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Chip Griffin is the founder and the Small Agency Growth Alliance where he helps PR & marketing agencies grow and thrive. He brings more than two decades of experience as an agency executive and entrepreneur. He shares 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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Why SaaS marketing tactics probably won’t grow your agency

Some agency leaders have seen what works for SaaS (Software as a Service) companies and assume they should be doing the same thing to grow their own businesses.

While there may be things to learn from how SaaS businesses generate leads and close new accounts, the reality is that agencies are fundamentally different businesses that usually require a different approach to business development.

In this episode, Chip and Gini explain how the two types of businesses are different, but they also offer ways to use the insights you may glean from studying SaaS marketing.

Key takeaways

Gini Dietrich: “In an agency business, people are buying relationships. They’re buying chemistry, they’re buying knowledge, and your ability to do the work. But what they’re really buying is people and you can’t sell that online.”

Chip Griffin: “It is good to take inspiration from these various SaaS marketing activities, but they’re not the kind of thing that you can just cookie cutter place in.”

Gini Dietrich: “Because like we say all the time, it depends, it may or may not work. If it feels get rich quick, it’s probably not going to work.”

Chip Griffin: “There’s absolutely inspiration to be had from even the most charlatan of charlatans. They still have little nuggets in there that you can take advantage of as long as you’re listening carefully.”

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 today we’re going to be a bit sassy right after this

OR perhaps more accurately, we’ll tell you why you shouldn’t be sassy. How’s that for an opening. Did I do a little better today? I think this is, I think that’s better than the last couple of intros.

Gini Dietrich: No, no, no. But I would like to point out what you pointed out before we started recording: that we are very Ukrainian today.

Chip Griffin: We are. Yes, it was entirely unintentional.

Gini Dietrich: It was unintentional, but we are very Ukrainian.

Chip Griffin: And it’ll be a few weeks before this actually airs. But, hopefully things are better or getting better, but it doesn’t seem likely.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, when we’re recording it’s not.

Chip Griffin: It’s definitely not good right now. Um, okay, well, so let’s focus on things we can control and what we’re going to be talking about is SaaS – S A A S – not the sass that, you know, you’re probably more likely to associate with me. And we’re going to specifically be talking about why, just because you may see what works when people are selling SaaS products or when you’re helping your clients sell SaaS products, you should not simply adopt those same tactics to sell your agency’s services.

And it is a popular idea out there that you can look and see how some of these other services are being sold. And so you ought to be able to apply the same things. The drip campaigns, the Facebook ads, the, you know, the whole idea of the funnel and you know, all that kind of stuff. And you’ll see plenty of experts out there in agency land, who will tell you basically to follow that same model.

And we’ve previously told you how you should perceive experts, even folks like us, but let’s talk about SaaS marketing versus agency marketing. Why is it different, Gini?

Gini Dietrich: You know, this is an interesting conversation because I would say probably about five or six years ago. I was inundated with the internet marketers who were always like, and I feel like it, maybe I’m not paying as much attention, but I feel like it’s calmed down a little bit, but they would say things like when you’re selling your services, you should have three different options, a low, medium, and high, and the medium should be what people, what you want people to buy because human psychology says they’re going to choose the medium one.

Or, to your point, you should have a customer journey and do drip campaigns. And not to say that that stuff is wrong. It just doesn’t work the same way it does for a SaaS business or an e-commerce business. And, you know, our expertise in my agency is SaaS. And we see, we do lots and lots of things that work really well for those businesses.

Because it’s a purchase that they can make on their own. They could do a self-serve demo. They can do, they can make that purchase on their own. And in our business, in an agency business, people are buying relationships. They’re buying chemistry, they’re buying – certainly they’re buying knowledge and your ability to do the work.

But what they’re really buying is people and you can’t sell that online. Unfortunately.

Chip Griffin: Right. And look, I mean, I’ve owned and operated SaaS businesses. I’ve owned and operated agency businesses, and they are fundamentally different. They are.

Gini Dietrich: Yes. Yes.

