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Building annual strategic plans with your clients to maximize results (and profitability)

This SAGA Member Webinar is available only to individuals with active memberships. Login or join to gain access.
Webinar presented live on October 19, 2023

Clients frequently complain that their agencies aren’t thinking strategically enough, and agencies often complain that they are doing too much work for the fees their clients are paying.

In this webinar, Chip Griffin will explain how a robust annual strategic planning process can help to address both challenges. When done right, these exercises can help to improve the results that clients see (and the perceived ROI) and improve the profitability of the agency at the same time.

Rather than seeing annual planning as a necessary evil or a box to be checked amid all of the day-to-day work you’re already doing for clients, you should look at it as an opportunity to regularly reset the relationship. An effective process will improve your knowledge of the client and their goals, provide you with an opportunity to establish the right expectations for the year ahead, and open the door to a new scope of work that enables you to improve your effective hourly rate (potentially without even increasing what you ask the client to pay!).


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

Hello and welcome to today’s webinar on building annual strategic plans with your clients to maximize both results and profitability. I’m Chip Griffin, the founder of SAGA, the Small Agency Growth Alliance. And I’m excited to have you here with me today to talk about something that I know is on a lot of your minds right now.

This is the third in a series of annual planning webinars that I’ve been doing as people head into the final quarter. of the year and are thinking about how to set plans for themselves as well as for their clients and also how to involve your team. So if you’re interested in planning for your agency or how to involve your teams in the planning process overall, I would encourage you to check out those webinar replays, which is a great segue into talking about the housekeeping items that we have before we dive into the topics at hand today.

First of all, all of the webinar replays, including this one, will be available for free to SAGA Pro members. It’s free to join. Just go to the SAGA website and fill out the application. If you are here attending live, I’ll be taking questions after the main presentation.

So feel free to use the Q& A function that is located at the bottom of your screen, at least in most cases, unless Zoom has changed something. And so you can submit those questions throughout the course of today’s webinar. And I will take those during the Q& A interactivity at the end. If you’re watching this on replay, you won’t have the Q& A portion, but you will be able to either email questions to me directly, chip@smallagencygrowth.com, or you can join the Slack channel that we have for SAGA Pro members where you can ask your questions there and get answers, not just from me, but also from your peers. If you’re watching this live and have a question that you’d rather not ask publicly, you can also use my email address for that. If you’re talking about this webinar on social media, I would encourage you to use the hashtag agency leadership to make it easy for others to discover that conversation.

And finally, Any of the resources that I may mention today, including those webinar replays or other things you can find at smallagencygrowth.com, along with a wealth of other resources and a great search engine that you can use to find answers to many of the common questions or topics or concerns that you may have as an agency leader.

So let’s talk about what, what we’re going to be covering here over the next 30 to 40 minutes. First of all, we’ll talk about why annual planning actually makes a difference. It’s not just an exercise to go through because it’s a checkbox. There are actual real benefits, both for you and for your clients.

We’ll talk about what you should be doing before you even enter the conversation with your client about annual planning. We’ll talk about how to learn from the past 12 months and how to use that in your planning process. We’ll explore the importance of creating goals for yourself and your agency as part of this process, and not focusing exclusively on client results.

We’ll talk about after you’ve done all of this, now you start involving the client and how you go about doing that, how you finalize the plan, and then from there, how you report on progress and make adjustments as needed over the course of the next year or so. So that’s what we’ll be covering, and we’re going to jump right in without further ado as it were, to talk about why it makes a difference to do annual planning and not just continue going and doing the same thing month over month.

And. I would say that the first thing that comes to mind and that most people talk about when it comes to annual planning is it’s to improve results for your clients, right? You want to put together a plan so that you are helping to meet the expectations that clients have and to try to fulfill their goals.

But that’s just one of the things that you should be thinking about when you are working on an annual plan for your clients. It should also be something where you’re using it to adapt to changes in the overall environment. That may be changes to the platforms that you’re using to communicate with. It may be the tools that you’re using.

It may be the broader economy or things that are going on in the sector. in which that client operates. All of these things come together and force you to think about how you might go about doing things differently. And I know that one of the things that I often hear from agency owners is that they’re a little bit reluctant to go in to these kinds of conversations because they’re afraid of rocking the boat or revealing things that, you know, maybe the, the, you know, you have to talk about things that aren’t working quite as well as part of this planning process and they’re concerned about showing that off to a client.

But I will tell you that trying to sweep them under the rug is not the solution and it’s better to deal with things head on. But there are other reasons to be doing this annual planning process and probably I would say at the top of my list for things that you should be thinking about is how can you use the annual planning process to control scope creep and to address operational challenges.

What do I mean by that? First of all, with scope creep, we all know what that is at a fundamental level, but part of the problem is that the longer you have a client, the more little things just accumulate. You just agree to do one extra blog post a month or one extra report on what’s going on and all of these things build up and then suddenly you’re sitting there and looking at, this whole mass of additional work that you’re doing that was never part of the original scope of work.

