In this week's episode of the podcast, I'm joined by John Higginson from the Higginson Strategy. We're discussing niching - but not just niching - laser focusing your niche and John will share how his agency has niched that has made it so much easier for them to win ideal clients.
We also discuss a unique marketing strategy that they're using that is resulting in them winning more business and why John believes that owner-managed agencies will always perform better than agencies that are sold off.
[01:01] Why broadening out your niche is a mistake
[01:25] How Higginson found their niche (in the plastic-free market)
[03:01] Concerns about being too niched
[03:39] Working with me gave John the confidence to be niched and win more business!
[04:39] What are the clear benefits of having such a clear niche?
[05:49] What advice would you give to someone who is scared to niche down?
[08:04] Were you able to increase your prices because of your niche?
[09:34] Do you look for staff that have experience in your niche? What are the core attributes you look for?
[10:53] Why did you launch your own magazine?
[14:22] An example of persistence in your marketing to win business
[15:19] The importance of taking a “value-first” approach in your marketing
[15:43] What does the future hold for the Higginson Strategy
[16:30] Why John never wants to sell his agency but rather build his own Self-Running Agency
[18:00] The reality of trying to sell a service-based business
[19:01] Why founder-led agencies are better agencies
[21:46] What advice would John give his younger self, just starting out in business?
“Receiving targeted inbound enquiries with clients saying ‘they want to work with you’ is a key benefit of having a clear niche” - John Higginson
"You don’t need to fear losing clients if you niche down (you can still win clients outside of your niche)" - John Higginson
"Everyone’s roadmap is their own roadmap - there is no right or wrong way to grow your agency" - John Higginson
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In this week's episode of the podcast, I'm joined by John Higginson from the Higginson Strategy. We're discussing niche, but not just niche, but laser focusing your niche. John will share what his agency has done and I'll also share a unique marketing strategy that they're using that is resulting in them winning more business and why John believes that owner-managed agencies will always perform better than agencies that are sold off. So, a fascinating, insightful episode and let's get on with the show. I'm Rob Da Costa, and this is The Agency Accelerator podcast as someone who has stood in your shoes, having started growing and selling my agency and just how it feels in the ups and downs of agency life. So, this podcast aims to ease your journey just a little by sharing mine and my guest experiences and advice as you navigate your way to growing a profitable, sustainable and enjoyable business.
Hey, everybody! And welcome to this week's Agency Accelerator podcast. Now, when I speak to many agency owners and they're telling me that they don't have a tonne of leads, one of the tendencies they have in the decisions they make is to broaden out their niche because they think that is going to be the right way to get more business when, in fact, the opposite can be true.
I'm excited today to be joined by one of our self-running agency members, John Higginson, from the Higginson's Strategy, who is a PR and comms agency based in London. What's interesting about the Higginson Strategy is that they have a niche right down, firstly focusing their agency on purpose-driven clients and then laser focusing their niche even further to focus on plastics. So, welcome to the podcast, John, can we just kick off things by telling us a little bit more about the plastic-free market space?
Thanks, Rob. So, the plastic-free marketplace that I found myself in really came from our first client. I've never thought to niche quite so specifically into plastic-free and I didn't think that you could essentially build a business on the back of that. But the first major client that we won, which was exactly where we wanted to be because they’re purpose-led. And they wanted us to do all the things we were good at, such as a few public affairs, lobbying for them, a bit of opinion writing, and lots of campaigning stories were a plastic planet. They were two wonderful women who had a great idea, but they didn't know what to do with it. They had taken this idea after holidays and seeing the plastic washing up on beaches in beautiful foreign places. And they said, we want to do something about this and the more they looked into it, the more that they realised that they were part of the problem and they wanted to create the campaign around it. And so, we took that and we built that whole campaign. And that first client, we used as a way of winning awards and doing our best work on the back of, and really from there, we attracted more and more clients in that area. And that was and when that first happened. I actually first started getting quite worried about that because I just thought I can't build a full agency on plastic-free clients as there's just not going to be enough and I need to be broader. And at that stage, I was kind of in a way trying to hide the fact that we were doing so much plastic-free stuff because I thought if we go to other clients that we want to win, they're not going to go with us because of that. And that's when I came to you and I said, “Look, this is a bit worrying for me because our niche’s so specific that I'm worried about winning other clients that we want to win,” and you really gave me that confidence that said, “No, carry on.”