Chip Griffin: There’s the self-serve aspect that most SaaS businesses have at least for a portion of their services. So you can bring people in that way. But the other aspect that’s different is the whole volume is wildly different, right? Because in a SaaS business, you’re typically trying to sell a lot of accounts every month. In most normal agencies, the vast majority of agencies, probably every one of you who is listening right now, you’re not looking to get hundreds or even tens of clients per month. If you’ve got one new client a month, that would be going gangbusters, right? Because we tell you the ideal number of clients is 10 to 15 at any given time, right? Unless you’re doing purely project work, you’re going to be carrying over a lot of these clients from month to month.

That means that if you’ve got three or four a year, that’s probably a good year for you in all likelihood, assuming that you’re not hemorrhaging your existing client base, in which case address that first. Right? I always, if I’m working with an agency and they have a high churn, I always tell them, deal with the churn first, then worry about getting new business.

Don’t just try to replace bad business with more bad business. And SaaS businesses are very different. You’re constantly out there trying to get – and generally speaking, the more you can get, the more you can serve. Right. There’s you know, it’s like flying a plane with unlimited seats. Right? You can just keep filling it up. An agency, you can’t do that. So it’s entirely different. You have – it’s different scale and it’s a different kind of sale. And you’re building a relationship. We lose this aspect particularly on the PR side where it’s public relations. Right. We forget sometimes we’re building relationships. And while there are things you can do with technology to automate some things and perhaps get in front of folks for the first time, it’s much more hand to hand combat to close agency sales, and much less about the same kinds of fancy funnels and drip campaigns and, you know, formulaic responses to this or that that’s going to get you where you want to go.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, I 100% agree. And I will tell you that, you know, in my business, on the Spin Sucks side, we have professional development. We have the PESO model certification. We have online courses. That’s stuff I can do with Facebook ads and drip campaigns and the whole top, middle, bottom of the funnel stuff. That stuff I can do.

I have not been able to apply that same principle to the business nor to your point would I want to, because I can’t handle – my business can not handle more than maybe two new clients a quarter, one is really optimal for us because of the onboarding that we do. Takes us 90 days to get people up and going and get the team and all of that accustomed to doing the work.

So to bring in more than two a quarter would be horrendous for us. Now that’s not to say if you’re not a huge global agency that that’s different, but for most of us, especially those of us listening to this podcast, that’s going to be just for you. Now, that said, the blogging that I do the, all of the thought leadership that I do, the LinkedIn newsletter that I have all of that generates word of mouth and referrals and all of that, but I still have to do the –

to your point, hand-to-hand combat, like I’m still having the conversations. I’m still introducing the team. I’m still doing, building that relationship and making sure that the chemistry is right. I can’t do any of that with technology or software or with three options that they can buy right online. I just can’t do it.

Chip Griffin: Right. And I, you know, I think that as you say, there is a place for these kinds of tactics in growing your agency. Right. You know, but instead of thinking, I’m going to use Facebook ads or a drip campaign in order to directly get clients, maybe it is to promote your thought leadership to build a larger footprint. At the same time you have to consider, you know, how useful is that to you in the work that you’re doing.

Right. I mean, sometimes we get this idea that, you know, we just need to go out and grow the next Spin Sucks. And all of a sudden that all is going to be right with the world. And that’s not necessarily true because if you’re going to be doing that, then it has to be something where your target market is actually paying attention to whatever you’re creating.

Otherwise you’re creating it for some other purpose, some of which may be valid in themselves. Right. We’ve talked about eating your own dog food and using some of your agency marketing as an experiment in order to learn and develop new skills. So perhaps you do want to use Facebook ads or a drip campaign or something like that for the agency.

And you’re accepting that it’s not likely to be a major driver of new business, but you’re doing it because it helps you refine those skills in a safe manner. I would still argue, try to find a way for it to drive some ancillary behavior instead of direct sales. Right? So use it to grow a newsletter or to grow a blog or a video site or something that you’re doing that is more tangible than, uh, or not more tangible, more accessible than full-blown agency consulting services.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. And I, I mean, you know this and listeners know this, but I’m a huge proponent of having passive income. If it’s online courses, if it’s using your IP in some way like that, I’m a huge fan.

