Agency growth stories: TopLine on why the best business strategies require inbound and outbound

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The Future Factory interview Jamie Field to discuss why and how businesses can better adapt their strategies.

In their Agency Growth Stories series, The Future Factory interview some of the most interesting and successful agencies operating right now, to unpick and share what makes them so unique and the learnings that have fueled their growth.

This week The Future Factory spoke to Jamie Field, MD of TopLine Comms and TopLine Film about how they attract new clients to the business.

The 30-person digital PR and SEO agency know a thing, or two, about promoting their business online, but when it came to outbound lead generation to grow their business, they made a few mistakes along the way.

It’s rare to find an agency with such thorough inbound marketing activity. Tell us about your approach.

Well 60% of our new business pipeline is current clients. Our biggest source of other leads historically has been inbound. Our new business investments have been in content marketing, PPC, AdWords and SEO.

We offer search marketing as a service to our clients so we have the skills in-house to do it right for ourselves. But we know that the best new business strategy combines inbound with outbound.

What sort of level of spend do you put to your online marketing?

It varies. We might spend £5k a month on Adwords, but then at the moment we’re creating a blog post and we’re going to put about £3k of social advertising behind that. That’s paid search. Then there’s organic and there’s a lot that goes into that. The amount of link building that’s going on is huge. Everybody here has been trained in link building and they are highly motivated to get involved in our link building strategy. In three months we’ve quadrupled our inbounds leads for the video department.

Wow. But what about the quality of those leads? My assumption about inbound has always been that you get high volume but poor quality.

Yes it’s true that amongst the good we also get people who are low value or time wasters. But that can be said for all new business and marketing activity. You just need a really thorough process for qualifying them.

What kind of volume do you see from inbound?

The video department got 31 leads in July from inbound. Six qualified. This represents a decent month for us, but we launched a new website on a new domain in April, so our organic rankings took a battering (which was expected, but still hurt). We expect to see a real jump in inbound enquiries as they recover.

Who looks after the inbound? Because that must be quite a job.

Me! The idea is that we’ll get to the point where we’re handling five leads a day. But the process for any lead, if you’re doing it properly, is a full-time job.

You do outbound activity as well right?

It’s been a rocky road with outbound. There have been moments when I’ve thought it’s been the absolute road to success for us and will take us to the next level and other points where I just want to tear my hair out and thought “let’s play it safe and put all our energy back into inbound.” However, we know that the best new business strategy requires both.

Our first attempt at outbound was using a freelancer which didn’t work. We then worked with you guys (The Future Factory) which was the easiest and worked, but sustainability wise, we thought let’s try doing it ourselves. We hired two people, one for video and one for integrated.

Two full time hires?

Yeah two full time hires. It wasn’t a mistake, but it didn’t quite work out. Our proposition was too complex and we struggled to get the right mix of skills and attitude. We took no advice. Heather (our CEO) and I ran the interview process but we don’t know how to hire sales people or manage sales people, so that was a learning curve for us. We made mistakes throughout the process.

More recently we knew we would were going to experience a massive dip in search with the new website and rebrand and knew we’d want to buffer that with an outbound plan.

And that’s when you got back in touch with us!

Paying for some consultancy was the best thing that we did. We made a smallish investment in terms of you guys helping us, but hiring the wrong people can be very expensive. It’s also bad for morale, the recruitment process is lengthy, and it sucks the resources out of senior management. So understanding how to not only define our outbound strategy , develop a brief, work out what kind of person is going to fit in with us, what we need from someone, select the people, help us interview, onboard that person, and then mentor me to make sure that we are managing our sales team appropriately felt essential.

I have no experience in managing sales people and it is completely different to anyone else I manage, because everyone else in the company, I’ve done their jobs in the past. I’ve been a cameraman, I’ve been an editor, I’ve been a director, I’ve been a producer, all that kind of stuff, but I’ve never been a sales person. So that guidance has been amazing and it’s the only reason it’s worked so far.

We would have never even have interviewed some of the candiates if it wasn’t for The Future Factory. And also, I think making sure that our outbound strategy is realistic to begin with was vital. Like setting achievable KPIs.

I think just getting that kind of consulting, especially if you’re hiring a person for the first time, or if you’re small and hiring one person, you’re putting all of your eggs into one basket so it’s a bit of a scary decision, especially as they’re not the cheapest hire in terms of salary scale and commission.

And if the business has a financial gap that needs filling, if the hire is wrong, that’s a quarter or half of your year wasted.

Now you're six months in to having an in-house new business manager; how is it all going?

It’s definitely starting to work! I’m talking to people about strategy and long term objectives, rather than people coming to us saying they just want a video or a quick win, so it’s exciting.

What would be your one piece of advice for another agency owner?

It’s very easy to get emotional about things. It’s emotional running a business! Sometimes you get bad days or months where you haven’t done well at new business, and then other months where we close a shed load. It’s hard, it’s an emotional rollercoaster. But my advice is to always look at data. Because maybe it feels like things are really slow at the moment but if we actually look down historically over the last three years, August has always been slow and we’re actually up 20% on inbound leads, and if you look at our conversion rate, it’s improved, and then you look at our HR and retention is higher and productivity is better than ever, all that kind of stuff. So even if you’re feeling low, always look at the numbers.

Great advice! Very wise. And thank you for the kind words about our work with you!

We are genuinely delighted with the outcome. We run as a lean business, so we don’t just throw money out there. There are certain things we spend money on which are sensible, like SEO, pushing out social advertising, investments on staff, and investing in this. It made sense to focus on outbound and it’s paid off.

Regardless of who we hire, we now suddenly have an outbound strategy and a reporting process and we’ve got guides on how to do everything, so it feels like we’ve gone from not knowing what the hell we’re doing to now having a solid understanding of outbound. From a training standpoint it’s been invaluable.

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