And it’s really not only eating into your profit margin, but it’s also putting an additional burden on your team. And so you want to try to address that as quickly as possible. And an annual planning process is a great way to do it because instead of going to a client and saying, we need to stop doing this, or we need to charge you more for it.

You’re able to put together a brand new plan that creates potentially a whole new scope of work. And part of that may be adding some things and part of it may be subtracting some things. And that’s a great way to make sure that you’re producing the results that the client is looking for. And also making sure that you are able to maintain the profit margins that you need to have in order to have a healthy and growing firm.

Of course, you can also use it to address operational challenges. And what do I mean by operational challenges? That’s different from scope creep. These are things where… Perhaps your, your plan originally said that you were going to put together case studies or white papers but you found it so difficult to get the necessary input from the client or the introductions to their own clients in order to be able to put together, say, case studies or the time that you need from their experts in order to create white papers or the approval process.

All of these things can come together in such a way that you have an operational challenge where you’re not able to produce as much for the client, but it’s not because you’re not doing what you need to do, it’s because you can’t get the external help that you need to get the ball across the goal line.

And in those cases, you can use the annual planning process to perhaps redirect that scope of work into something else where it doesn’t require so many layers. And so you want to think about how the whole functioning of the project goes about in order to be able to pull together a plan that works for both parties.

The next reason that we do this annual planning process is because it allows us to flex our strategic muscle for clients. And every agency I know talks about the importance of strategy, and we want to be strategy first, and all of these things. But the reality is that when we get bogged down in the day to day with clients, we tend to become very tactical, and we tend to be responsive to whatever their day to day challenges are, but we don’t take a look at that bigger picture.

An annual well defined annual planning process will help us to step back and take that broader look. And with that broader look, we can help to demonstrate to the client that we are strategic thinkers, that we are innovative, and that we’re offering suggestions. Because one of the things that I’ve observed in talking to so many different agencies is that one of the things that clients often say when they move on from that agency to another one is that they felt that the agency wasn’t taking enough initiative.

They weren’t coming up with enough ideas. Oftentimes that’s not entirely true. Oftentimes the client just wasn’t receptive to the ideas. But an annual planning process can give you a much better platform to present these ideas and make sure that the client is understanding that you are taking on that role.

And so it can help with client retention. It also helps with client retention because it’s strengthening the relationship that you have with the client. It’s giving you that opportunity to interact with the client outside of that day to day, which is often just hustle and bustle, and we gotta get this done, and exchange of emails, and maybe a weekly call or a monthly call.

But it’s not the same as what you’re gonna go through in a well structured annual planning process. And so perhaps you’ll be talking to stakeholders with the client who are not your usual stakeholders, the ones that you’re interacting with on a day to day basis. So it can really help strengthen that bond that will help you get through challenging times in the future and also help you to maintain that client relationship for years to come.

And finally, I think one of the reasons that it’s important to go through an annual planning process is it helps to keep your team fresh. If you’re engaging your team in planning both for your agency and for clients, you’re in a position where you’re able to help them feel more a part of the overall big picture and not just implementers in whatever they’re being told to do by you or a client.

It also allows them to start thinking creatively and thinking about how they can change things to get better results for the client. Perhaps to improve their own workflows and their own morale and those kinds of things. And by pulling this all together in the process, you will see a lot of benefit to your overall business.

And again, for the team portion of this, I would encourage you to watch the webinar replay on engaging your team because I think there are some really concrete ideas in there about how to properly engage your team and get the most out of those.

So, Now that we know why we’re doing it, let’s think about what we should do before we, you know, pick up the phone or send an email to the client and say, can we have a brainstorming session?

Because that’s typically how I see a lot of agencies start their annual planning process. They just, they kick off an open ended conversation with the client. And I think it’s important for you to think about this as a process, not just about the client, but also about you as an agency. And so, you need to think about how you may want to adjust the agency client relationship going forward.

Because it really does need to work for both of you. If you are in a position where you feel like you need to do whatever the client asks in order to maintain the revenue, that’s not a recipe for success. You really need to have something where there’s some give and take, and you’re reaching a consensus on the best way to move forward.

And this process can be one where you are able to reset, as I’ve mentioned before, whether that’s on scope or operational challenges. But some of the things that you want to be doing internally beforehand is, is taking advantage of all of the knowledge that you have on your team. As long as you have individuals on your team, you can only be two or three people, but if you’ve got someone who doesn’t work on that client account, they can give you a fresh perspective.

So I encourage you as part of engaging your team to have conversations where you have the individual account leads talk about what they’re doing for a particular client, but welcome input from those who are not involved in that account on a regular basis because they may be able to offer additional perspectives.

