Referral Indie Agencies Agencies

To avoid pitching, this agency runs almost exclusively on referrals

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By Sam Bradley, Senior Reporter

October 9, 2023 | 9 min read

As we continue our series on how agencies are reinventing the pitch, we learn how boutique agency Verb has used referrals to grow its client book.

Shannon Jones and Yadira Harrison

Verb co-founders Shannon Jones and Yadira Harrison say relying on referrals can give agencies an aura of exclusivity / Verb

Client referrals can provide agencies with a way around the costly pitching process. But turning a friendly recommendation into a fully-fledged appointment by a new client isn’t easy.

For creative agency Verb, led by co-founders Shannon Jones and Yadira Harrison, almost every new client comes in through a referral. Harrison says the method helps the agency select the right clients for its business.

“We start with their vibe,” she explains. “We want to make sure we’re working with the right people. And once you’ve decided you like somebody, you make a relationship, and you talk brief and budget.”

In the event that those don’t align, she says, then it gives Verb an early exit door.

When they do, Harrison and Jones aim to meet with the brand. “We’ve found tremendous value in having a one-on-one with the person that had referred us or was receiving the referral to understand the challenges they’re up against – who are the deciders, who are the de-railers. Finding out why they’re looking for a new partner because that context is super helpful. Getting a lay of the land to set ourselves up for success.”

Some clients jump on board after the full introduction, while others use RFPs as further tests. And because the agency does mainly project-based work, small gigs also give it an opportunity to prove itself to larger clients.

Reaching out beyond the person who initially recommended Verb is an important step in deepening that relationship with a new client – doing so means the account isn’t subject to a single decision-maker’s patronage.

Harrison says success in that regard rests on the team’s “unmatchable vibes.”

“We’re down to earth. We’re responsible, we’re accountable. We’re direct. We don’t let balls drop. We make sure that we let everybody know that we are here to work with you and collaborate. People feel that from our whole team,” she says. “We have people who’ve been on the brand side. We understand their fights, the challenges, the politics they’re going through.”

To make that process go smoother (and not rely wholly on individual charisma), Verb assigns a “buddy” from the agency to their counterpart on a brand’s team. “It ensures the project manager, or whoever’s the client lead, feels they have a partner they can go to for anything. It’s proven effective, ensuring people feel like they have a go-to resource.”

Procurement departments are one area Jones and Harrison want to build more relationships with, especially given the increasing level of involvement such teams have with marketing investments. They recently picked up a new project via a recommendation from a client’s procurement team. “Especially the much larger companies like those multibillion-dollar brands, that procurement and sourcing is such a huge component of their marketing division,” says Jones.

Relying on referrals as a channel for new business has allowed Harrison and Jones to pull in clients that had previously got away. One sports brand – the pair declined to reveal its name due to ongoing contract negotiations – ended up hiring the company four years after their initial meeting.

“They were a referral back in 2019,” explains Jones. “It didn’t work out at the time. But we’d been in touch over the years and recently reached out to reconnect, which proved to be really fruitful.”

“We’ve had three new projects in the last couple of weeks just from getting back in touch with previous referrals that hadn’t moved forward. That’s been a big lesson for us,” she adds.

To date, Verb hasn’t created a formal process for asking past clients to refer them. According to the founders, every recommendation they’ve had has come from their former clients without prompt. “There’s some social currency to it,” says Jones. “But you don’t want it to feel like it’s too exclusive.”

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“We have never asked for a referral,” says Harrison. “It’s something we’ve been thinking about. We can’t necessarily continue to do that. We’re very proactive in keeping up relationships, but when a project ends, for us it just ends. We are thinking about it – it would probably be a good next step.”

One potential downside of referrals is the time taken to establish initial relationships. Jones says that because Verb uses flat project fees and value-based pricing, it’s not fully clear how much time spent on outreach costs the business.

“We definitely over-index in the beginning,” she says. “We find it beneficial later… doing that due diligence, understanding who the deciders are, some of the nuances.”

It’s an area in which the value of fame becomes apparent. Having its work make a mark in the press and public eye – Verb’s work on Airbnb’s Barbie Dreamhouse activation earlier this year generated several new leads – helps expedite the introduction process.

“Having work in the headlines creates a shortcut. When we’re top of mind, it’s very easy for someone in a meeting to say, ‘This is what they did for Barbie. Sold – I’ll take it.’ That creates a dynamic shift,” says Jones.

The amount of time required at the beginning of the relationship can depend on the identity of the referee. “It depends on what level we come in at the organization. One CMO to another is very different to a brand manager or someone on the junior side,” says Jones.

Another potential downside is that the referral method centralizes much of the agency’s new business outreach upon Harrison and Jones as founders, figureheads and frontwomen – when they’re also supposed to be running the business

That can be a disadvantage, but the pair have been encouraging staffers to get into positions that might generate further referrals – especially within large multinational clients, which might have several distinct marketing units available to sell to.

“On the brand experience side, they’re often they’re often spending a lot of time on site with clients, whether it’s on set or during an activation. We joke around that we don’t want them looking for us – there has to be a point where our leads can do that,” says Jones.

Harrison adds: “They’re building relationships on the client side, they’re building something. That’s what we want to be known for – that we are great people that they can go to for anything.”

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