It's good to have a niche and you know you will still do great work for other clients and they will see that, but if you have that specific niche, you'll win more and more clients in the area and you'll be able to charge at the right amount because those clients will respect the amount of expertise you've gained in that area. So, we're now five years in as our agency, five years in to really niche in that specific area, and I'd say about almost 50% of our revenue comes from that specific nation and the other half comes from others. As you say, purpose-led organisations where we can talk about their purpose, they don't mind the fact that we are in the anti-plastic or the plastic alternative space, and it's helped us win-win business.
Yes, that sort of leads me on to the next question, which is, What are the key benefits that you've seen of having such a clear niche?
One of the greatest ones for any agency owner, I think, is for a potential client to come to you, saying that they want to work with you, to save you, having to do a what is expensive in money and time or reaching out and doing competitive pitching and then coming to you and say, “We want to work with you,” “Can you write a proposal?” And at that stage, you're so much closer to winning. Then, when you're out there in the marketplace with everyone else looking for doing those competitive pictures, sometimes against eight or nine other agencies where you throw all your energy into it, in the hope of winning those clients there, and so that's been very helpful for us. And because we've got that expertise already, we've already got this huge head start.
That's such a piece of good advice. I hope the listeners will take all of that on board. And, as I say when you have a clear niche, you might have less potential clients, but the clients will find it so much easier to find you as you just highlighted. John, so, what advice would you give to an agency owner who's listening to this? And they're either not sure about their niche, or they are running this thought in their head that, “Oh my God, if I niche down, I will lose loads of clients and opportunities.”
It just doesn't happen if you're doing great work for clients who don't already sit in your niche, then those clients can carry on working with you, and it doesn't really matter if you niche down. And that was one of my first fears is that we had one or two other clients sit outside the niche as every agency does. Lots of agencies have people that you might have met, we meet people at the school gates, people that are friends with our children say, “I'm ahead of common. I want you to do work for us.” And those people are people that you meet through your own network and through other means. And you're not going to get them through that process and because they know you and they know that you do great work, you will still win those clients to carry on doing work with those clients. So, it isn't an either-or. You can keep niching down.
And our mission is really quite specific. Apart from when we're talking about purpose, which I talked about a lot, we are talking about a really kind of zoomed-in niche as it were because it's in the environment space, you've got lots of other comms agencies in your environment space, or there's a few of them. But around the world, I don't know of a single other agency that has a niche in plastic alternatives, and so, it puts us at a great advantage. We've also got a large number of clients outside of the UK, so we win business from around the world. We've got clients based in the US, Israel, Holland, and so. Although the plastic alternative space might seem small because we're the biggest agency in the world in this space, we actually are much bigger in that. And even though we're a boutique agency we’re only about 16 people now, two offices in London and Manchester, we have far more clients in other countries than most other small boutique agencies we have in the UK because of that niche that we've got.
That's great! And have you found that you've been able to increase your prices because you are seen as that specialist?
I think there's never any question about the, “we're not having to have those questions about the price that we have.” If there wasn't a clear differentiator and if it wasn't clear what our expertise was, so we're able to lift our prices as we should do with inflation as it is at 9% in the UK at the moment. For listeners in the UK, I know that the same problems are happening around the world. You have listeners around the world as well, and so because of that, we've all got problems with the kind of fight for talent at the moment. So, that means that not only is inflation at 10%, but staff salaries I feel are going up at a greater rate than that. So, we have to be able to raise salaries to keep that talent and that means we have to be able to raise those prices. And we have to be able to do it in a way that we don't fear, that we're gonna lose our clients because they can easily go to someone else who's doing exactly the same thing as us.
You really hit on another good point there when you're as special as you, then you're probably going to have stronger client retention than if you are a more generalist agency, where there are so many that the client can pick from. And when it comes to recruitment, do you look for employees that have an interest in this space or are you more thinking about, “Well, they've got to have good PR common skills. I can teach them the rest.” What's the most important factor for you?
Yeah, well, it would. It would really limit our ability to go for talent if we went out there looking for people that specifically knew about plastic alternatives because it's such a new nascent market that we wouldn't have to find the talent there. So, I'm still looking for people that are excellent common people, and excellent writers. All those other things advert we talk about are the fact that we're purpose-led, and we do find that that's actually an attractive thing, freshly attracting talent. So, it's more about talking about who we are and that talent wants to come to us quite often because they want to be working on doing good when we talk about the fact that we're working with clients that are making the world a better place that is doing good, and that's actually a benefit to us when reaching out to get the best talent. But for me, I want the people that are the best at the job and they learn their expertise on the job.
