Bambi vs. Godzilla: how to work with very big clients

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There is no law that says small firms can only do business with other small firms. If you can get your foot in the door, working for Fortune 500 companies is the smart way to grow a profitable marketing firm.

This article is about one small company – my own business, Articulate Marketing – and how we have found ways to turn our size into a competitive advantage. We work with giants: Microsoft, HP, Symantec and NetJets. This is what we have learned:

Big is beautiful

Big companies are good clients. They do things that help small businesses. For example, they pay on time. They understand marketing so they brief well and don’t expect the impossible. If you have ever lost sleep over a small business CEO who wants you to take away all his marketing pain but can’t say what he wants (or pay for it), then you’ll know what I mean. (See Writers are from Mars, Clients are from Venus for more on this.) There are collateral benefits too. For example, big name clients add lustre to your own marketing. Also, you can learn a lot from working with true professionals in world-class companies.

Small companies can help

All my clients work with multinational advertising, marcomms and PR agencies. These guys have scale and consistency on their side. But they can be slow moving, bureaucratic and expensive. Without trying to replace them, small companies like Articulate can provide a more responsive service in niche areas; in our case copywriting and advice. Apply your marketing skills to your own business. Polish your expertise like a diamond so that everyone can see it the way you do. Conversely, don’t try to be all things to all people. An old editor of mine said, “You can’t be a good writer on every topic under the sun. Pick one field and be the very best.”

What they see is what they get

When you’re a small company, what your clients see is what they get. If you’re the person turning up for the pitch and you’re the person doing the work, there are no communications barriers. Fred Brooks’s book The Mythical Man-Month says that you don’t get more productive by adding more people; you just increase the amount of time wasted on communications. Understanding this point is central to outcompeting bigger rivals.

This time, it’s personal

It’s easy to see multinationals as impersonal monoliths. Wrong! To misquote Soylent Green, big companies are made of people. Try to see the world from their perspective. People in big company marketing departments are generally budget-rich but time poor. They like dealing with people who make their lives easier by delivering good quality work on time without lots of handholding. As with the rest of us, they like doing business with people they like. So your first objective is to make contact with individuals inside large corporations who can become your champion.

Making contact with the mothership

There are several ways to make first contact. You can go work for a big company and then leave to set up on your own. You can work for an agency that is already rostered either as a subcontractor or as an employee. In my case, I made initial contact with some clients during my days as a freelance technology journalist and with others by word of mouth, recommendation and when people move jobs. I have also had some success with invitation-only seminars. They give me a chance to share my expertise and begin a conversation. I recommend David Maister’s book, The Trusted Advisor, which is packed with insights about this approach to selling. See also my article 27 Proven Freelance Marketing Tips.

Be part of the family

Your objective is to get rostered. Once you are on the roster of approved suppliers, the nice people in the marketing department can give you work simply by raising a purchase order. You just need to concentrate on building a good relationship with them – see 11 Things to do at the Start of a New (Business) Relationship. Avoid the trap of subcontracting for a larger agency that is already rostered. It might seem like a simple solution to becoming a big company employee but it won’t do you any good. Agency subcontractors are the bottom of the food chain in the marketing industry. Every time we have been in this position, the agency has taken all the credit, marked up our prices and made our life hell. We still have the bruises and scars.

Getting past the purchasing department

In your quest to get rostered, your enemy is the purchasing department. They hate small companies. In their dreams, they only have to deal with one supplier and they get a 99% discount. In my experience, you need a powerful patron to strengthen your negotiating position with them. The more unique or specialist or niche your services, the harder it is for a purchasing department to haggle about prices or play you off against other providers. If you have to give a discount, try to do so on a pre-defined portion of your business, such as the first 10,000 words or the first campaign. Don’t give away your profit margin in perpetuity. Try to avoid giving a daily or hourly rate as this is easily negotiated away. We charge a fixed rate per word so that we can shift a negotiation onto the scope of the work rather than the price. For example, if a client wants a 10% discount, we suggest a 10% reduction in the length of the copy. If you can, make them sacrifice something they care about to get a discount. This is the hardest part of the relationship but it is also the time when your stock is highest with your new client. Know that you have leverage and that you can negotiate. You have my permission to say ‘no’ to a bad deal.

The downsides

Sometimes, big companies will behave like, well, big companies. The left hand doesn’t always know what the right hand is doing. Office politics sometimes gets in the way. Some projects will take months when you could do it yourself in a few days if you didn’t have to build a consensus first. Head office will kill projects at random. People will move jobs. They might get bored of you. You might get derostered arbitrarily. All these things have happened to us and we survived. You will too. (Check out Six Steps to a Stress-Free Career for instant counselling.) Remember that your loyalty is to the people you work with and that your job is to help them do their job without making life more difficult than it already is. Deal well with adversity and you’ll get more work. Nobody likes a cry-baby.

We live in the Jurassic Age of big business. Giant multinationals roam the plains while midmarket raptors feed on them, hoping to grow fat. But deep in the forest, small, intelligent, warm-blooded creatures are finding their niche and waiting for the asteroid. One day, you will inherit the Earth.

Picture credit: JD Hancock. This article originally appeared on MarketingProfs.

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4 Responses to Bambi vs. Godzilla: how to work with very big clients

  1. Will Fatherley January 23, 2013 at 1:04 pm #

    Great article Matthew, fascinating insight; as a small company delivering business improvement consultancy to predominantly large firms a lot of it rings true. I have found having a strong internal sponsor on our side is the best way to get things done for us.

    • Matthew Stibbe January 24, 2013 at 12:57 pm #

      Completely agree. An internal ‘sponsor’ or ‘patron’ (in my words) is essential. You can’t fight the machine from outside the machine. You need a Trojan horse.

  2. Eddy Carroll January 24, 2013 at 12:16 am #

    Excellent insights Matthew (as usual!)

    Our own experience dealing with some of the giant Telcos over the years is similar to what Will said — an internal champion is vital to making progress.

    Our biggest advantage has been that as a small company, we can tackle tasks too niche to interest our larger competitors (but which still represent significant revenue potential for us). And our biggest stumbling block has been purchase cycles so long that our champions are often been promoted or moved sideways before a final PO arrives.

    Alas, in the current climate, we find even the big guys are taking longer and longer to pay their bills…

    • Matthew Stibbe January 24, 2013 at 12:59 pm #

      Yes, when someone moves or leaves it can be very annoying. At the same time, our experience is that people often start working with us in their new post or at their new employer. Actually client staff turnover is kind of a marketing technique for us (not that we actually do anything to encourage it, obviously!). We’re very lucky in that our big clients are all very predictable prompt payers. Even the ones that take 45 days+ take the exact same amount of time each time which makes it predictable if not timely. (By the way, Eddy, good to hear from you again. Hope all is going well with Amulet and everything).

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