In addition, by talking about what you’re doing for one client that may provide some ideas for what you could be doing for another. So your account leads can share information and this overall cross pollination will help you to come up with some better ideas to bring into the planning process so that it’s not the usual group of suspects sitting around the table and having the same conversation that you have week in, week out, month in, month out.

But you do want to set those goals for yourself and so part of this is you sitting down as the owner or leader and thinking about how you want to include things, but you want to talk to your team and understand what do they want to see out of this? What would they like to see be different over the next 12 months?

Because as you put those goals together, it will help you to make sure that you’re thinking about this plan as that two way street that I was talking about and not just something that is implementing whatever the client’s directives are. And then finally, part of this is thinking about how are you going to plan.

And this will be different for each agency and even perhaps for each client within your agency. You may have a general planning process that you use with your clients that works for the way your team functions best, but you may need to tailor that to individual clients to make sure that It is consistent with their workflows, their approval structures, how their stakeholders internally interact.

And so I would encourage you to put together a very concrete plan before you reach out and schedule the first annual planning conversation with your client so that you know how you want to move this forward and it’s not just wandering in the wilderness, but it’s really you taking that that leadership role as the expert and conveying to the client how you want to move forward with the planning process.

Of course, all plans start by looking back, and I don’t think that you should dwell on the past, but if you don’t learn from it, you are destined to repeat it, right? That’s one of those things that is often said. And so, one of the ways I see this exhibited oftentimes when I’m talking to an agency who’s telling me what they’re doing for a client and how it’s frustrating is they will tell me it’s the way we’ve always done it.

And that’s one of the things that I always hated hearing when I was a boss. It’s something I hate hearing now as a consultant because I think any time that you’re doing something because it’s the way you’ve always done it, you’re almost guaranteed to have failure. That failure may come next week, next month, next year, but it will come because at some point the process is going to break down.

And so use this annual planning process to look at what has worked and what hasn’t. And that starts with looking at the numbers. I’m a big believer in data. I think you should make data informed decisions. I’m not a fan of the phrase data driven because I think that you need to process that information in addition to all of the other inputs that you have and your own experience and instincts.

But you need to have those numbers. You need to understand the numbers that are related to client results. In other words, what… What are you producing for that client? If you’re a PR agency that may be in share of voice or it may be in terms of message penetration or it may be in terms of name recognition for the client or whatever it is, you need to have your metrics that you’re using. But you also need to have metrics for yourself and your agency for the work that you’re doing.

And typically this comes down to understanding the costs and the profitability of all of the work that you’re doing. I preach the importance of having individual client or project budgets so that you understand what you’re estimating it will take to complete the work, whether it’s a one time project or an ongoing retainer basis, and then you need to check yourself up on that because that will help you to create better estimates for both current and future clients when you’re scoping out new work and pricing new work, but it will also help you to understand what kind of clients you should be getting and what kind of changes you might want to make to the scope of work as part of this annual planning process so that you can realign your costs with what you need to be successful as an agency.

Because if you’re not profitable, you’re not going to be able to produce great results for your client. So it’s actually in their interest that you are maintaining a solid profitability. You need to be looking back and comparing the expectations that you set either at the start of the relationship or in your last annual planning process.

What did everybody think they were going to accomplish over the next 12 months and how did you stack up against that? And you need to figure out what worked and what didn’t because those are things that you can learn from. You should be doing more of what worked and you should be making changes to what didn’t or stop doing it altogether.

And so these are all things that you want to incorporate as part of your internal learning process, again, even before you’ve sat down for that first conversation with your client. And I’ve talked a little bit about the importance of your own goals throughout all of this, but I do think that it’s really important that now that you’ve gathered all this information about past performance, both for your clients and for your agency, you need to be thinking about what your own goals are for this process. And be really concrete and clear about what those are and so you need to set your own expectations.

Just as you’re setting expectations with your client for what the work is that you will be doing as an agency for them in the year ahead, you need to be clear about what your own expectations are. Is your goal to expand the work that you’re doing with the client? Is it simply to retain the business? Is it to adjust the scope of work so that it becomes more in line with what you’re actually being paid by the client?

Is it to expand it so that you’re getting paid more? There’s a lot of things that you can think about in terms of your expectations for this relationship as it moves forward. And you need to think, to ask your team what they’re looking for in this. What would they like to see done differently over the next 12 months? Because we all know how difficult it is to attract talent.

We know it’s difficult to retain talent. One of the ways that you can have the best team possible is by making sure that they feel listened to, that they feel heard, that they are able to sit there and offer up their own ideas so that you can incorporate this into your goal setting and into your planning process.

That not only helps in how they feel about it, but they’re often times going to bring ideas that you may not have thought of. So there is sometimes, for some agency owners, an instinct to keep the strategic piece to themselves. And so sometimes I will even see agency owners running the planning process with clients and not have the full account team involved in any way.

