Getting access to your first agency and brand customers, even for a trial, is a challenge a number of entities are trying to solve for startups through a range of solutions, including advisory and consulting services, VC, roundtables, open-innovation, events and software. I'll try to address a few of these below. Before you have a Chief Revenue Officer, if you have access to NY agencies, you are in an elite minority. It's one way select venture firms are differentiating their money from others: by providing access to these networks.
Before outlining resources, it’s worth framing the problem for a more empathetic and informed approach:
Agencies are margin-challenged, which translates into fewer people doing more work with less time. Since the Lehman debacle, large, global enterprises-the agency’s clients-have been challenged to find disruptive, double-digit growth and have resorted to delivering the necessary margins through efficiencies and cut costs with procurement strategies. Agencies and intermediaries of all kinds have been most impacted.
The agency team is stretched. They work three jobs: the clients they serve, the prospects they are pitching and the new business they are onboarding. If you receive initial interest from an agency executive and they don’t get back to you, it is likely you are dealing with new priorities hitting their plate. We see this as a “very busy person” challenge, not lack of interest or intent.
Scale favors simplicity. If running a TV spot is easy and spinning up digital solutions for that same campaign is complex (from web to social to mobile and email assets), imagine how much more effort is required to assess, define a test, sell-in the solution, negotiate contracts and measure the results of a startup campaign? Pro-tip: when you get an agency or brand opportunity, make it brain-dead simple to work with you, even if it means having to customize aspects of your solution.
So, you’re entering an environment where there is a high filter for scale solutions, This reality doesn’t favor an ad solution just starting to get traction with a niche or regional audience. It’s one of the reasons you’ll see people posting here and on media seller message boards about going client-direct. There are pros and cons you’ll find in these messages. You’ll have to make your own decision on what approach will work best for you long-term. Remember, this is a long-game in a tight-knit community, so avoid short-term tactics and bridge burning.
With that background, here are some tips and resources to help you get started:
Advisory--there are a number of angels on AngelList who come from agencies and will advise startups as well. You can audit the best of them and approach to advise and make connections. A good qualifier is if they have active Slideshare and Twitter accounts-it means they have influence beyond their agencies and are true thought-leaders. KITE has a list of Advisors on Twitter to get you started. Caveat emptor: there are some opportunistic bottom-dwellers who "advise" too many startups to add real value, and they extract equity for non-enduring value. My general rule: if someone approaches you to be an advisor, they're probably not for you.
Consultants-same caveat as above, but the best of them can actually parachute in for a quick stint as a CRO-in-residence to get you started.
VC connections-the most progressive, founder-friendly venture firms are developing corporate concierge services to bridge between startups and agencies and brands. These are firms that deploy management fees to support non-investment partners and tools to help their portfolio companies get engaged with customers. Here are some of the best-please add others you know of in the comments below:
First Round Capital
Union Square Ventures
Roundtables-there are informal and formal roundtables for discussing startups. For adtech, DMR (Digital Media Roundtable) run by Gayle Meyer has historically run calls with media pros from a number of agencies. Vivaki Ventures within the Publicis/Starcom universe is another excellent monthly roundtable call attended by 70+ agency executives in their network. If you’re trying to open doors at Omnicom, one word: Katelman (you’re welcome, Steve). IPG MediaLabs has a “Virtual Lab” solution that also assesses a broad range of adtech providers. You shouldn’t have to “pay to play” for these pitches. The value is created from the resulting deals and outcomes, not the access.
Agency Labs-A large holding company’s scale helps rationalize “innovation/labs” resources, space and activities. These labs exist both at the holding company level as mentioned above and within the discreet agency structures. A great example is London-based Ogilvy Labs, which serves the larger global Ogilvy organization within the WPP network. These linchpins are your people. They are open to new solutions and technologies and tasked with assessing fit for their broad portfolio of clients. They are also usually understaffed and have heavy travel schedules for educating clients, speaking at events and pitching business. KITE has a Twitter list of Labs to get you started.
Holding Company vs Independent Agency Pro-Tip: IMO, while holding companies have scale and dedicated resources for big wins, and any group committed to innovation has a bias for action, independent agencies frequently have hungrier clients and more streamlined structures for getting deals done. Sometimes a challenger is a better fit than an incumbent partner. This isn’t universal but a general observation that may mean an independent agency could be a great first-customer resource due to their size and risk profile.
Open-innovation-there’s a growing trend for enterprise companies to run their own “acceleration” programs aimed at quickly vetting, selecting and implementing programs with startups. I call it “acceleration” to differentiate them from actual “accelerator/incubator” programs such as those powered by TechStars or in-house such as Turner’s MediaCamp and Orange Fab. Below are a few current open innovation programs to track:
Events-There is no shortage of events available to pitch agencies and brands, but not all events are created equal. Events outperform other forms of marketing for a few distinct reasons:
Open aperture-a primary reason agency and brand executives attend events is to keep their knowledge and network current, so they are open to considering new partners and opportunities
Neutral territory-when people are “out of their caves” the power dynamic of turf is removed
Harder to say “no” in person
Connection moment-often the serendipity of your opportunity and a business need collide in a real way at events
Depending on your stage, some of the more intimate events like iMedia Agency and Brand summits, Digiday and OMMA events may be ideal for developing long-term relationships.
At KITE, we’re prioritizing theses tent-pole events in early 2015:
CES, Las Vegas, Jan 6-9-160,000 attendees. You’ll especially want to check out AppNation at CES where the brands will be taking a breather from main floor and talking Apps/Mobile
Mobile World Congress, Barcelona, March 2-5-80,000 attendees. Like CES but arguably a cooler city unless you love the Vegas vibe
SXSW, Austin March 13-17-30,000 attendees
Internet Week, NY, May 18-27-10,000 Attendees
Adtech, SF, May 20-21-10,000 Attendees
Cannes, France, June 21-27-12,000 attendees
Software-there are a growing suite of powerful tools helping companies navigate data and analytics over startups including DataFox, Mattermark, CB Insights and more. For enterprise, the challenge with these tools is that they don’t translate particularly well to how good of a fit startups might be for partnerships, nor which startups are looking for connections. As you can see by the length of this post, the process of startups connecting with corporate partners and for enterprise to filter to find startups is highly inefficient, labor-intensive and unscalable.
Since scale favors simplicity, the default is to optimize to existing tools and channels. We decided that “software needs to eat this problem” so we created KITE. That statement is not an advertisement. It’s a fact. Your question hit at the heart of what we do and why.
I hope you found this post helpful and also hope we can help you at scale via our platform to connect with your first customers.
Looking forward. We Rise Together. Cheers!
KITE CEO & Founder
Bonus resource-My Twitter list of Agency Folks: https://twitter.com/marksilva/lists/agencyfolk