15 lessons from 15 years of running a B2B agency
April 19, 2016
In May 2001, two people – an in-house PR professional and an aircraft engineer turned marketer – embarked on an experiment: to start a two-person B2B agency and see how long they’d run it before ending up destitute.
It’s 15 years on, and we’re grateful and humbled to note that we’re still going strong; albeit with a few differences. First, we now have a team of 33 dedicated B2B agency professionals who care about what they do just as much as we do. We’ve got some of the world’s smartest, most innovative companies as our clients, and we’re given fantastic opportunities to run projects we’d never imagine we’d be doing. Finally, we’ve got partners we trust to support us anywhere in Asia, and in almost every part of the world.
Along the way, we’ve learnt some hard lessons, cultivated a lot of white hair, picked up a few good habits, and established principles which have been useful guideposts in our ongoing adventure.
So, as part of our 15th anniversary celebration, we’ve put down a list of lessons which have served us well; we hope they’ll be helpful to you too.
Lesson #1: You don’t know what works until you try
The most exciting times have been when our clients agree to try something new with us; something neither of us may have done before. Their willingness to take a leap of faith has been a true blessing, because when the ideas worked – and fortunately most did – everyone gained tremendously from the experience. Even failures had their place: it taught us humility, and the importance of owning deep emotional bank accounts with clients who understand that success is never guaranteed.
Lesson #2: The worst and best of times often come together
We’ve gone through the roller coaster of crazy highs and ‘the-pits-of-despair’ lows over the last 15 years. Often, the worst and the best of times come together but when we pull together, the stress and troubles quickly turn into fun and a sense that anything’s possible. A few years ago one of our team received a last minute but massive client request just before we were leaving for a Friday night birthday celebration. The team unanimously decided to pitch in and forego the dinner rather than leave one person behind. Not the best way to spend Friday night? Sure. But it was the best of times.
Lesson #3: Be grateful for great clients
There are plenty of stories about clients from hell, but great clients exist too; we’ve had the privilege of working with many. Yes, great clients can be demanding, but that’s also what makes them great – such as their commitment to excellence and their willingness to work with us, rather than against us. They push us to do better, recognise us when we do; and treat the team with courtesy even in the most stressful of times. If you’ve got a great client, always – always – be grateful.
Lesson #4: If you don’t care, no one else will
We need to care about how our clients’ products and services work before we can help them communicate their value. Period. Whether it’s about aircraft composites, data centre management systems, satellite broadcasting technology, data visualization or network security; we always invest in the time and the effort to understand what their products do, can do and what makes them different. Then, we find out what they mean to and for businesses, consumers, governments and communities. One of our team actually voluntarily looked up and watched root canal videos on Youtube to prepare for a dentistry event PR project. Now that’s dedication.
Lesson #5: Long term partnerships are the way to go
We’ve built long term partnerships with clients, partners and media because we try our absolute best to understand their goals and challenges, and not just focus on our own. This means sometimes we advise clients against a certain course of action because we know it will not give them the results they want. Short term loss? Yes. Long term gain? Yes.
Lesson #6: Do your best every time
Whether it is a small client or a big one, we need to do our best every single time. From being responsive to simple requests to developing well-researched, well-thought out plans for retainers, doing one’s best is a habit we want our people to develop and practice. The result is a ‘win-win’: more knowledgeable employees, more loyal clients. So grasshopper, always do your best, or do not. There is no ‘half-baked’.
Lesson #7: Discipline pays the bills
Discipline isn’t buzz-worthy and is seldom discussed in B2B communications. Yet, having the discipline to plan and execute as promised is probably the most important factor that keeps business coming in our door. Fortunately for us, like common sense, discipline is not as common as one might think. When we evaluate new joiners, it’s this key attribute that tells us if they’re going to last the marathon.