And I think that’s a mistake. You want to make sure that they are feeling fully integrated and offering up their insights because they’re the ones who will need to execute. And so they need to be able to tell you, if we do this, it’s going to take this amount of time and this is the likelihood of success.

Because if you don’t know the amount of time, you don’t know the cost. So you don’t know whether it’s wise and prudent from your standpoint as an agency owner. And if you don’t know the likelihood of success, then you may be setting yourself up for failure with the client, or worse, setting the client themselves up for failure and to look bad with whatever tactic you’re moving forward with. So make sure that you’re bringing them into this process and taking advantage of that when you’re setting your goals. And I would suggest that you should very carefully itemize all of the different items that you want to address as part of these conversations.

That means scope creep. It means those operational challenges that we talked about. It means just little, you know, nagging things perhaps that you may have team members who want to address or that you want to address. It may be the timeliness of feedback and approvals. Maybe you can find a different process as part of this planning in order to make that go more smoothly in the future.

And it’s not a big change. It’s just a small one. But the annual planning process can be an excellent opportunity to highlight some of these smaller things that you might not call a separate meeting about or send a separate email about. But as part of an overall conversation and planning session you can absolutely address.

But you should also be thinking about some of the new initiatives that you might like to move forward with, with the client. That might be some new skillset that you’ve developed because you’ve got perhaps some new talent that has joined in the last 12 months. Perhaps there’s a new platform out there or an existing platform that has expanded in such a way that you think it’s now relevant and you would like to pursue that with the client in order to show off perhaps that additional expertise or that knowledge that you have. And so think about those new initiatives that you’d like to move forward with. It might just be that you’ve got an additional kind of program or something like that.

It doesn’t even need to be a brand new skill or or platform or something like that. It can simply be a new initiative within your existing capabilities, but that would help the client to achieve their overall goals. And then finally you need to set your financial goals for this relationship. So this makes sure that as you’re going into the planning process, you have a clear understanding of how much work you want to be putting into it.

And so when you, as part of the planning process, identify things that will take you above that time budget that you have, that you need to figure out how to remove things from it as part of the planning process or have the conversation with the client about the need to expand the relationship in order to accommodate that additional work. And by having those clear benchmarks, guidelines, whatever you want to call them, it will put you in a better position to have those meaningful conversations.

As part of the planning process and not go into it and agree to things and then only later figure out that it’s well outside the scope of the current agreement and you’re going to have to go back at a much later stage in the process to tell the client that it’s not going to fit. Or worse you just eat that additional time and it costs you your profits as an agency.

So now we’re at the point, we’ve done all this internal planning, we’ve set our own guidelines, we’ve set our own goals, now it’s time to be thinking about how do we involve the client. And so part of that is the, the planning process that I talked about. You need to think about each client and how it works best.

But there are going to be certain things that you’ll want to do regardless when you’re working with a client on setting up annual plans. And so that means that you have to have a plan that is matching all of the goals that you’ve set in the last couple of steps. So your plan should identify what you’re trying to accomplish.

Are you trying to expand it? Are you trying to right size it? Are you trying to fix certain things? Make sure that your planning process has the time, whether that’s an agenda for an individual meeting or separate meetings, to address those individual concerns to make sure that you’re able to get what you need out of it.

But now you need to think about, on a broader level, who do you want to involve from the client? And it might be that you start out with a general brainstorming meeting. That’s how a lot of annual planning processes start. That may or may not be the best depending on how you work with the client and how the client works internally.

But the starting point is to understand who are those key stakeholders from the client. Those may be the people that you were involved with before you got working on the project, but there are probably ones who have developed as you’ve gone along in time either because they’re new joiners with the client or perhaps they were people who just weren’t involved in the initial business development conversations, but hopefully at this point you’ve done a good job of being able to identify who those key stakeholders are.

They may not be involved in every meeting of the planning process, but you will want to try to find ways to engage with them in some fashion. In some cases, these may be people who are not involved in the day to day of the work that you’re doing as a PR or marketing agency, but they might have a, either strong influence, or they might have concerns that need to be addressed.

So, some of the things that you want to think about are, are there people from, I hate to say it, but procurement or finance that need to be involved at some point in this process so you are at least aware of what issues they’re going to raise because those are things that you can try to address in a meaningful way with your day to day contacts so that frankly, you your life is easier as an agency, but your client contacts have an easier time too, because they either have the information that they need as part of the planning process to justify the direction or expense that’s involved, or that they can otherwise allay the concerns, fears, or questions that the finance or procurement or other teams may have.

And I’m singling them out, but it could be other executives. It could be, if you’re working with a marketing team, it could be the concerns of the sales team. You want to make sure as part of this process that you’re identifying all of the people on the client side, at least in key influential positions, who will have some say or some concern about what the end result of this work is.

And that’s how you make a better set of plans in order to produce the results that the client needs, but also, again, to make sure that your client contacts are being seen as successful within their organization. Because part of your job… as an agency is not just to produce the results that the brand is looking for.

