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Call us for a chat on +44 (0)20 7836 3678 or Email Jim Piper or David Newman

Why do prospects meet with agencies?

Back in June 2011 we carried out a comprehensive survey to establish why prospects agree to meet with creative, strategic and digital agencies. We asked our New Business Managers to complete a questionnaire and then cross-referenced this with two years of data covering 340,000 calls, 46,000 decision maker conversations and 3,400 meetings generated. We looked at conversion rates and other success indicators to arrive at some very clear conclusions. We have just repeated this survey, with a few small changes to reflect how the marketing world has moved on in the past 18 months. The background data is also different as it covers the 18 months since June 2011 but the sample is just as broad covering:

  • 270,000 calls
  • 38,000 decision maker conversations
  • 3,273 meetings

The findings closely mirror what we found back in 2011, which lends weight to the original survey but there have been some interesting developments, which are highlighted in the report.

The original whitepaper can be found here. This paper deals exclusively with what has happened over the past 18 months. A summary of how the structure of the most recent survey differs from the 2011 incarnation can be found at the end. We have highlighted areas where the survey reveals significant change in sentiment or attitude over the past 18 months.

To help you find the areas most relevant for you we have presented the findings by:

  1. Top line recommendations
  2. Agency discipline
  3. Reason to meet / success factor

This means there may be some repetition. We have included a table of results and some information about how the survey was performed but haven’t attempted to write an exhaustive report of everything we discovered.

If you would like to discuss this survey or would like further information about any aspect of this document please give us a call.

1. Top line recommendations

Make sure you have the right person making your new business calls – personality, knowledge and the ability to develop a rapport are critical. Interestingly, our survey revealed that the more experienced sales people on the team considered their own skill to be slightly less of an important factor than newer guys. This was because they were able to identify and leverage other factors; case histories and methodology for example. The better the person on the phone the more they will get out of all the other tools at their disposal.

Stick with what you know – for example, direct experience in the market sector and / or helping your clients solve a particular challenge is essential. All other things remaining equal, if you try to break out of your current sector you will find it much more difficult.

Get some facts and figures to support your case – outside of DM very few agencies have the facts and figures to prove ROI or increased sales, but it can be done. Work with your current clients to develop a ‘before and after’ story that demonstrates how you have delivered a tangible benefit to the bottom line. If it’s hard to prove financial returns then try to compile statistics for the less tangibles; voice share, awareness etc. Doing some market research that delivers these figures is a worthwhile investment.

Develop a branded methodology – is there anything you do differently that you can ‘package’ as a proprietary product or service? Great for arousing curiosity and ‘introducing’ this methodology provides a compelling reason to meet. Not enough agencies do this.

Niche skills and technology – we all know digital agencies are doing things now that were unthinkable 10 years ago but this can also apply to PR for example. Marketing decision makers are genuinely interested in how the newest technology may benefit them.

Every cloud has a silver lining – you may have just lost a client but you haven’t lost the skills and experience acquired servicing them. In fact, knowing what you now know you might have done things a little differently. Your experience is a commodity to be sold to other companies so develop a strong case study and start speaking to other companies in that sector. Being able to talk about experience gained with a client that has recently departed was considered most critical when the agency specialised in a specific industry sector.

Offer a free audit – this kind of ‘Trojan Horse’ can be very effective at getting you in front of people you want as clients. Giving something away for nothing is easy; lots of agencies have found this out the hard way after running expensive seminars. Making sure that you give a little (but with high perceived value) in such a way as to maximise your chances to take a lot is the aim. Some of our clients have developed simple online tools that can grab the prospect’s attention and allow them to develop that initial relationship with them – so have a think about what you could do to encourage the prospect to believe that you have the solutions and genuinely want to help them.

The table shows how important each factor was in total and also drills into whether it was more important for some marketing disciplines than others. By far the most commonly cited factors were rapport on the phone and direct experience, reported as relevant (at least) for every discipline. But this doesn’t mean they were the most crucial factors. Rapport and experience were reported as relevant across the board as one would expect:

Rapport – Sales people will consider themselves to be a factor in their own success

Experience – Clients want us to target companies in industry sectors that they have experience in

The table provides an ‘at a glance look’ at why prospects agree to meet marketing agencies but the real story is buried in the data we used to compile this basic table. Here are the most interesting stories revealed:

Reasons for seeing your agency


2. By agency discipline


Relevant experience and sales skills are most important. This suggests that many creative agencies find it difficult to differentiate themselves from others in the market by way of methodology or niche skills, which is supported by the low score each gets for this discipline. Proximity was also considered a relevant factor. Once a face-to-face meeting has been booked one hoped the creative work will speak for itself but on the phone it is a relatively hard sell and there are no tricks or shortcuts.

