The other night over dinner a good friend lamented his agency’s current lack of success at new business; seems for all their time and effort they’ve fallen into a frustrating streak where they’re always a bridesmaid, never the bride.
The ad agency business is increasingly fragmented and perpetually in flux. Client/Agency relations are more tenuous than ever. This is largely because consumers - and the marketing, messaging, and media methods addressing them - continue to evolve by technological leaps and bounds. It's simply tough to keep up, and of course this complicates new business. Ok, fine. But the winners are keeping up and they're doing so through ways to win that work time and time again.
I’ve directed new business in one role or another throughout my career; including as CMO at a wonderful agency that doubled in size in five years because we believed in each other and the ways of working outlined below. And while these lessons learned come from the ad agency arena, where there may well be more theatre (and there's certainly more drama), they apply to virtually any competitive new business model; particularly consultative services requiring speculative examples of the work to be performed.
Here then my rules of the road to what was once dubbed “the most fun you can have in advertising with your clothes on”.
1. Define and position your agency
Remarkably enough, the vast majority remain brutally undifferentiated
It’s all been said before/still being said: “Great creative, extraordinary digital and video content, brilliant people, dynamic planning, brand builders, media efficiency, mobile marketing, data analytics, multi-channel expertise, fully integrated, CRM, social media stewards, work that delivers results, blah, blah, blah…"
Success – just as with Clients – means you must become a destination brand with a uniquely true promise. And creating one requires knowing: who you are, what you believe, what you’re fighting for, how you’ll win, and what makes you different. (And if you're still at sea on who and what you are, you may well find this helpful How to Build a Dynamic Brand.)
Remember you’re selling a unified organization, an idea, a point-of-view. Not simply a collection of capabilities like the laundry list above
Once resolved, distill the definition to its essence and tell a consistent story throughout. A simple narrative that combines both rational and emotional appeal. (If you can’t tell your story in a relevant and compelling manner, why should anyone trust you to tell theirs?)
2. Approach new business vigorously
Make new business - that is, agency growth - everyone’s business; culturally, beginning with current Clients. This is an old saw, indeed, but obviously still operative as the single most critical agency way-of-working, and most recently cited as a key reason why by PHD, Ad Age's 2017 Media Agency of the Year
This means you and your teams accept and believe in final conversion as the very best measure of agency health, in effect, telling you all what’s working, and what’s not, agency-wide, and with some judicious assessment why. It would appear Anomaly's adopted something similar given their 44% jump in revenue and truly remarkable 14 for 14 record in new business on their way to becoming Ad Age's 2017 Agency of the Year
3. Be acutely aware of the prospect and their needs
Today’s CEO and CMO, much less all their teams, are under enormous pressure
Most seek immediate sales impact with a largely undistinguished, me-too product
Average CMO tenure has collapsed to something “less than 44 months”…
They may be more comfortable with hard than soft reality; and “creative” can take them all out on a limb
Finally, many brand teams cycle through on relatively brief, pre-determined schedules and often manage the brand, to its disadvantage, accordingly
4. Before you start selling, make sure you know what they’re really buying…
While this can vary widely, typically, at the end of the day, creativity + accountability = marketing
Creativity = applied imagination built from insight. To be clear, agency creative isn't just a department, it's an expertise and a uniform deliverable required across everything you do: all content, media, and analytics, whether traditional or digital, mobile, social or what have you
Accountability = metrics that prove the program works in market and can be further optimized through time. Everyone wants results and they clearly want to know how to both build on success and course correct for unforeseen events, or worse yet, short term failure
These are the two essentials most Clients simply can’t source internally - what they desperately need to acquire from you - and, with success, are willing to pay a premium for
5. Be selective
You’re not right for everybody, and everyone’s not right for you. Be honest with yourselves. It'll also help you be honest with your Clients
Establish clear criteria (category, creative, billings, etc.) based on who you are and where you are today and where you want to go; then stick to them and target and prospect aggressively
6. Create a state-of-the-art engine for the process
One that’s both efficient and makes the process easier for everyone in the agency
Break the process down into prospect-facing steps and form them into a chain with no weak links
Invest in business analytics; category and company research, prospecting tools, your credentials, making the RFP magnificent, doing the fieldwork, managing the logistics, pitch formats, etc.