And you can absolutely test these kinds of methods on that piece of your business if you have that. But I think you’re right. Like, I mean, I’m trying to think if I sent a blog post and then did a drip campaign with some Facebook ads and a landing page. It just wouldn’t work the same way that it does.

Chip Griffin: Right. But you could, you could look at if you’re an agency and you know, you don’t want to take on building the next Spin Sucks, you can go out and create a single piece of content that’s evergreen, that you are out there promoting, and you can, you can turn it into an e-book or even a real book these days, self publishing is not a very high bar.

And you also don’t have to write a hundred thousand words to have a printable book that you can use as effectively a business card, a proof of expertise, that kind of thing. And so maybe you use the, some of those drip campaign tactics and the Facebook ads and Google ads and things like that to drive to that piece of content that demonstrates your expertise and it starts to, you know, to, to position you with your target.

Really critical to make sure that whatever you’re creating is actually going to be consumed by your target because too often, I see people create content that is maybe great content, but not likely to be consumed by someone who’s also going to hire your agency. And you really want that connection between your ideal client definition that hopefully you’ve created and also that, you know, the people who are going to want to download that or get a copy of it.

Gini Dietrich: Right. So I think, I think what you’re speaking to in this, I see this mistake a lot is that we tend to create content where we’re talking to each other. So I’m creating content for the PR industry or, you know, somebody else is creating content for, you know, other Facebook ad creators, whatever happens to be.

But those aren’t the people who are going to buy from you. And certainly it’s, what you know, well, and it’s your passion, but that’s it. You have to take that and be able to twist it so it is applicable to the people who would buy from you. So when I talk about what I talk about on the blog is specific to communicators, but when I take that content and I tweak it for other, and I repurpose it for other places like LinkedIn or Medium or places like that, I always change the message a little bit.

So that I say, so then I’m speaking to an executive. So I’m speaking to a chief operating officer or a CEO or a chief marketing officer, and I tweak it or I repurpose it in that way so that they see that and go, okay. I really like the way these people think, I should call them. And it’s just a little bit different and it’s nuanced a little bit different, but you have to be thinking about those kinds of things.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. I mean, you make a great point because it’s the same expertise. You’re just packaging it differently. And certainly this is something that I’ve been guilty of in the past. When I ran CustomScoop, I had a publication called Media Bullseye and it spoke to more of my peers, because that was what it was fun to do, but didn’t necessarily speak to the people who were likely to be buyers of the service.

And so I ended up creating great content that got great traffic and did absolutely nothing. Very little for actually growing the business until I realized this and it took a couple of years, but I finally pivoted it to, to have more of the focus that was necessary in order to actually help sell the underlying product that we were offering.

And so that’s something where you just, it’s not that you have to go out and learn something new. You already know this. You’re trying to show the expertise that you already have, but how you package it, how you position it is different. Let’s take, for example, last year’s Clubhouse craze. Which I thought was dumb from day one, but let’s say that, that you want to be creating content about Clubhouse because you’re an agency, you would put it in terms of why is this relevant or not to actual ultimate clients, not to the technical details of how you use Clubhouse and set it up and all, because you’re speaking to a different buyer, when you’re talking about the nitty gritty of how you connect your phone to Clubhouse versus where does Clubhouse fit in the overall communications landscape? The answer, of course, by the way is exactly where I said it was, which is nowhere. Bye-bye, Clubhouse.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, it didn’t really last, did it. It didn’t really.

Chip Griffin: That was, I mean, that was a really hectic six weeks for them, and then everybody realized this is a 1970s party line. We don’t really need to revisit that.

Gini Dietrich: I remember my younger brother who was a senior in college at the time, uh, DMs me on Twitter and he was like, am I missing something? Or is this… exactly that, a party line. And I was like, no, you’re not missing anything.