Because ultimately, we’re not hired by logos. We don’t work for logos. We work for individual people. And if you can make your day to day client contact look good by putting together a plan that helps them achieve the results that their colleagues are looking for internally, whether that’s a boss or someone in a parallel department, those are all the kinds of things that you need to be thinking about as part of the planning process.

Because success is not simply based on the number of clips that you produce or even the number of sales that you produce, it’s in all of the things that go into building that and helping to strengthen the relationship between your agency and the client.

You need to think about a format for this planning process, too, and I would encourage you to think about not doing it in the course of regular weekly or monthly meetings that you might be having.

It can be very tempting to do that. It’s easier to schedule and those kinds of things, but I would encourage you, instead of saying, Well, let’s take our monthly call to focus on annual planning in October, say, I would encourage you to have a separate conversation. Break the routine. If you can do it so that you’re doing it in a different format, if you’re able to do this in person, for example, with the client, that’s ideal.

A lot of times these days it is not possible to have these kinds of planning sessions in person, either because we’re not geographically located and it’s not cost effective to bring the right people into the, the right place at the right time in order to have an in person conversation. But try to think about how you can create some kind of a different environment for this planning than your regular routine calls, because that’s how you are able to get the most from both sides in the conversation because you’re not feeling like, well, this is just same old, same old. You want people on the client side to be thinking about this as a different process. That it really is a strategic process and something where you are working to make sure that you’re getting what the client needs over the year ahead.

And part of this is really understanding from the client what are their particular concerns? What’s on their mind? How can you take advantage of, and I don’t mean take advantage in a bad way, but how can you take advantage of the, the, what they’re thinking about? What’s keeping them awake at night to use an overused expression.

Those are the kinds of things that if you involve that in your ultimate plan for the client, you will see much greater success and you will be getting the results that they really need in their organization. You need to put together a timeline for all of this. Part of that timeline is thinking about how much time it’s going to take to get the feedbacks and approvals that are necessary from that client.

We talked about operational challenges before with some of the day to day work. That can be magnified with a planning process. So if you have a client that you know takes forever to approve things, you probably want to leave more time for the annual planning process, and that means you don’t go to them on December 1st and say, let’s put together an annual plan, particularly if they are slow approvers.

But in general, I would start it before that. You really want to be starting to have these conversations in the first part of Q4, in most cases, in order to make sure that you have something that is fully buttoned up by the end of the year. You don’t want to be carrying this over into the new year, if at all possible.

Although I frequently see that with agencies and clients where they’re still working on an annual plan in Q1. And that’s not really productive. You really want to make sure that you have this in a nice consolidated process. And part of that is by laying out that process to the client, because you’ve had those internal conversations to have a plan to build the plan. And so your expertise is shining through and in most cases clients are pretty good about listening to you as the expert as long as you are presenting that plan confidently and explaining it and it is indeed tailored to the way that client organization operates because you’ve spent enough time working with them that you know how they operate.

The last thing I would say about engaging with your client on annual planning is to make sure you’re listening. And I talk about this all the time when it comes to business development and how agencies need to shut up and listen more when they’re talking with prospects. The same is true with clients.

Take advantage of the time that you’re spending with your clients to, yes, absolutely, share your good ideas. You, you’re now in a much better place than you were during business development where I tell you to be quiet because you don’t know enough and you need to learn more in order to be able to start talking.

Here you know enough to be able to start talking, presumably, because you’ve been working with this client on an ongoing basis for a year, two, three, maybe more. And so you are in a stronger position. But at the same time, if you’re listening, you will detect what’s changed in the business. What has changed with the individuals that you’re working with.

What are their current concerns? What are their fears? Those are the kinds of things that you can try to incorporate in your plan if you are willing to take the time to actually listen. So if a client starts telling you, Well, you know, we’re a little bit concerned about market share in South America.

Don’t jump right in with an immediate suggestion on a plan. Tease that out. Ask them why. Ask them more about it. And the more that you can ask questions and the more that you can listen and absorb, the better a position you are in to not only come up with the right plan, but also to sell that plan.

Because we need to remember that an annual planning process with a client is not just a one and done. You just, you say, okay, you tell me everything. Okay, here’s a plan. We’re done. They’re likely going to have feedback on it. If they don’t have feedback on it, chances are they’re not paying enough attention to it.

And so that’s a, that’s a red flag that you need to be aware of. You want them engaged in this process. You want their buy in. You want a shared set of expectations coming out of this.

So that draws us right into finalizing the plan. You know, we have all these meetings and conversations. That could be two or three meetings. It could be seven or eight or nine, depending on the size of the engagement, the type of client it is, and all that kind of stuff. So there’s a lot of factors that go into how much work the planning process takes, but ultimately you’re going to need to end up with an actual document at the end of it. And this doesn’t need to be a fancy detailed document because the process that you’ve gone through up until this point is really the most important thing.

