OP-ED: Entering a new market takes total, lasting commitment

Recently our agency, Waggener Edstrom, has undertaken two regional expansion efforts. Two years ago, we entered the metro New York market, and just last month we announced the establishment of a new Boston office.

Recently our agency, Waggener Edstrom, has undertaken two regional expansion efforts. Two years ago, we entered the metro New York market, and just last month we announced the establishment of a new Boston office.

These efforts have shown us that getting a foot in the door of a new region's corporate community can be one of the most daunting activities for any firm, as well as the most rewarding. In planning and executing a regional expansion strategy, there are several things a smart agency can do to mitigate the challenges of cracking into that new market, and put itself in a better position to achieve great results. It may sound elementary, but before any expansion effort is undertaken, the firm must be sure it is fully committed, at the highest levels, to growing business in that area. One of the worst scenarios is to enter a new market and then pull out before building a presence and giving your investment the chance to pay off, but it's surprising how often this happens. Make the long-term commitment before any moves are made. To this end, an established agency "champion" should be identified to launch, build, and advocate for the new office. But beware: asking an executive to build a new office in an unfamiliar region can add new challenges to an already difficult equation. Think about bringing in a local leader who is well connected in the market, who can partner with your agency champion and build a foundation for success. The internal executive will bring the firm's culture and values to the new region, and the regional expert will add intimate knowledge of the market - the key influencers, the economic conditions, the talent pool, the competitive landscape, and all other factors that are important to building a successful business. Even with a solid leadership team in place, the new office will have a hard time if there is not a clear plan and goal for landing business in the region. At this point, it is crucial to stay true to your business plan. Deviation from your goals can cause the effort to become less focused, and ultimately less effective. Identify the market segments or local corporations to be pursued, and learn as much as you can about those companies, their leaders and business objectives. Once you know your prospects' business - their challenges, leaders, culture, competitors, coverage picture, any perceptual issues - you can begin to offer insight based on your experience. Give prospects a taste of your thinking, and try to add value for them where possible. A quick note or e-mail that offers a fresh, actionable point of view will be much more effective than a generalized solicitation, no matter how well produced. Networking is one of the most critical elements to success in any business. It's also important to understand the community and to be a good corporate citizen, especially when trying to carve a niche into a new market. Try to actively participate in professional organizations or work with local charities or universities. Encourage the new office's employees to do so as well. Getting out there and participating with local groups and events will demonstrate the firm's support for the region, help build a database of new business prospects, and can even help the profession by helping future PR pros gain valuable real-world insight. With all your networking efforts, it's not about being showy or too "salesy." It's being a good conversationalist, a great listener, and knowing when it's appropriate to "ask for the business." It's about being helpful, without expecting anything in return. From a pure business perspective, sometimes this approach pays off and sometimes it doesn't. It may not be the next day, the next month, or even the next year. The payoff may come ten years down the road, when someone who is by now an old friend calls to ask you for your help. Again, commitment to the long-term approach is the only way this can happen. After a client base is established, the team and its reputation will be critical to expanding that revenue. The team will most likely be small at first, and team members will need to wear many hats. You'll want your hires to provide phenomenal client service, work well with the media, network effectively, participate in industry and community opportunities, and represent the firm professionally at all times. Attitude is also important. In a small office there will be glitches. It's helpful to have someone who understands that there will be little frustrations to overcome. That person should embrace the entrepreneurial spirit and appreciate those struggles, knowing there's something bigger and more exciting down the line.
  • Keith Lindenburg is an SVP at Waggener Edstrom and GM of the agency's Eastern region.

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