Harnessing the Referral Power of Bigger Fish

If you’ve ever promoted yourself as freelance designer, copywriter, strategist, etc., you’re probably familiar with one way to get work from big agencies or design studios. You meet with the creative director and get on the list of people they use as subcontractors when one of their clients has a need they can’t address in house. The client will still be their client, and you’ll do the work at their direction.

But there’s also a second, less common, way to get work from a connection to a bigger agency. And this method may pay actually pay bigger dividends in the long run. You want to get them to send prospects directly to you, hopefully to become your clients.

Why would they do that? Who has prospective clients they can just give away?

It’s because small, less sophisticated clients don’t always understand how things work. They often operate under the assumption that the big organizations that they read about in the national business press — the ones that produce advertising or marketing campaigns for companies they look up to — also work with smaller clients. They don’t know what people in the industry know — that even in a down economy, larger agencies and studios have limits on how small an engagement they can accept. These limits may be lower than they were a year ago, but they’re still there.

Thanks to this misunderstanding, marketing people at big advertising agencies and design studios get a lot of calls from people that they really can’t work for.

These aren’t necessarily bad clients. They are just clients that aren’t appropriate for a big firm. In fact, the big firm people actually wish they could work with some them. Even if it’s an interesting business and great creative opportunity, however, the big firm people know that because of the way they are structured, and how much it costs them to deal with all of the administrative things that surround each client, they would lose their a## working with someone this size.

What happens to these inquiries? Well, the marketing person may be one of those rare individuals who gets a kick out of telling people who called offering to hire them to take a hike, without offering any guidance about where they might hike to. It’s more likely, however, that they maintain a list (either actual or mental) of other firms that they can recommend to prospects that fall below their minimum-size threshold.

Being on these lists has some serious benefits:

      • These recommendations are more valuable than someone finding your name in a directory, or via a search engine, because they come from a source that the prospect obviously thought enough of to call, which gives them added credibility.
      • The prospects are at least nominally pre-screened, because the big agency marketing person typically won’t hesitate to withhold recommendations from people that are obviously flakes.
      • And bottom line, you’re getting prospects that you didn’t have to expend any time or financial resources to acquire.

Here are some tips for creating and nurturing the kind of relationship that will give you a shot at these referrals:

      • Make sure you’re targeting the right person. As discussed above, you’re not interested in the HR department or the Creative Director. You want to get in front of the person who fields new business calls for the company. Their title will probably be Marketing Director or Director of Business Development. At some larger firms, there may also be marketing managers. If so, they may be more accessible and could be a good place to start.
      • Try and set up a meeting. The marketing person’s primary duties probably don’t include identifying small firms to dole work out to, which means that it’s unlikely that they do these meetings on a regular basis. Act accordingly by being creative. Use other contacts within the organization to get an introduction. Make a special effort to interact with marketing people at industry events. And when you ask for the meeting, offer to bring something. Not an iPod, that’s cheesy. Something like coffee, or cupcakes. Since they’re a marketing person, they’re probably used to ridicule and rejection from their designer and copywriter co-workers, so just being friendly may be enough to get you in.
      • Just like with marketing directly to prospects, highlight your specialty. Just because you got in the door to show your work doesn’t mean you’ll actually get on the list. The marketing person you are talking to has probably talked to other firms looking for referrals, and they may have a long list of firms to choose from when they are talking to a too-small prospect. This gives them the ability to refer the firm that they think is the best match for the client’s industry or the particular service they need. You may think that being perceived as a generalist will put you in a position to get the most referrals, but in reality, it will probably just relegate you to the bottom of the list, with all of the other generalists. Or, and this is almost as bad, the referrer may form their own opinion about where your focus is, and start sending you prospects that really aren’t a good fit.
      • Don’t try to go too far up the food chain. If you’re a three-person firm, you’ll probably have better luck getting referrals from a 20-person firm than a 200-person national agency. Marketing people are generally going err on the side of referring to a firm that is too big rather than too small, so you probably don’t want to be the smallest firm on their list. Of course, take this primarily as a recommendation about where to focus your initial efforts. Once you have made contacts at the firms one tier up from your own, feel free to move on to larger organizations. It may work, particularly if you have a very unique and well-defined specialty.
      • Take the long view. Remember, the person making the recommendation is putting a little bit of their own credibility on the line when they make a referral, so they may be pretty choosy about who they have on their list. Increase your chances by being patient and persistent. Stay in regular contact to keep them updated on your latest projects, especially those that reinforce their image of you as a specialist in a particular. When they do send someone your way, make sure you say thank you. And if it becomes a regular thing, or if you get some real work out of it, think about a fruit basket.

In a sense, this whole process is a little like a form of human search engine optimization. The big firms are the search engines, and you want your business to rank high in the results that they deliver to searchers. For this to happen, you need to load them up with high quality, focused content; make regular updates; and be patient.

Any experience (positive or negative) with this? Feel free to share in the comments.

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