It’s what I often say about a business plan. Do I think that agencies need a business plan? Not really. I, most times when I’ve seen any business, whether it’s an agency or otherwise, put together a business plan, it gets written and, and sits on a shelf and never accessed again. Or these days, just sits on a hard drive somewhere or in the cloud.

Never will be accessed again. But the process you go through to create that business plan, the process that you go through to create the plan for your client, those things are important. But you do need to memorialize certain things in this final document that you should have for it, and it can be just one or two pages, but it needs to have a shared set of expectations for what the agency plans to do for the client over the next 12 months and what you hope or plan to accomplish during that time frame.

Because if you don’t have alignment on that, it makes it really difficult to move forward and to make sure that the client is seeing the agency as being successful. So you need to find someone, you need to determine whether that’s the account lead or someone else on the team who will coordinate the process and make sure that they are taking in all of the inputs that have come over the course of the meeting and they don’t have to make the final decisions about the plan or anything like that but they are coordinating the overall process. They are making sure that the right meetings are taking place with the right people and they’re making sure that the notes are being shared appropriately and that the plan that the ideas are being come up with are all documented in a place where you can pull all of these things together and create that final shared expectation document.

And so, that person is someone who should be helping to engineer the approval process on both sides, making sure that you’ve got all your ducks in a row internally, you know what you’re promising, you know what it’s going to cost, you know that you can do it within the existing budget, or that you need to ask for increased budget.

You need to know who on the client side needs to sign off on it. You may want to be thinking about a process where you get buy in from your day to day contact first, so that they become an advocate and can sell it up the chain internally. That’s particularly true if you’re asking for any kind of a budget increase, right?

You want to make sure that you’re not simply pushing this from the outside, but that you have internal champions who believe that it’s a good idea, and can convince the appropriate folks at your client that they should move forward with whatever initiative that you’re proposing as part of this planning process.

And by understanding, you know, how the approval process works, you’re able to start putting together your plan in such a way that it helps to sell them, and also you’re able to put it together in such a way that you can move it through in an efficient fashion to get the sign offs you need so that by January 1, or whatever date you set for kicking off the, the implementation of this annual plan, you’re ready to go.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve talked about this as basically an expectation setting document. Absolutely critical, because I think far too often, whether it’s a brand new client or an existing client, we don’t do a good job as agencies of setting those shared expectations and making sure that we truly have buy in from our clients on it.

And part of the reason why is because we get excited with ideas, we throw a bunch of ideas down, we say we’re going to move forward with them. Client maybe says, oh, that’s great, I’ll be in the Wall Street Journal next week. Or, you know, our sales are going to double over the next six months because of the work you’re doing on Google Ads or whatever.

Those things are entirely possible depending upon what kind of work you’re doing and what kind of clients you’ve got and all of that. But, if it’s not the correct expectation, if you know that they’re not going to be able to do the things that they talk about, you have an obligation to make sure that you’re saying that.

You have an obligation to make sure that you’re laying out what is reasonable to expect in this plan. Because that’s how you make sure that you, if they’ve got a concern, if you say, look, we’re not going to get in the Wall Street Journal in the next 12 months, that’s not part of our plan. Don’t be afraid to say that simply because you think they don’t want to hear it.

It’s much better to have that shared expectation at the start of the relationship, at the start of an annual plan than it is to get it six or nine months in and have them say, well, I thought we were going to be in the Wall Street Journal. I thought we were going to double sales. I thought we were going to. be mentioned you know, on The Tonight Show or something like that. You need to really be thinking about those things and setting those expectations clearly, because if you don’t have shared expectations coming out of an annual plan with your client, then you really have gone through the process for no good reason.

You need to be going through this and in that final document that you’re putting together, you need to be clear about whether there needs to be a new budget, whether there needs to be a new statement of work that goes forward. I would certainly avoid going through a full annual contract renewal process.

So, I’m a big fan, and you can find more resources on the SAGA website about this, of a structure of agreements with clients where you have a master services agreement that covers all of the legal terms, the confidentiality provisions, the termination provisions, all that kind of stuff is in a master services agreement that you sign once and you’re done with it.

But then you have statements of work that you can renew on whatever basis is appropriate for the work that you’re doing. Whether that’s because you’re putting on additional projects, sort of as, as a Christmas tree ornament style, or if you’ve got an ongoing retainer relationship that maybe you update each year with the annual planning process.

Whatever it is, you need to be thinking about any changes that need to be made to those documents as part of this annual planning process, but try to avoid that one all encompassing contract that needs to be completely re signed each year because that, particularly if you’re dealing with a mid to large size client, that’s a recipe for disaster because you’re now inviting in lawyers and others who generally wouldn’t be involved if all you’re doing is updating budgets and statements of work. So but think about that make sure that you are including all of this in the planning process. Don’t come up with a plan and say we’ll deal with The budget aspect later or we’ll deal with updating the statement of work later. Make sure you’re doing it all as one process because it’s going to be much easier to get the necessary approvals and signatures and all of that If you do it as an all in one, then if you separate it out and say, here’s our plan and we’ll deal with all of the financial stuff later. Make sure you’re taking care of it all at once.

