For agencies that want to work with smaller clients that may eventually turn into big spenders, the key is to get them through the door. At Rock Candy Media, a 10-person agency in Austin, the way to do that is to give away work for cheap — but not free.

Two months ago, the agency launched “Diet” RCM, a “lite” version of the company that offers digital marketing services for cheap. How it works: Normally, RCM will charge clients $150 an hour for work, with a minimum of 15 hours of work a month. Under the diet program, the agency will charge a flat $800 instead.

For that $800, clients get a certain campaign delivered. The agency had 12 people on the diet program two months ago. Six were converted into full-price clients after the first round. Clients can only opt for the stripped-down service twice.

Annie Liao Jones, founder of the company, said that RCM went retainer-only a couple of years ago. That means that instead of multiple agencies on the work, RCM will only work with clients if they’re the retained agency on the brand and will have specific deliverables assigned at every stage of the relationship. That was fine, but it didn’t let RCM work with smaller, newer companies and increase business development.

She got the idea from Dropbox and other companies that charge you a set amount for a small amount of product, with the goal of converting you to a full paying subscriber after a while. “I wanted to see what happened when you assigned flat rates to digital marketing as a way to on-board clients,” she said.

It’s an interesting potential solution for a couple of issues: As agencies get bigger, they often are stuck with larger, corporate clients. They pay the bills, but being able to work with small companies or startups creates a nice biz-dev pipeline for agencies — and sometimes even potential investment opportunities.

The second issue is that as agencies land less AOR work and more project work, “diet” programs could be a cheaper way to get clients through the door. One search consultant said this is the first time she is hearing of this kind of program. “But this could work even for larger networks that want to stay nimble and work with smaller clients that may turn into big projects,” she said. “This is especially helpful for agencies who want to work with startups who are often scared to invest too much in marketing.”

Jones said she found that smaller brands or startups were especially eager to try the diet plan. Often, they had the money to pay the full price but didn’t know if they wanted to. “It’s easier to get them in with a flat rate per month,” she said. “Once they see how well a Facebook campaign did, for example, they will convert. They have the money, but these are new advertisers who’ve never done marketing before.”

One of those companies was Austin Vape and Smoke, which isn’t allowed to run ads because of restrictions on advertising tobacco products. So the brand got on as a diet client. RCM went to Reddit and vape forums to talk about AVS, and the brand says it saw a 10 percent increase in store traffic.

Diet RCM has its own social media presence and its own website, which touts this as a “proven starter package” for businesses before they get big enough to become ones that need the “full RCM treatment.”

The diet approach also helps make inroads with companies that have big, in-house marketing teams. More companies are making in-house content a priority, thanks to the low costs of creating the content and the high volume they need to make. That puts agencies at a loss. But a diet approach helps them stealthily get back business without threatening the in-house teams.

“Diet RCM helps me with making sure in-house people don’t feel like we’re taking their jobs away,” said Jones. “I want to find a way to complement in-house marketing teams, not pose a threat to them.”

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