Great, cool. And I guess lots of millennials and so on really care about that whole environment thing. So, it's definitely going to work in your favour. Now, you have an interesting marketing strategy to build credibility for Higginson in that you have launched your own magazine called the Plastic Free Post. So, can you just tell us a bit about why you did that? And some of the benefits that you found from this initiative?
So, I know that you tell lots of your clients you've got to have a good email marketing strategy and take them on a journey and stuff. Now, I'm a former journalist, and I spent 15 years in journalism when I was very young. As a journalist, I set up a small local newspaper in South Africa, and I went through the various processes of being a journalist. So, for me, it was very natural to just think of something being a journal that people turn to think, “what is something that people are actually going to want?”
So, there's no publication out there actually in the plastic alternative space. So, I thought, just a simple weekly newsletter that goes out with the top five stories in the plastic-free space would be really useful for people, and I started that off. That goes out at eight o'clock every morning without fail on a Friday. It's signed off. Now, it will be landing in 1,500 people's inboxes at eight o'clock tomorrow morning. And it was about thinking, “Is everyone just going to click on that thing at the bottom saying unsubscribe, “I don't want this,” “Why are you sending me this thing?” So, I didn't know about that or if it’s going to be something that's genuinely useful. For the first nine months, we were just sending it out there and I was getting good feedback, and I was getting feedback from people saying, “Yes, I really like this, but it hadn't led to a single actual business win or anything like that.” And it wasn't until we got an email from someone in Germany saying, “We work in the plastic alternative space. We work in trying to close the loop on that plastics. We're here, a small startup in Germany that I would have never found myself, and we want to work with you.” And so, we are working with that organisation now and it took a very small step thing because they've been getting every week plastic-free post signed up to it. Everyone in the office had signed up to it. It took a very small step from them going from that to signing up as a client. They almost were kind of fighting our arm off already saying, “Where do we sign up?” “Can you work with us?” And so that’s been really useful.
The other thing that's been useful about it is connecting with stakeholders in the space. So, as well as sending out the top five stories every Friday, we will occasionally interview people in the space. So, that might be a politician, that’s into this issue, and that's useful for us in the work that we do across public affairs and then also we know a lot of the stories that are in the space as well because lots of them are our clients. We don't try not to be a look at what we've achieved for our client this week type things. So, to exercise editorial control over it, obviously, there's a factor in it, and I know that those stories are there as well, but we look across at the world's media and see if there are better stories out there as well.
There are a few things I just wanted to pick up on that because I think it's really an interesting strategy. First of all, and I say this so often, so it's worth reiterating because you just made the point that any decent marketing and selling strategy you're going to implement takes time to deliver results. And we live in a world where everybody wants instant gratification, so you have to be persistent, whether it be the Plastic-free Post that you said took nine months before, you kind of got any kind of business from it or running a podcast like this, that I'm in your three now, you have to keep at it. You have to be willing to keep going, even if you do feel like you're talking to nobody. And I certainly felt like that in the first year of this podcast and sounds like you did with the magazine as well. The second thing I wanted to pick up on is the fact that we have to build trust with people before they buy from you. So, this is a fantastic vehicle for you, John, to do that, “No, I can trust piece.” So, as you said, it was a small leap from someone reading that avidly to picking up the phone and working with you. And the third thing I wanted to say is that if we take a value-first approach in our marketing, we're going to do so much better than using our marketing to sell. And again, I think you've demonstrated that really well by making it a magazine. That's about the interest, the industry and something that you know that your audience is actually going to find useful. So 33 cheers for you on that one.
What's the future looking like for the Higginson strategy? What are your plans over the next few years?
Well, so in terms of financial growth, though we don't like to concentrate on that, it's always important. And agency owners, particularly, are kind of thinking about that. So, we've been doing well. We've been growing at about a third/year. I think it's 37% last year and were on form for about the same amount this year as well in terms of long term strategy.
Now, I know that lots of agency owners want to kind of build up something, and then they might get a bit tired out, and then want to sell. I particularly liked what you were talking about, the kind of self-running agency in the idea of building an agency that you never want to sell. And I'm kind of on that trajectory that I'd love to get to the point where essentially, I'm kind of wheeled out like the Queen and as a kind of figurehead. And but the company runs itself, and I can still feel like I'm important at the age of 80 is still being kind of brought along to two things. So, I haven't got those kinds of ambitions to sell, but equally, I'm not just thinking about let's just grow, grow and grow. I want to have an agency that is a great niche, and actually, it might get to a certain point where it's sitting at three million turnovers. And I say this is the point at which we stop and we actually keep getting better and better and more profitable at this size rather than kind of going into the abyss of the medium-sized agency with 50 employees and 100 employees, wherre kind of, I feel like there could be problems there. So, that's the kind of financial element of it I'd love to be. I'd love for us to be seen as a purpose-led agency or one of the top ones around the world in five years' time.