Corporate Communications

Similar to creative but with even more emphasis on direct experience we are able to demonstrate on the phone. This suggests experience is vital to win trust and demonstrate that we (and therefore you) can speak their language. Issues with the incumbent agency are cited more often in Corporate Communications than other disciplines.


Sales skills and relevant experience are most important here. The challenge for integrated or full service agencies is convincing prospects that you are not a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. Prospects like to know what an agency specialises in. Relevant experience (either in the sector or with facing a particular challenge) is important as it allows us to position the agency’s focus, expertise and passion in retail (for example) rather than any single discipline. On the phone the approach we find works best is to quickly establish what the prospect’s greatest need is and then present our client as an expert in that discipline. To do this quickly on the phone requires good questioning skills and subtlety when introducing the client’s proposition.

We also found that agency’s size is more important for an integrated offer than any other, in fact it’s the only discipline where being big is considered a virtue. This is not to say that being big is a requirement – it’s just that we will actively pitch being big as a benefit for a full service agency.

Being bigger may imply a greater ability to cover all bases, which is important for an integrated agency

Below the line

Referring to traditional direct mail and sales promotion. In both surveys BTL has scored highest for Proven ROI. Case studies with quantifiable results make the big difference here. You need to demonstrate how you know what the target audience will respond best to and back this up with figures for sales uplift, new customer acquisition, reduced costs per acquisition/retention, etc. A good mailing campaign was considered of greater benefit to this discipline than others, which is hardly a surprise. Closer inspection of the data revealed that our DM clients were slightly more likely than others to do a mailer so they practise what they preach.

Marketing Support Services (replacing Print & Logistics from 2011)

Once again there is a massive emphasis on rapport. This is because we must develop a conversation with the prospect in order to highlight service and added value. Failure to do this will mean the conversation is all about cost. Once again, the incumbent being too expensive was raised as a significant factor for meeting, the only discipline where this was raised so cost is an inescapable subject matter, which is unusual for introductory phone calls within marketing services. This discipline also scores highest for proximity being a factor.


Direct experience is particularly important if we can demonstrate industry knowledge. Proven ROI is great to have as some prospects still see PR as an intangible luxury. As in 2011 the big score for ‘gaining insight into competitors’ suggests prospects are more interested in a ‘creds presentation’ than is the case for other disciplines. It also points again to the importance of relevant and results driven case studies. An interesting shift since 2011 is the additional importance given to ‘Gaining insight to the challenges of peers / competitors’ as a reason to meet. Back in 2011 it was considered vital for PR but not particularly important for other disciplines but 2 years later it was the 4th most important reason cited.

Digital Performance

In both surveys niche skills and technology were cited as particularly important. Demonstrating how the agency has delivered a quantifiable ROI is also very important. The lowest score for rapport suggests the discipline is considered to be a straightforward sell and this is supported by the high conversion rates we see on the phone. Generally rapport is considered to be more important the harder the discipline is to sell on the phone.

The stand-out reason for meeting here has been the offer of a free audit. The speed of progress in the digital world is incomparably fast. Decision makers are very keen to hear from agencies that may be at the ‘bleeding edge’ of developments in the digital world. You should build a case for your agency being a leader not a follower. Prospects will try to distinguish between a ‘genuine’ digital expert and a creative agency that offers ‘digital’. We have found we can best impress upon a prospect that we possess these attributes when we can offer a free audit. There’s an element of ‘putting our money where our mouth is’ that plays well but mostly it’s because the prospect is more concerned that they have fallen behind the curve in digital marketing than they would be in PR.

A full service digital agency would need to have very strong case studies across all the areas of digital marketing to be considered genuinely ‘full service’. Marketing Managers are infinitely more digital-savvy than they were a few years ago.

Digital Build & Content

Unsurprisingly similar to Digital Performance in some respects – rapport and relevant sector experience are considered less critical than they are for other sectors. Niche skills and technology are very important.