And again, as I mentioned before, I think it’s really important to try to lock this in before the new year, unless you’ve got a different process with the client, maybe they’ve got a, maybe they have a different annual cycle that they work on, perhaps because they’re an organization that has a different budgetary year, so they prefer to look at these things on their own budgetary year, or perhaps because they have a large industry event that tends to create different markers on the calendar for them.

So, you know, let’s say that you’ve got an organization that relies on the Consumer Electronics Show that takes place in early January every year. They may want to go through a process where the annual plan starts at a different point in time so they’re not trying to work on the annual plan at the same time as they’re preparing for CES. So make sure that you’re tailoring this in such a way that the plan that you put together to build the plan accounts for these kinds of things, but have that deadline, whether it’s January 1 or something like that or something different, so that you know what you’re working towards and you know that you’re going to have a plan in place and that you’re not going to be simply operating on that’s how we’ve always done it on a going forward basis because this planning process is so vitally important for both you and for your client.

Now we’ve got the plan. We’ve moved forward. We’ve got it in place. It’s time to start thinking about what do we do with that over the next 12 months because this, this document shouldn’t just gather dust on the shelf.

It should be guiding the work that we’re doing. And so part of that is reporting on it. And so we want to make sure that on a regular basis we are conveying to our clients how we’re doing against that plan. Some of that means that we may want to update some of the regular reporting that we’re doing, whether that’s weekly or monthly reporting, so that it is consistent with the expectations that we’ve set in that document that we’re reporting on the things.

If we say we’re going to increase the number of mentions or if we are going to increase the number of videos or whatever, I mean, make sure that we’re reporting on all of the things that we’ve set in our expectations document, because that’s a good way to make sure that we’re keeping ourselves accountable, but we’re also conveying to the clients how we’re measuring up. But on a, on a more infrequent basis, so probably quarterly, I would encourage you to put together a more direct and clear update of the plan.

And this plan should be really clear both for your internal team first and then conveyed to the client on what’s working and what’s not. And you need to be thinking about this in terms of how do we make the adjustments that are necessary. And we’ll talk about that in the final segment here that we have in just a moment.

And it’s a good time to remind you that if you are watching live, feel free to use the Q&A function to submit your questions now because we’re almost to the Q&A section and I’ll be able to take your questions then. As you put together these updates, as you’re doing these quarterly thinking exercises, they don’t need to be nearly as detailed as the annual one, but you still should be taking advantage of them, both internally and with the client, to update what needs updating and identifying those things in your reports so that everybody is on the same page.

And so you need to be thinking about how you measure those things that really matter and not just those things that feel good. And as someone who owned a business that was in the media intelligence space, where we helped clients to understand media coverage, it is really so important to get beyond some of the things that oftentimes agencies report that just look good on paper, but don’t really move the needle in terms of addressing the expectations that you’ve set in your plan.

So include in your reports those metrics that actually do help you to understand what’s working because it’s better to understand something’s not working by using real metrics than it is to obfuscate by putting in ones that make people feel good. And so I often use the example of when I was running an Internet company back in the nineties, I took over for a CEO who was my predecessor, and he liked to talk about as many companies did back in that in those days about hits. And hits was the number of files loaded on the website.

And so that included if you had a home page on your website and you had five images on it, it would count once for the document itself and then an additional five for each image. And so these produced huge numbers and it would be tens of millions of hits. And it sounded great and the board loved it until some change was made to the site and you took away an image and all of a sudden your traffic plummeted by 20%.

And they didn’t understand why and it’s because they were using a feel good metric as opposed to one that made an actual difference. And so while those examples are extreme, there are many of those that we in the agency community are often conveying to clients because the client asks for it or because we think it will look good, but we need to be focused in these on what’s actually helping us to understand those things that are in our plan that are working and those things that need some work. I think one good way to convey this both internally and externally is a traffic light status report system.

So just red, yellow, green on different items in your whether that’s you take the five or six expectations you set in your annual report and you put them as red, yellow, and green on a quarterly basis. So, you know, those that, that are humming along, they’re green. Those things that are way off track are red and then yellow somewhere in the middle.

Those can be really easy ways for both you and the client to be on the same page about what your focus needs to be on in order to improve things. And then finally I would say when it comes to reporting, anytime you’re reporting to the client on the annual plan or frankly anything else, if you’ve got a problem, if you’ve got something where you’ve missed out on the expectations or the metrics that you’re looking at, make sure that you’re offering up solutions.