So, I love all of that. And obviously, you're singing off the same hymn sheet because we've been working together for a good few years. But I think a lot of people, especially in the early days, they get seduced by the idea of selling their agency, and it's a good stroke of their ego. But the reality is when you sell a service-based business, “what are you selling?” You know, your client books, your staff, your brand perhaps, but also you. So, I definitely feel like sometimes people throw the baby out of the bath water when actually, what they could do is turn it into a golden goose that lays the golden egg to mix all my metaphors there.
And I think the other thing I wanted to pick up on, which is a really important one is that everybody's roadmap is their own road map. There is no right or wrong way to do this. And so, you're being really perceptive by talking about getting to a certain size and then maximising profits rather than just thinking, “if I don't keep growing by 35% year on year, I'm failing,” which I think a lot of people do because they judge themselves against other agencies, which is not the best thing to do. Is that? No, it's not.
Yes, I think that's absolutely right, and find out what you want to do. But if you are thinking, “I want to sell,” then already you're kind of thinking I want out of here, and that's not really necessarily the right mindset to have. I think the kind of best mindset is to be thinking, “How can I really be making the best product for my clients?” And I always I think, the reason I've kind of read a lot and seen a lot on how founder-led companies of all kinds are actually more profitable and better businesses. And you get lots of investors there around the world that will invest in companies like Tesla. That's got Elon Musk at the helm of it, or Microsoft or any of those other huge great companies that are really successful. Apple is another great example, and its founder-led. And what are the reasons why founder-led businesses do better than businesses being sold off that run by others? And it's often because the founders really passionately care about what they do when clients come to me as well.
I look at that money and I think, would I feel like I'm getting value for money for this, for this work I’ve done, and on those kinds of occasions that can happen. We say we didn't do as good a job as we could have done. Then for me, what really matters, and I'm not sure that always matters as much in businesses not found a run. My name is on the company header, literally, in my instance. And so it matters if we put out a press release that I don't think is the best possible press release that could be got from that story. Then I feel like I failed and I get back down to the bottom. And I know that in some communications agencies, they don't care that much. Sometimes, the press releases are done by someone junior, no one senior really looks at it. And then that affects the whole delivery of the whole thing because the journalist gets a press release that isn't very well written, they're less likely to run it. The actual client gets worse results for their money. And I think if you're the founder, you keep going from each area of the business from one to the other looking at, “How can we do a better job here?” “How are we not doing as good a job as we can?” And so that's why it's far better actually to be as a founder, wanting to stay in your company forever, as it were because you're always going to be looking for those holes and looking for things saying, “How can we do this better? Why is my name attached to this work?”
Yeah, so perceptive. And of course, I think over time the founder's role changes as you try to extricate yourself more from the day to day work. Then you're focusing on some of those other things that you've mentioned. So, I think that's a really good point to make. Now, let me just ask you the question that I ask all of my guests before we wrap this up, which is, if you could go back in time and give the younger John just starting out in business a piece of advice. What would it be?
Don't be afraid to niche early, and I've probably given you the exact thing that you wanted me to say. But I think it is a very good piece of advice there because the thing that I always look at is, as a comms agency or marketing agency, there is such a low point eventually because you don't need to call it. You don't even need to qualify in anything at all. So, every single journalist who's put out of work the next day is a PR professional. You know, the next day you can go out there saying I can do your PR So you're up against thousands and thousands of people and you're up against new people every day and some people come in and they come out. So, in order to really set yourself apart, getting that expertise in a certain area where you can say the point of entry becomes much harder here because that person who has suddenly just been made redundant or that person who's decided, “I'm now a marketing expert, I'm going to set up a marketing agency.” They are no longer your competition, and so you can really put yourself apart and not be frightened to do that.
I wasn't fishing for you to say that, but it is a great segue into sort of going the full circle in this episode. That's so interesting. I really appreciate some of the great insights, you said. If people want to find out more about you and Higginson strategy and everything else, where would they go?
Go to www.higginsonstrategy.com, and I can't believe I just said www. because it's really not needed anymore. So, I just recently relaunched our website and the guys said, “No, you don't need the www anymore.”
Anyway, I'll put the link into today's show notes, and I just want to say, Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with the audience today. I know that they're going to find this one really insightful and say, Thank you for joining us.