Chip Griffin: And probably half our listeners don’t even know what a party line is, which may be why Clubhouse actually got a little bit of traction because people haven’t experienced the joys of that back in… I think they went away around the mid eighties or so. For the most part, at least, at least in my area, in New Hampshire, they went away in the mid eighties.

So, I mean, it is good to take inspiration from these various SaaS marketing activities, but they’re not the kind of thing that you can just cookie cutter place in. And instead you really need to be thinking about what can I do to build those relationships and how can I have – not a pipeline of hundreds of prospects at any given time, or even tens of prospects, if you had 10 solid prospects at any given time, assuming they’re, well-defined qualified prospects who are matching your ideal client structure, you should be fine.

Gini Dietrich: Yes, you should be fine.

Chip Griffin: And that’s a, that’s a very different approach than having to build these massive email lists and, you know, be running, you know, all of these ad campaigns, and those things also make your life a whole lot more complicated.

Right? Most of us in the agency world are constantly saying, I don’t have enough time for business development. The solution then is not to create a whole bunch of more work for yourself. And I know, and you’ll, and you’ll watch some videos where they’ll tell you, this is a time-saver because you just put it on automation, you build it once.

And it just kind of keeps churning and producing, leads in your pipeline. It doesn’t work that way, folks.

Gini Dietrich: It does not work that way.

Chip Griffin: And anybody who says that clearly has not run any social media campaigns or search ad campaigns. They require constant care and feeding.

Gini Dietrich: Constant care and feeding – like every day, multiple times a day, constant care.

It’s not hard, but you have to be in there every day. Every day.

Chip Griffin: And the reason why, frankly, a lot of SEO and PPC agencies have such high churn rates it’s because they don’t do that. Because they are really trying to take a set it and forget it approach with their own clients. And, and so they’re then applying the same thing to their own growth strategies and those things work pretty well in that space for generating new leads and closing new businesses, new business accounts, but it doesn’t create sticky accounts. It doesn’t create the kinds of relationships that most agencies are looking for. And so you really need to understand what’s involved in all of these things.

And it’s one of the reasons why we talk constantly on this show about picking just a couple of things that you’re good at, that you enjoy doing and use those as your business development approaches. And don’t try to do all these things just because some guru told you it was a good idea.

Gini Dietrich: I would say, and you, you and I do this where we watch the gurus and we have conversations about them. But I would say like pay attention to what they’re saying. You know, I mean, I, like I said, I went through a period about five or six years ago where I was paying attention to every internet marketer. And then I realized they were all full of it and not, not helpful at all.

And so they’ve lost. They’ve left my purview, but I think there is something to be said for paying attention to the advice that the experts out there are giving and then looking at it from the perspective of your business. Because like we say, all the time, it depends, it may or may not work. If it feels get rich quick it’s probably not going to work. You’re not going to work four hours a day or four hours a week. It’s just not, that’s not real life.

Chip Griffin: Come on, Gini! I mean, I’m planning to just work four hours a week and have just money raining down on me.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, me too.

But really, I mean, do pay attention and, and kind of collect the information and see what works and what doesn’t, because there are some diamonds in the rough and there are pieces to some advice that will actually work. So don’t dismiss it all. Just make sure that it works for you and your business and what you’re trying to achieve.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, there’s absolutely inspiration to be had from frankly, even the, you know, the most charlatan of charlatans, right? They still have little nuggets in there that you can take advantage of as long as you’re listening carefully. And that’s really, that’s the, the piece of advice that I would would offer when you’re consuming any of this content, whether it’s Tim Ferriss’s 4 Hour Workweek or some of these agency gurus you see online, listen really carefully to what they’re saying, because oftentimes it’s packaged in this easy to use foolproof method, success guaranteed type envelope. But when you start looking inside and when you listen to what they actually say, that’s where you start seeing the caveats. And that’s where you start seeing the flaws in it, or perhaps where you start seeing, well, I can use this as long as I reject the idea that, you know, it’s going to lead to overnight success, right?

