How to reposition yourself as a “strategy-first” agency

Written by: Karl Sakas

Throughout the sales process, your prospect seemed like a dream client… until they told you:

“Oh, we don’t need a strategy; our last agency did that. We just need someone to implement things.”

You sigh inwardly and think to yourself: They’re yet another client looking for an order-taker agency. And wait, what happened to their previous agency, anyway?

Oops—you sighed outwardly, too! Maybe they aren’t a “dream client” after all.

Clearing your throat to buy a few seconds, you say:

“We’re glad to work with you, but we’re a ‘strategy-first’ agency. That means we use our proven process to create an effective strategy for you, before we can implement anything.”

Sounds good, right? Fellow agency advisors Blair Enns and David C. Baker have long highlighted the importance of leading with strategy, and the need to build your confidence. But if that confidence seems entirely foreign to you, read on for my advice on how to reposition yourself as a strategy-first agency.

Note: Do agencies have to become strategy-first? No, strategy-first is helpful, but not required. Focusing on implementation can produce a solid revenue stream… as long as you recognize that you’ll keep getting squeezed on price by your competitors.

14 Not-so-Easy Steps to Reposition as a Strategy-First Agency

To manage your expectations, this won’t be easy. The first two steps could take just a couple weeks… but they easily might take months or even a year.

It’s harder if your current sales pipeline is shaky or if you need therapy to boost your self-esteem on charging what you’re worth—those aren’t overnight fixes. But for most independent agencies, the investment’s worth it—after all, the agency is your #1 or #2 financial asset, right?

1) Build Your Confidence: Do whatever it takes to make yourself really confident. Maybe it’s finally firing the unprofitable client, working hard to grow your sales pipeline (to make it more feast, less famine), or watching Mister Rogers affirmations.

2) I’m Not Kidding… You Need to Build Your Confidence: Read The Win Without Pitching Manifesto (or listen to the audio version; it’s just 2.5 hours). Then, go read Overcoming Underearning. The “underearning” book can help boost your self-esteem, about charging what you’re worth. If it’s really engrained, you might need therapy, too.

3) Understand What Strategy Clients Actually Buy: As I share in my “Think, Teach, Do” framework, strategy (“Think”) clients are hiring you because they want you to tell them what to do. This requires an important mindset shift—you’re selling advice, not deliverables. Yes, there might be a deliverable… but the impact of your advice is far larger than the thing you send your client.

4) Know Where You Fit Into the “Strategy Tiers”: I’ve identified five “Strategy Tiers” that agencies can fulfill. For digital agencies, the five tiers are: Business Strategy, Integrated Marketing Strategy, Digital Marketing Strategy, Channel Strategy, and Campaign Strategy. Knowing which one(s) you serve is important—because you can find higher-value opportunities, while avoiding over-stretching your competence.

5) Inventory Your Team’s Skills: Review your current team’s expertise, to see what strategic skills they have. And ask people to share what they might do—odds are good that they have some “hidden” talents you can use. You can also build a strategy talent pipeline, to [eventually] promote from within.

6) Create a Strategy Offering: What’s a strategy “thing” you can sell? Ideally it’s something you can deliver via your existing team. And ideally it doesn’t revolve around your work as the owner. (You can sell it, but you ideally aren’t core to fulfillment.) If they balk at the investment, suggest a Paid Discovery offering that leads into the bigger strategy offering.

7) Segment Your Sales Proposals: Are they a new client? Ensure there’s a strategy component in every proposal. Even if they don’t immediately accept, you need to get that in front of people. Are they an existing client? Look for upsell opportunities where strategy would help them meet their goals. If you need case study examples, this may be the time to do a couple “strategically free” engagements.

8) Learn a New Sales “Script”: You and your salesperson (or salespeople) should shift the conversation to strategy-first. Ask consultative questions about the client’s goals and business challenges, instead of launching into your standard solution.

9) Stop Procrastinating on Industry Specialization: Pick an industry vertical. Very few clients benefit from generalist strategy advice, and you want to be good at strategy, right? Narrowing to one vertical works best; you can do 2-3 verticals, but that makes your marketing efforts 2-3X harder.

10) Narrow Your Services: Review your current services. You’re not truly “full-service.” Which ones are you actually good at delivering? Which ones are profitable? Which ones lead to [profitable] follow-on work? And which do you like delivering? Consider referring-out anything that doesn’t make the cut, so you can get great at what you do do… while getting a 5-10% referral fee from partners.

11) Scrub Your Website: Stop highlighting implementation-oriented services! Instead, identify the problems your clients are trying to solve, and shape your content around those. Strategy-first agencies are problem-solvers, not order-takers—so stop volunteering to take orders. Look for ways to highlight “problems-we-solve,” instead of “services-we-sell.”

12) Reboot Your Case Studies: If you want clients to think, “This agency is strategy-first,” make sure your case studies are… strategy-first. Rewrite your current case studies… and if they don’t fit, track down new ones. Lead with strategy! Here’s an example using the S.T.A.R. framework (Situation, Task, Action, Result):

  • Situation: Client had this terrible problem that was keeping them up at night.
  • Task: Our job was to create a strategy to solve that problem, and then work with the client’s team to implement it.
  • Action: We created that strategy, trained our client’s team to become more self-sufficient, and helped the client keep the strategy fresh as we and the client implemented the solutions.
  • Result: The client grew revenue by 23% while doubling their profit margins, and we continue to work together.

13) Build on Your Experience: Experience builds on itself over time; keep looking for more strategy-first opportunities. Remember, repositioning is easier for new clients than existing ones.

14) Stand Firm: This gets easier over time, but be careful—each sales negotiation is a new opportunity. When a prospective client pushes back, will you move forward… or backward?

Starting Your Strategy-First Shift

As I noted above: Strategy-first agencies are problem-solvers, not order-takers—so stop volunteering to take orders.

The two books I mentioned above (The Win Without Pitching Manifesto and Overcoming Underearning) can help you build your confidence. And each success will build on the next, and so on. Confidence first, so that the rest can follow.

Want help becoming a “strategy-first” agency? My 1:1 advisory services can help you get there faster; please contact me to see if we’re a match.

Question: What’s your next step to reposition as a “strategy-first” agency?

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