What I learned asking 1,000 agency owners what I should do next

By Ian Harris, Agency Hackers

A few weeks ago I was stuck.

Over the past 18 months, Agency Hackers has grown a significant audience. People always tell me the same thing: “You should develop a service that you can sell to people.”

But what should that service be?

I was overwhelmed with ideas. Then a thought struck me – I’m already in touch with 1,000 agency owners. Why not just ask them what they liked?

This turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done.

I emailed out a survey, and a hundred agency owners filled it in. Many emailed, called or had lunch with me to give me useful thoughts.

This is one big take-away right there: asking your audience what you should do next is a great idea. People love being asked for their opinion, especially on business stuff. If you can find a way to do this with your agency's clients I'd recommend it.

In this post I’ll share with you what I learned.

What you told me

I asked for feedback on four ideas:

  • One idea people liked (but I decided against.)

  • One idea people hated (and I also hate.)

  • One idea people loved (but I’m not going to do.)

  • And one idea people either loved or hated. (This is the one I’m going to pursue.)

Idea #1 – Thought leadership

Here’s what I said:

“People tell me they like the emails I send. They go out to about 1,000 agency owners and they have an open rate of 60-65%, which is high considering they only go to busy agency bosses. I'm wondering if I should write similar content for agency leaders – helping you build relationships with your audience, and promoting your offering.”

Here’s what you said:

“It won’t scale.”

Everyone said the same thing: this will never scale. You’ll basically be a freelancer.

A few people suggested that I teach agencies to do this. (As it happens, I actually have trained a lot of people in this over the years.)

I thought that was a good idea, so I put together a personality marketing course. I didn’t know if it would get much response, but it sold £7,500 in two weeks.

I would never have thought to do this without this survey. So far, so good!

Idea 2 – Client satisfaction calls

Here’s what I said:

“In this idea, you pay a team to conduct client satisfaction calls on your behalf. Clients think it’s a feedback exercise. But it also generates referral opportunities, and lets you find out what work is coming down the pipeline.”

Here’s what you said:

You either loved it or hated it.

First, the negatives: lots of people did NOT want a third party talking to their clients.

  • “I wouldn't trust this level of confidentiality to a third party.”

  • “I’d be nervous about letting someone talk to my clients. They are a funny bunch.”

  • “I personally don't like these kind of services. I think they are just ways of the client bitching about you. Companies should know instinctively what is going on with their client and whether they are doing a good job.”

Some people said they wouldn’t buy this because it’s something they thought they should be doing in-house. (Even though, um, they aren’t.)

I understand all these objections. I don’t think I can change their mind.

However, a lot of people DO like this idea:

  • “Something we should probably do but never do! Don't know why really. Would be interested to find out more”

  • “Great idea. Based on price we would be very interested.”

  • “This is something we would definitely want and would need to outsource. I think as long as the third party is non-competing it wouldn't be an issue.”

  • “This is a great idea. In fact only a few agencies do it, but i think they could easily be persuaded. You can't fix what you don’t know about and you can't grow a client if you don’t ask.”

Some agencies already do this themselves, or have somebody do it for them, further validating the idea.

If the people who love this idea engage with it, it could be successful.

I like this idea for three reasons:

  1. It seems to solve a genuine, obvious problem that many agency owners immediately recognise

  2. It’s one I can operationalise – I think it can scale

  3. It's natural for me to market. Doing calls like these will generate a lot of interesting anecdotes that I can anonymise and use in my emails to agency owners.

I’m doing to pursue this idea over the next few months and pilot it with a few agencies I already know.

Idea 3 – Create the Agency Hackers of your industry

Here’s what I said:

“I’ll help you create the "Agency Hackers" of YOUR industry. So if your customers are brand managers, I'll help you build a big community of brand managers – who come to round tables and dinners etc.”

Here’s what you said:

This was by far the most popular idea.

  • “How isn’t this already a thing?”

  • “Yes, yes and thrice yes.”

  • “This for me is the strongest idea as it's one that agencies struggle to find the time to do.”

I think some people would buy this now. But this is now an idea I’m going to pursue.

I’ve realised that it’s impossible to charge agencies anything close to what this network would actually be worth.

Say you had an engaged network of 500 CMOs, who opened emails and came to events. That would be a seven figure business. In a couple of years it could be worth more than their actual agency.

I don’t think I can build that for £3k a month. So that’s where I got stuck.

So what I’m going to do is try to bootstrap an Agency Hackers clone in a different professional vertical and see where it takes me.

Idea 4 – lead gen for agencies.

Here’s what I said:

“I developed a pretty simple and effective 'lead gen' process to build Agency Hackers. I was thinking I could do this for agencies. Help them reach out to prospects and get meetings / coffees.”

What you said:

To be honest I don't know what I was smoking when I put this idea in.

Generally, agency owners did not like this idea. Most of you are sceptical of lead-gen. You’ve “been burned” many times.

  • “God no. You don't want to play in this space. You would be great, but honestly i am pestered by bus dev agencies every 5 mins. There are loads of them and it will drive you mad.”

  • “If I found a lead gen company that actually worked I'd put every spare penny I had into it and then build a big new office in preparation for all the amazing work that we about to get in. Sadly, the reality is I've wasted thousands on lead gen in the past.”

  • “Painful. Others are doing it. Trust me, do anything except this.”

I’m going to drop this idea.

(P.S. This is not to say lead gen doesn’t work – just that I can’t do it. If you ARE looking for led gen, I hear Frances Kelly at Blueprint and the guys at Entourage are worth checking out.)

What’s next?

This was a very useful exercise. Thanks to everybody who took the time to give me advice.

Based on this feedback, my next steps are:

  1. Develop a “client satisfaction” check-up service and pilot it with a few agencies.

  2. Develop an Agency Hackers clone in another professional vertical

  3. Continue to grow Agency Hackers

Thanks again, and I’ll keep you posted.

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Ian