Make sure that you’re providing context too, so that they understand why these things may not have happened. Was it because you didn’t create something on time? Was it because of an external environmental factor? All of these things can be really helpful, and you don’t want to just dump bad news on anyone’s plate.

Whether that’s a colleague, a boss, a client, whatever it is, make sure that you’re providing that context and the suggestion on how to move forward. And those suggestions on how to move forward, those are the adjustments that I’ve talked about, and I think this is the final part of the planning process, and it’s really why planning is an ongoing process with your client and not just a one time annual deal that you’re just, tick, I’m done.

It’s an opportunity for you to take a look, as I say, primarily on a quarterly basis. And take a look at what is working, what isn’t, but take a look at what’s changing, what’s changed in the environment. Has there been, has there been major economic news one way or the other, either at a macro level or for the individual sector in which the client operates?

Is that causing you to think that you need to adjust the expectations for better or for worse, depending upon what the news might be? Are there things in your expectations document, that annual plan that you put together, that maybe need to change because perhaps you were emphasizing using a particular social platform and it has fallen into disfavor?

Are there new social platforms that have… overtaken some of the existing ones and so maybe you need to adjust some of the expectations in that document to account for that. There are a lot of things that can be going on that might impact it, but they may also be much more micro environmental changes.

It might be that you had a change of the client contact or their boss or perhaps there’s a new CEO at the client. All of these things can impact the plan that you put together at the start of the year. And so on that quarterly basis or when extreme circumstances warrant a new CEO, for example, may precipitate even a conversation about the plan that’s separate and apart from that quarterly process or that annual process.

Those are the kinds of things that as an agency you need to be looking out for and figuring out how to work through with your client on an ongoing basis because that annual plan that you put together at the start of the year, that’s, that’s not an agreement to go drive the car off the cliff and continue following that plan.

It’s a compass direction, it’s pointing you in the direction that you want to take the relationship with the client, the work that you’re doing for the client. But if you see a roadblock, if you see something ahead that, that, is something that you should get around. If you see something great on the side of the road that’s worth stopping in and visiting.

Those are the kinds of things that you want to make sure you’re willing and able to do as an agency with your client to get the most out of it. And part of this comes down to leaning into that thing that is working the best. And, and agencies when they’re working on themselves or with their clients, there’s often an instinct to think about, Oh, I need to come up with new ideas and new things to do.

Maybe you do, but perhaps you need to be thinking about what’s already been working and do more of that. If you’re, if you put together a plan and you’ve started some new initiative and it’s working really well, maybe you put additional resources behind that and take it away from something that’s not working as well.

Maybe you continue doing both, but you make some change to that thing that isn’t working. Shake it up. Don’t do the same thing over and over again simply because… It was part of the plan. You really need to be nimble as an agency And that’s one of the things as small agencies that we tend to do better than our larger counterparts We tend to do a much better job of being able to respond to a changing environment to different opportunities that pop up. It’s one of the reasons why clients hire small agencies instead of large agencies.

So we need to exhibit that flexibility, that nimbleness as we move forward and we report to the client on the status of our plan and then we take advantage of those things that are working well and change up those that are not. At the same time, we do want to be careful that we are not just blowing with the wind of the day.

We want to think about that cadence that we have of change because, as I posted recently on LinkedIn, chaos is not a virtue. Really for an agency or anyone else, but particularly in the agency world. And so we can’t be going in there and saying, well, we tried this for two weeks and it didn’t work. Let’s go do something else.

We need to be thoughtful about it. We need to be clear with ourselves when we’re starting a new program or tactic. How long do we think we need in order to judge whether it is being successful and whether change is warranted? Because if you are constantly changing, your client is going to become very skeptical of you and probably not buy into future ideas.

So, think about all of these things, make sure that you are putting together that plan that, that you are thinking about the process that you’re going through with the client. That you’re making sure that the process of annual planning is servicing both you and your client, that it’s getting both of you the results that you need. Make sure that you’re involving your internal team and that you’re doing your, getting all of your internal ducks in a row and your goals all set up before you have the conversations with the client.

Once you start talking with the client, make sure that you have key stakeholders involved. Make sure that you’re getting the buy in and those shared expectations that I talked about earlier. Make sure that you’ve got a process for reporting on the progress that you’re making and make sure that you are in a position to make the adjustments that are needed over time.

And hopefully if you do all of those things you will have very successful annual planning process that becomes an ongoing relationship builder where the client gets better results for them, better profitability for you, and stickier relationships that mean you have clients that stick with you for a long time.

So, with that, that will draw to a close the prepared presentation portion and we’ll now be moving into the Q&A session. I know that I ran a little bit long on the prepared presentation, but I think it was probably, or I hope it was useful to all of you. For those of you who are here live, we will be diving into Q&A.

For those of you who are watching the recording, this will end the recording, but you can feel free to email me questions at chip@smallagencygrowth.com.

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