Lesson #8: It’s better to be more creative than less
Sometimes, we’re tempted to think: “Our client’s business seems pretty boring, it’s probably better to keep our proposal unadventurous.” Wrong, on a few counts. Firstly, storage servers may be boring to the agency, but it’s certainly not boring to the client (“It could potentially transform the economics of data!”). Secondly, by keeping proposals at snooze levels, we’re never going to catch anyone’s attention, not least of which is the client who’s listening to us. Finally, we’ve found it far easier to dial ‘sexy’ down to ‘dull’ if needed; but never the other way.
Lesson #9: Be an order maker, not an order taker
Our job is not to simply do what we’re told. Our job is to bring our clients the answers that make sense for their business. Issue a press release for the latest version of a software product? Share technical influencer posts on Facebook? Promote an event based on a sales manager being the keynote speaker? We’ll say ‘no’ firmly, simply because these tactics won’t get results for the client. (In a nice way, of course)
Lesson #10: It’s all about the ownership
Mediocre B2B agency professionals see projects as something that happens TO them, while the best see projects as something that happens FOR them. Here’s how we spot winners in our team: they take ownership for the outcome of the project, no matter how many others are working on it. They bring answers to problems, learn fast from their mistakes, and – ultimately – take responsibility for both success and failure. (Hint to job seekers: it’s how we evaluate new joiners too. You have been warned.)
Lesson #11: Keep learning, because your survival depends on it
Remember the Palm Pilot, pagers and DEC? If you do, congratulations: your knowledge is irrelevant. (If you don’t, you’re probably born after 1999). That’s the way it is in B2B: product cycles change, trends shift, new companies emerge and old ones die. Even the way we deliver work has completely transformed – we no longer kill as many trees, we’re doing a lot more social media work, and clients increasingly ask for ‘channel agnostic’ proposals, no longer confining themselves to the traditional PR and Marcomms split. So the only real skill required for excellence in B2B communication is to keep learning, quickly. And we put our money where out mouth is by investing a lot of time and money in our own learning and training the team, because we know ignorance is a lot more expensive.
Lesson #12: Past success is not an indicator of future survival
Just because we’ve done well for the last 15 years, it doesn’t mean we’ll do so for the next 15. Success can blind one to the fact that luck, other people’s trust in us and the opportunities we’re given – are all absolute essentials in the mix. Yes, celebrate success every time it comes round, but don’t ever let it go to your heads. It’s always better to stay paranoid in the agency world, because as Brian Molko observed, “the line between paranoia and being a rock star is a lot smaller than one expected”.
Lesson #13: ‘Perfection’ is your worst enemy
Yes, always aim to be great at what you do, but acknowledge that there’s no such thing as perfect information, perfect timing or perfect delivery. Perfection is extremely expensive: you’ll always need more time and more money to ‘get it right’, even if what you have is already good enough. Worse, if you’re constantly primed for perfection, you’re unlikely to take on unfamiliar projects, or projects that are risky. We grew over 15 years because we took calculated risks, and never because we aimed for perfection.
Lesson #14: Your best ideas can come from anywhere
B2B agencies need ideas the way humans need air. That’s why we have to stay open to ideas regardless of its source or the form it takes. (Our regular interaction with the coffee auntie on the 4th floor gave us the idea for 1-minute B2B videos on “How to explain data centres to your mother”). We need to temper our habit of judging and killing ideas before it’s had the chance to take root and branch off into other ideas. To paraphrase Anton Ego from the movie Ratatouille; “Not everyone can have great ideas, but great ideas can come from anywhere.”
Lesson #15: B2B is still about P2P
Even if the B2B agency business is about promoting enterprise tech, satellite engineering, food solutions and industrial applications, we never forget that at the heart of it, 100% of our clients, our employees, and end‐users and decision makers are people. We’ve grown beyond our expectations in the last decade and half, solely because of people who’ve engaged in the typically human activities of helping others, going the extra mile, working as a team, laughing, crying, complaining, commiserating but in the end just trusting each other to do what’s needed. And for that, we are thankful.
For the two founders, it’s been 15 years of frustration, inspiration, despair, exhilaration and – ultimately – fulfilment. Looking back, we wouldn’t change anything for the world. So here’s to the next 15.