Business development is the toughest job in advertising and no wonder it is the shortest. On average, a BD person lasts about 18 months. The challenge of marshaling all agency resources to a pitched frenzy in between the daily client demands is no easy task. The insane deadlines to turn around a pitch or RFP that should normally take months is high stress. While the average success rate is only 1 in 4, a real confidence killer. Who would want to do such work? Better yet, if you found someone who does, why give up on them so easily?
I’ve been fired, reorganized out, earned too much commission, a casualty of market collapses and even the victim of the CEO’s mistress. In most cases, it’s very hard to understand except in the case of the CEO’s lust. If a small to mid-size agency, on average, loses three accounts or projects each year (that average is increasing as a result of the accelerated change across the industry) they have to gain three to stay merely even. If an agency wants to grow, they have to have a focused, aggressive effort in place to simply beat the odds. But so often, just as things get started, they fire their BD person.
I’ve had lots of conversation about this, and the reasons are pretty common. First, the pool of good candidates is actually very small. Just ask the recruiters. The people who “say” they can or who have some “sales” experience is quite large. Finding a good fit for the unique nature of an agency BD person is really really tough. Second, creating a good environment for a business development person to be successful is so often misunderstood, misinformed, or missed altogether. Finally, expectations are often not aligned with the realities of how agency new business happens. Think about any position within your agency and how any other staff would fare under these conditions – ill-equipped, unsupported and misaligned expectations. It is no wonder BD people don’t last
First, you have to find the right person.
There are abundant opinions about the best qualities of an ad agency business development person. A hunter? A farmer? A hunter- farmer? None of the above? What are the best qualities of a person who can successfully match a good client with a deserving agency like yours? It is someone who can strategically communicate what you do, can uncover the prospect’s real needs and then translate your services into the best solution, all while establishing trust and collegiality. To be successful that person has to know how clients think, how they think about agencies (not always good), what they think they need from an agency and how they evaluate such services in the context of their role in the corporate world. Above all, they must be iron-willed to preserver rejection, disappointment, and failure – in between the wins.
I’ve seen agency owners fall for someone who is good at making cold calls (something every agency owner hates), is great at starting a conversation with anybody and is effervescent at a meeting. Too seldom do they focus on whether that person has the right qualities to close business. I’ve also seen great account directors cast in the role and quickly become demoralized and dispirited. Talking to strangers and carrying a conversation are a good start but far short of the skills necessary to move from talk to action. The best BD people can develop a respectful relationship, build agency brand value and differentiation before a conversation is even had. A great BD person makes it look effortless – which is why so “accidental” BD people think they can do it.
Home security systems and used car warranties are best sold by cold calling. The most current statistics affirm this. Long term business building relationships require a much different approach that reflects the changing behaviors of the very people you seek to connect with and the trends of the empowered consumer. You are not in a commodity business. You aren’t selling hourly services. You are selling what your people, your strategy and your expertise can do to solve a market’s needs. Sadly too many agencies try to take shortcuts like grabbing phone numbers from gigantic databases of marketing executives that every other desperate agency subscribes to, too. Believe me. I know that feeding frenzy all to well.
Second, you have to provide the right support.
I am surprised by the number of agencies who say they want to but are not prepared to grow. Agency new business is a team effort, and when you aren’t set up internally to handle the process or don’t have a process at all, you will not succeed. As an agency owner, you have to know when to get involved and when to step back. A good BD person will free up your time but also knows when to bring you into the mix to help develop a strategy or close a new client. The key is to have a well-defined process in place so that your time isn’t wasted on unqualified prospects or micromanaging every lead. Your BD person will know when to keep moving the prospect further down the funnel and when to call in the cavalry. When agencies look to cheat the process by generating volumes of leads, the time burden on the owner and all the resources in the agency becomes extreme, disruptive and puts your employees and current clients at great risk.
Many agencies say they want to grow and do a good job getting the effort rolling but fail in the follow through. Again, the agency is not committed to growing – no teamwork, no training, no optimization, no introspection. To be successful, the BD person must be an integral part of the agency, tied into the project management system, financial health and culture. He or she should be included in happy hour, agency retreats, team building efforts and production meetings. They must be aware how busy the agency is, and whether or not to ramp up or down the process. And they should share the new business activity with the whole agency, so everyone knows what projects are coming down the pike.
Third, you have to set the right expectations.
So often the expectations are wrong from the start. Agency owners want immediate impact. But it doesn’t happen overnight. The average client-agency relationship is three years. That is a long sales cycle. Sure, there are clients in the market right now looking for help. Finding them, warming them up and building trust that enables a new business win is a long process. My last cold caller hadn’t scored a win in 18 months. There is that magic number. The odds of catching someone with a need and willingness to talk from a chance interaction is greater than being hit by lightning. Success comes from the right person working a proper strategy so that when a need arises that marketer already knows you, knows what you offer and will be more likely open to the conversation.
Don’t fire your BD person.
As the agency owner, you are always going to be the chief growth officer and you should be spending a reasonable portion of your time making sure your agency is on track. Hiring a good BD person can be a force-multiplier by channeling your vision, working a consistent pipeline and developing relationships that result in more new clients coming over time – but only if you make sure you are committed to long-term growth. Of course, there are always going to be legitimate reasons to fire new biz people. Too often agency owners do so for the wrong reasons, and that is costing them success.
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