Traditionally we find this discipline one of the easiest to set meetings for. One reason for this is that some research agencies use their researchers to make the sales calls, which makes it easy for professional new business experts to stand out. The main reason though is Market Research decision makers are naturally inquisitive. The volume and variable value of research projects mean there’s always a chance to try a new agency out without jeopardising relationships with existing suppliers. The problem for research prospects is they are on a permanent quest to understand their audience better but there are a finite number of questions to ask any one demographic. This is where a new agency with a fresh methodology can help. If you can establish a point of difference in the questions you ask, how you ask them, how you identify and segment or how you report on findings then you will be of interest.

A research agency that could demonstrate a quantifiable ROI in all their case studies would be a devastating proposition. Very few research agencies speak about ROI.

Experiential & Brand Activation

A new entry in 2013. Not many stand-out scores. Case studies with a proven ROI are very important, as one would hope and expect for this discipline. It also scores higher than other disciplines for proximity, size and whether there has been a mailing campaign.

Single Niche Sector

Another new entry. Scored higher than any other discipline in two areas. The ability to create rapport on the phone was considered critical, which we now know is associated with being a difficult sell. If you are going to tell a prospect that you are a sector specialist in their industry then you had better be able to back it up! For this reason it also scored highest for direct relevant experience and case studies.

3. By reason for meeting/success factor

Sales skills and rapport

The quality of the New Business Manager (NBM) was once again cited by the NBMs as the most important factor in a meeting being set. One doesn’t need to be cynical to have a wry chuckle at this finding BUT it’s not as straight forward a case of biased self-reporting as it seems. This ‘reason to meet’ tops the league table because it applies to every call (and therefore every discipline) whist other reasons are more specific to a particular type of marketing agency. So it picks up a points across the board but is considered most crucial when the client we are calling for is perceived to be a ‘hard sell’. This is consistently supported by the conversion rate data we have. All of our account managers are strong but new guys (first 6 months) consistently have lower conversion rates than the more experienced ones. The difference in conversion on harder clients is MUCH greater than on the easier clients, which suggests the quality of the sales call is more important on a tough offer. As previously mentioned, we have found that it’s the new guys that put the greatest emphasis on the quality of the call so rather than blowing their own trumpets perhaps there’s an element of recognising when they find a client difficult.

Most significant for clients in disciplines we know have lower conversion rates or clients we know have an ‘average offer’ (2-3). The less we have to work with the more important the skills of the New Business Manager.

Rapport was reported as a neutral or relevant factor for clients in high converting disciplines or clients with a unique offer (0-2). Interestingly, this means there is a direct correlation between conversion rate and the importance attached to sales skills; the lower the conversion rate the higher the rating given to sales skills.

Sales skills were considered most important for Niche Sector, PR and Marketing Suppoprt Services (low conversion rates) and least important for Digital (the discipline with the highest conversion).

Direct relevant experience

Relevant across the board but most important in Niche Sector and public relations (3). This is to be expected as PR is so sector specific and it matches our experience on the phone. We know we have to have good industry knowledge when talking to PR prospects.

Proven ROI of case study on the phone

Looking at the table one could be forgiven for thinking that this was less important than the two mentioned above. In fact it was given maximum scores (3) in the cases where an NBM felt they had the provable ROI to demonstrate. Quite a few NBMs felt they didn’t have a quantifiable case study in their armoury, which is why this factor didn’t come top overall. A case study that includes quantifiable figures for ROI is the nuclear bomb; devastatingly effective but not everyone possesses one.

Unique methodology

Scores very highly but not many agencies can claim they have a genuinely unique way of working. This was once again most relevant for research agencies, which tend to enjoy among the highest conversion rates of any marketing discipline. Most of our research clients have a ‘branded’ methodology. We once took on a research agency that didn’t have one and experienced less success on the phone. We worked with them to develop a suite of proprietary methodologies (stuff they were doing anyway but hadn’t thought of ‘packaging’) and conversion took off. If you can develop a methodology that is unique and can be ‘branded’ then you will find it much easier to gain an audience with decision makers, so it’s a shame so few agencies have done so.

Niche skill set / technology

Similar to having a unique methodology but with the emphasis on using ‘bleeding edge’ technology to deliver the benefit to the client. Most prevalent with digital agencies (as one might expect) but also reported as significant for research agencies. To be at the vanguard of technological development is hugely advantageous but, by definition, very few agencies can claim this. We suspect many clients could do more however to push their ‘technology based’ credentials than they do currently.

