prospecting. So you just have to take it with a grain of salt.

CHIP: Right? And look, I mean, I would say, give the people who are criticizing the same birth because you know, that they may have pressures that we don’t know about. Absolutely. And yeah,

GINI: this is a,

CHIP: it’s and I think this is good advice at all times. I think, in general, you know, social media has opened the door for people to be hypercritical of everybody else who doesn’t agree with them or doesn’t see things exactly the same way. You know, step back and and give people the room to feel the way they feel about whatever it is. But don’t let it dissuade you because you know, now is the time to to double down to build your target lists, to be having those conversations to ask for advice. You know, back when I used to do some angel investing. I always said to entrepreneurs who are looking for funding, if you ask for funding, we’ll give you advice. If he asked for advice, we’ll give you money. And there’s something to be said for that here. So, you know, call people up and just, you know, the more that you can learn them, the better position you’ll be, and you can be that connector too. I mean, if you’re talking to someone, and they say, Hey, you know, I don’t need PR help right now. But what I really could use is this. You know, lots of PR folks are well connected and have connected contacts in other places, if you can, you know, sort of make those love connections, if you will, so that someone gets the help that they need, whether that’s personal or professional, people will remember that so. So this is a time to use your business development efforts to bank goodwill as well. And then the final thing that I would say on it is, keep in mind, there are people who still need services. So don’t, don’t let someone say, you know, I don’t need any help. Right now. That’s not true. Everybody needs help. They may not have the budget for it. They may not be Ready to do it. But there is there is nobody out there who could not be doing something from a communication standpoint that’s useful. Whether that’s planning ahead. And you know, we’ve been picking on the cruise industry a lot. I should say I have you haven’t. But I’ve been picking on the cruise industry, various podcasts in webinar conversation that have bought even the cruise industry. If you’re working for them, there are opportunities because on the other side of this, there’s going to have to be messaging about why you still would want to get on a cruise ship. Why safe? Yeah. And so, you know, instead of working on marketing and things focused on actual bookings, work on the planning for, you know, when things settle down, how do we communicate that, you know, we’re doing the right thing as an industry that you do still want to get on a cruise, and you still want to enjoy that as your, you know, vacation of choice. So, it doesn’t really doesn’t matter what your industry is right now there is an opportunity. It’s just figuring out what it is how to take advantage of it being flexible in the way that your package Bring up your services so that it meets not just the needs but also fits within their current budget and cash flow. Because that is I mean, everybody’s feeling the pinch there. Even the big boys are feeling pinches. Yep. So everyone knows you’ll find creative ways. Maybe you adjust your terms a little bit, you know, maybe you, you shrink your projects down into bite sized chunks that people can take over time instead of doing large retainers. There are so many creative things that you can do. There’s no reason not to not just survive this but to come out and thrive on the other side.

GINI: A freaking men

CHIP: feel like a preacher. I think that didn’t we finish the last episode, like I said, That’s, maybe you said that to the choir here anyway. Yeah. So with that, that that brings us to an end of this episode of the agency leadership podcast, but go out there continue to be cultivating prospects to do business development. And with that, I’m Chip Griffin

GINI: and I’m Gini Dietrich,

CHIP: and it depends

New Episodes by Email

Get the latest Agency Leadership Podcast episodes delivered straight to your inbox!

MORE OPTIONS:   Apple Podcasts    |    Google Podcasts    |    Stitcher    |    Spotify    |    RSS

Like this episode? Share it!

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.

Recent Episodes

Never miss an article, episode, or event

Subscribe to the weekly SAGA Newsletter

Subscription Form