There is a morsel of truth to it. You and I shared a video recently, with an expert, talking about how, you know, you can just spend three hours a day learning something and then be making all sorts of money in 12 months time. Not true, not true. Now, does it happen? Sure, of course it does. But what you want to really listen to there is that you can take the time to learn new skills, develop them and monetize them.

That absolutely is reasonable and possible. Whether you can make it on the accelerated timeline that he was promoting or that others promote, that’s an open question. But the value in that is understanding that you do need to learn the skills that does make sense to set time aside, to learn those skills and figure out how you can apply them to your business.

Standing start to a millionaire in a year, probably not, but you know, there is still value in that kind of thing. You just really need to be realistic about it and listen really closely and carefully to what they’re saying and not just the fancy packaging, the clickbait title, you know, that kind of thing.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, and I agree with you on that specific video as well. When I watched it, first of all, I watched it almost like, I don’t know what I just watched, so I watched it again. And that’s what I took away from it as well, is that you can learn new skills and you should be learning new skills or bringing new skills into your agency so that you can sell that to clients.

You know, blogging for us was that. We started blogging just to figure out if that was something that we should be offering to clients. And I’m glad we did it for ourselves first because it was miserable. It was not good. It wasn’t like, and if we had done that for a client, we would have been fired really fast because it was that bad.

But then we figured it out. We figured out search engine optimization. We figured out internal linking and external links. Like we figured all of that out. It took us a couple of years. And now we sell it as part of our toolbox, right? I mean, actually now clients hire us because we know how to do content marketing really well.

But back then, no. Nobody should have hired us to do it. No way. So that’s what I took away from it is that you absolutely can and should be learning new skills that you can eventually sell to clients.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, absolutely. And you know, some of these books that I disparage regularly or have issues with like Tim Ferriss’s 4 Hour Work Week, there’s a lot of good stuff in that book.

There’s some good thinking about how you should be spending your time as an entrepreneur or frankly, anybody and, and helps you to think about those things in a more critical fashion. The headline obscures it, right? And so the headline or in that case, the title of the book leads you down a path that that is not a healthy or helpful one, because you’ve now set a goal based on that title that’s really unachievable for the vast majority of people for what they want to do. It doesn’t mean you can’t take those nuggets out of there. It’s like Built To Sell. You and I love Built To Sell for some of the advice that’s in that book. It’s got some really great building blocks for your business.

Unfortunately, it’s all oriented around the notion that you’re going to sell the agency and at the end, the owner in the book literally walks away with a $5 million check on closing day. And it seems like he’s just going to Tahiti and has no more concerns in the world when the reality is that’s probably not what happened in his deal, that we don’t have the details on. Nor does it happen for 99.999% of agencies that are sold. And so the problem that I have with a lot of these things is that instead of focusing on the good building blocks of advice and creating things that, that you can take advantage of in building the business and life that you want, you get fixated on these big one sentence summaries that the so-called experts are creating.

And it’s just, it’s more harmful than good if people aren’t getting into the details.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, absolutely. And I will say that that book, he does not advocate that you will work four hours a week.

Chip Griffin: No. I mean, yeah. Anyway, I’ve beat on that book so many times that I probably should just let it go.

Gini Dietrich: It’s actually, there are some good nuggets in there, but you will not walk away going, okay, I’m only working 45 minutes a day. That’s not how it works.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, as I’ve said in my original review of that book years ago, when it first came out, you know, there’s a point in the book where he says, if you feel like something you’re doing isn’t giving you value, just stop doing it. And that’s when I put the book down.

So on that note, hopefully you haven’t already given up on this. Cause if you’re listening, you haven’t given up on it. So therefore you’ve seen value. We appreciate that. Or maybe you just can’t find the stop button on your phone or whatever.

Gini Dietrich: Or you’re walking or driving.

Chip Griffin: Whatever is keeping you here. We appreciate it. We hope you will come back for another episode. And that will draw this episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast to a close. I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: And I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: And it depends.

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