7. Yes, every Client's problem is unique, but you'll likely see seven over and over
Like the seven narratives in all of literature, client problems invariably fall into predictable patterns, and are then amplified to crisis by pressure
Loss of market share
New competition with better performance
New competition with better pricing
Tired, irrelevant brand positioning
New product launch
A visionary need to look ahead because the Parent, the Board, or the Street “want to know where we’re headed”
8. Understand the real reason for the agency review
It’s rarely the one the prospects offer…lackluster staffing, bad campaign, withered relationship, buying time, “fresh thinking”, new sheriff in town, increasing pursuit of effectiveness and efficiency...
What's the real problem you’re solving for? What then are the implications across their organization, for the short/long term state of their business, for the future direction of the company and brand?
The accompanying key to knowing the real issues on their terms is determining with certainty exactly who the decision maker is early in the process. They will present a committee but there’s always only one or two that matter most – and not knowing who those folks are can be disastrous
9. Whatever the stated problem is, the context is complicated because Clients desperately want growth but they must create it while minimizing risk
These competing agendas will push and pull on one another throughout the pitch process – often in dramatic fashion
What they’re looking for at the outset is often prior experience in their category or on their issues
Then they judge creative merit and style, clear conflicts, and identify key personnel
Next they seek real original thinking, and want to know exactly who you’ll put on their business
The agency visit is key and all about chemistry. Do I like them? Do they “get it”? Can they add value?
Be sure to interview them when they interview you, not just the other way around. If you don’t ask seven smart questions during the agency visit it’s over no matter what they tell you. You only get one chance to make a good first impression...
10. Compete to win as a tight, focused team, or don’t bother
Do your homework – have a point of view, know more about their business issues than they do, this takes time but is often surprisingly easy
Secure and express a real, big, idea
Create the right team from the start. Don't parachute people in later. There is no “B” team. Less is more. The client needs to be able to focus. Legions of people look inefficient and expensive - not impressive. Five is fine; four is far better
Stay focused – don’t get distracted. You are not competing with Ogilvy; you’re competing against yourself
Pitching is dating - create as many contacts as you can and win each round.
The winning effect is entirely cumulative – and a single breakthrough can change the game, particularly if another suitor stumbles
11. So, how fast can you take your time?
In the end it’s the people in the room and the confidence and passion they exhibit for the big idea and the Client’s business…and the journey that gets you there
Have a theme, one big idea
Take complex issues and simplify them, demonstrate a logical flow
Remember your audience on the day is the Client – not their consumer
12. “The more you prepare the luckier you get”, or luck is the residue of desire
The final pitch is theatre. It is an argument. It is the art of selling. It is a story. A clear narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end, consistently inviting commentary and building to a climax
You must rehearse together, and then rehearse again, and then rehearse some more. Forgive the obvious but here as elsewhere practice makes perfect. Pretending this isn't so is simply foolish, a serious waste of precious time and energy, and all too often the difference between winning and losing
In rehearsals present to people who haven’t been involved to ensure clarity and anticipate every potential question and objection
13. What’s most important?
Does the decision hang on the promise of the Big Idea, the creative and the multi-channel programs expressing it…or the people making the presentation?
Each and every time, it’s the people in the room and their passion for the Client's business!
Do I trust these people? Do I like these people? Do they understand my business? Do they know things I don’t know? Will they make me successful? Do I want to spend time with these people?
Even when they test the spec creative work, historically, the vast majority of the work presented in the winning pitch never goes forward; it just doesn’t happen
14. When it’s your turn to defend, and it will be, smile and graciously decline
If the current work and effort is unacceptable then you are largely unacceptable
85% of incumbents lose in the finals. They’re invited to soothe the conscience of Clients but they’re mortally wounded from the start
Would you remain with someone who said they wanted to date around to see what else was out there?
15. One last, very important, word…
Clients buy confidence
Confidence is compelling and convincing in a way that nothing else is. You either have it or you don't; best be sure you do!