A little Empathy goes a long way: The new business secrets that turned a back of beyond agency into a multi-million dollar success story

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By Diane Young | Co-founder

July 10, 2013 | 5 min read

Recommended Agency Register director Diane Young shares more insight from the Mirren Conference in New York, where one digital agency shared the new business secrets that attracted Clarins, Nintendo, Adidas as clients on the way to multi-million dollar revenues.

Empathy Lab co-founder Kevin Labick

Ever heard of Conshohocken? No? It’s in Pennsylvania in what could probably be considered the back of beyond but definitely not as a centre of marketing.

Yet that’s where Kevin Labick has created, built and sold his digital agency Empathy Lab. Starting out in 2005 with a small severance package and zero clients, Kevin created a business that counts Clarins, Walgreens, Nintendo, Adidas and TJ Hughes as clients. In 2012 revenues had risen to $17m with a 20 per cent EBITDA and the business was snapped up by EPAM at a multiple that Kevin says is above average.

Kevin addressed the Mirren conference in New York along with his head of sales and director of lead generation to outline how they’ve achieved their success.

He explains that the setup of the business was driven by insights he and his partners had gained in their time in the industry and very specific responses to those insights.

Insight number 1. Digital agencies see sales as dirty and pedestrian and don’t embrace selling.

Action: Unabashedly embrace consultative selling across the team.

Insight number 2. Great sales absolve nearly everything. No matter what is going on, if you close deals you stay in business.

Action: Always be overpowered on sales and never take the foot off the gas. Get a lot of sales people and no matter how full your pipeline is, continue selling. You don’t have to take on all that you sell or you can grow.

Insight number 3. The digital industry is inherently arrogant.

Action: By all means adopt a swagger (you need to be confident to sell) but mix in some suffering and humility. To get past the mandatories of a pitch and do original thinking is what it is about but it hurts because it’s hard work. Show the client you’ve worked hard for them.

Insight number 4. Agencies separate the artists from the business people. This is a recipe for conflict and missed opportunities. It’s not just about creating good work. And some new business people don’t care about the quality of work.

Action: Expect everyone to own financial goals and client challenges. Make sure everyone understand hours, allocated costs, profitability. If work takes longer than expected, do it with open eyes. A benefit of this is that everyone in the business can take pride in pitching and winning.

Insight number 5. One-office firms tend to think regionally.

Action: Find friends with global reach and relationships that help you win business together. Provide value to your partners that ensures you get invited in.

Insight number 6. Commoditisation is inevitable.

Action: Create your own category, refuse to be generalist and get to be really good at the hard stuff. Don’t just follow what is hot. Differentiate with respect to categories (Empathy chose entertainment and retail). This helps to identify who to target, what to offer and reinforces magnetism as a specialist. Go into areas that other agencies find hard to go, then you can challenge the big networks.

As Kevin Labick has proved, a little empathy combined with some genuine sales-savvy can go a long way. It’s not where you’re from that matters; it’s where you’re going.

Also in the Mirren series:

How top agencies Huge, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, BBDO and McGarry Bowen tackle new business

The disintegration of integration - and five other observations about how agency models are changing

How to create explosive growth in an agency during a recession

Bad clients get bad work: Here's what good ones want from their agencies

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