Chance to gain an insight into challenges of peers / competitors

Most often cited when calling for Market Research and PR agencies. We have already stated how PR is very sector / experience driven and this is why PR decision makers are most open to learn about work you may have done for similar clients in their space. This ‘reason to meet’ has shot up the table in the past 18 months, scoring more highly for more disciplines than it did in 2011.


These figures will be skewed by the fact that certain clients will require a location criteria to their new business prospecting. PR clients often do, research and digital agencies often don’t. People like to be physically close to their PR agencies as this makes regular face-to-face contact easier. We found this was also the case with corporate communications and creative agencies where proximity allows the client to drop in and see the latest hard proof of your work. As a trend, proximity is not as important as it was 10 years ago.

Issues cited with incumbent

Prospects will not often criticise their incumbent on the phone – they hired them after all. In 2011 we found that incumbent issues were most often raised in PR and digital. For PR it was due to the incumbent agency not being proactive enough or not ‘understanding our industry enough’. Case studies that demonstrate dynamic and innovative thinking for clients facing similar challenges are crucial for PR at exploiting this.

For digital it was usually because the incumbent was felt to be behind the pace in terms of technology or exploiting social media, for example. As noted above, being at the forefront of everything new that is happening in the digital world is vital for digital agencies.

In the most recent survey we find that issues with the incumbent are being raised more often and particularly with Corporate Communications agencies and Marketing Logistics firms.

Incumbent is too expensive

Whilst pricing is essential when pitching face-to-face it rarely comes up when speaking to prospects on the phone. It is however very important for clients who provide a print or logistics service. And ‘service’ is the key word here. For print, many prospects will ask for a quote before agreeing to take the conversation further and will be looking for a quote significantly lower than their incumbent in order to justify the upheaval of changing supplier. We have to develop the conversation to the point where service and additional value can be discussed in order to win an audience.

Price is also raised as an issue when we are calling for well-known agencies. Prospects perceive the bigger agencies to be more expensive, but as most of our clients are small to medium sized it’s rarely discussed.

Recent relevant client loss

This is a rare occurrence but a very compelling reason to meet when it does occur. If you have recently lost a client then your experience will be attractive to other companies in the sector. Most applicable when a retained PR agency has lost a client. Securing a meeting is all about arousing curiosity in the prospect with an offer backed up with proof of competency. Few things are more intriguing and relevant to the prospect than the opportunity to look at what their (until recently) mortal enemies have been up to. At Alchemis we look for opportunities like this by talking with clients about current and recent work.

Offer of a free audit

This is a classic ‘Trojan Horse’ and really boosts conversion when we are able to use it. Most prevalent in the digital sector where, for reasons noted above, the prospect can be persuaded that they ‘may be missing a trick’. Our digital clients have won business from relationships that began with an audit. It lends itself to this discipline in particular because the audit itself can be done very quickly and remotely (electronically in advance of the meeting), which means the first meeting can focus more on suggesting solutions rather than generic creds.

We could apply this more widely across our client base but we feel it would reduce the quality of meeting for our clients. You must be confident that you have a chance of extracting a positive outcome from a free audit otherwise your ‘Trojan Horse’ becomes a cheap trick.

Industry Topic (one of 4 new ‘reasons to meet’ assessed in the 2013 survey)

Describes a short term opportunity or challenge that can be raised on the phone. Examples range from the 2012 Olympics to the recent Horse Meat scandal. Particularly important in PR as one would expect but scored well across the board and is higher up the league table than the other new reasons to meet.

Mailing Follow up

For when new business activity has included a mailing campaign. This also covers email campaigns. Unsurprisingly this scored highest in the Direct Marketing (BTL) discipline but was also cited as important in PR as this is a discipline that is well showcased through the smart use of case studies and examples. A very interesting point about mailing activity was that it either had no positive impact (the majority of cases) or had a significant positive impact (the clever minority). We rarely advocate a mass mailer type campaign and our survey supports this view but we have worked with some clients on very clever, very targeted campaigns and these have really boosted conversion rates for the follow up calls. We have found that the best campaigns were:

  • Hard copy
  • Included a physical item (not just print)
  • Used humour
  • Were very specifically targeted to a small audience

Alchemis have helped with the targeting and follow up calls. Spending a bit more on the creative idea and item but sending it to fewer people seems to work best.

Big Agency

For where the sheer size and scope of the marketing agency is a key part of the proposition on the phone. We have found no general correlation between conversion on the phone and size of agency but there are cases when we will cite the scale, scope and reach of a client as a positive benefit.

Small Agency

For where ‘small agency virtues’ are a key part of the proposition on the phone. Some prospects like to think that they will be a ‘bigger fish in a smaller pond’ with a smaller agency. This works well when a prospect feels they haven’t had the level of senior involvement in their campaign they had hoped for.

In summary, we have found that raising the size of the client (big or small) at the right time with the right prospect, based on how the conversation is progressing, can have a significant effect but for most calls it is of little relevance.


We agreed that a great website did not make it easier to set a meeting but having a rubbish one was a significant obstacle. This ‘reason to meet’ can only score negative points. The team at Alchemis wanted to add ‘website’ as a factor because some have worked on campaigns that were hindered by the client having a poor website. We have found that prospects are increasingly likely to visit a client’s website whist we are on the phone – though this is still a small minority – and this is why we added it to the 2013 survey.

When we drilled a bit further into this issue we found the following to be the biggest issues:

  • Website does not reflect what the agency does (now). Too often agencies do not keep their websites up to date, which means the site may give an outdated impression of what the agency does or stands for
  • Lack of current case studies. As above
  • Awkward to navigate

Having a poor website was not cited often (most of our clients have good ones) but when it was it was considered a serious impediment. The ‘fixes’ we would recommend are cheap and easy to implement as they mostly involve updating the content to reflect current work and how the agency now wishes to be positioned.

Our Methodology

New Business Managers submitted the 15 factors most likely to be cited by a prospect. New Business Managers then attributed a score of 0-3 for each of these factors as follows:

  • 0 = neutral or occasional factor
  • 1 = relevant factor
  • 2 = powerful factor
  • 3 = crucial factor

We looked at the 11 main marketing disciplines our clients provide and allowed for the fact that we have more clients in some disciplines than others when compiling the statistics.

  • Creative
  • Corporate communications
  • Marketing Support Services
  • PR
  • Digital Performance
  • Digital Build & Content
  • Research
  • Integrated
  • Experiential & Brand Activation
  • Below the line
  • Single Niche Sector

Some reasons were cited as relevant in many cases but rarely crucial whilst some reasons were cited less frequently but were considered as crucial when they were. After looking at data for conversion across our database we were able to weight these responses.

The table shows reasons for meeting in descending order of significance. Colour coding has been used to highlight the significance of each reason by sector.

  • 20+ points = Green: vitally important factor – will boost conversion hugely
  • 13-19 points = Yellow: important factor, highly desirable
  • 8-12 points = Clear: important but not crucial
  • 0-7 points = Blue: could be relevant but not significant

We will be the first to admit that this isn’t the most scientific piece of research ever carried out but the results are supported by hard data and the overall detailed feedback from our experienced team of the New Business Managers.

Changes to survey

We have added some new marketing disciplines and split others into two categories. We believe that this if a closer reflection of the marketing services world in 2013. The changes are:

  • Digital – has been split between Performance (SEO, PPC etc) and Build & Content (web build, email marketing etc)
  • Experiential & Brand Activation – previously this had been under ‘Other’ but then as now it was a significant element of our client base and deserves its own category in 2013
  • Single Niche Sector – this describes an agency that only operates in one industry sector and for this sector to have unique properties that would make it difficult for a new agency with little previous experience to approach. Pharmaceuticals would be a good example. We have not included agencies that specialise in FMCG because we felt that the sector is too big (and there’s so much diversity within it) and a lot of agencies would claim to specialise here
  • Marketing Support Services – replaces Print Logistics as a discipline category but would still include print and fulfllment
  • Other – has been removed because the data is so varied as to be meaningless

We have also added 4 new ‘reasons to meet’ and one ‘obstacle to meeting’

  • Industry Topic – describes a short term challenge or opportunity that can be raised on the phone. Examples range from the targeting partner brands at the 2012 Olympics to grocery brands and retailers in the light of the horse meat scandal
  • Mailing Follow up – for when new business activity has included a mailing campaign. This also covers email campaigns
  • Big Agency – for where the sheer size and scope of the marketing agency is a key part of the proposition on the phone
  • Small Agency – for where ‘small agency virtues’ are a key part of the proposition on the phone
  • Website – we agreed that a great website did not make it easier to set a meeting but having a rubbish one was a significant obstacle. This ‘reason to meet’ can only score negative points

One thought on “Why do prospects meet with agencies?

  1. Bill Gordon says:

    David, this is very informative, with a lot of pearls in it, thank you! Bill

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