Advertising agency roles are often well defined, and the skills and experience for each are pretty specific. Typically, the larger the firm, the more specific each role is. The smaller the firm, the more likely each member will cover a variety of roles as needed. The one role that is the most amorphous is business development.
I asked a variety of agency owners and leaders who does business development for their agency. Over 44% replied that they did, 39% had a dedicated BD person, and 17% placed the responsibility in account management’s hands. I asked a variety of BD people where they came from, and 55% replied from an account management background, 20% from a strategy or planning background and less than 15% from a non-agency sales environment.
The reality is, less than 20% of the people who are responsible for growing the agency have had any professional training or credentials in business development. Granted, agency owners and former account people have lots of experience through on the job training, and many of them are very successful. But from an objective perspective, the vast majority of people responsible for the future of the agency are “accidental BD experts.”
It seems our industry has a rather laissez-faire attitude – anyone can do it. Moreover, we often pay attention to the role in fits and starts whenever an opportunity presents its self. To ease the guilt, we send our BD person du jour to the annual business development conference to help them improve. Don’t get me wrong. There are great conferences and training available, and I urge everyone to take advantage of them frequently.
My point is simply this. No wonder success rates are so low, and we have such a hard time growing. That is good news for the many business development resources that serve this industry. That is bad news for business development people who on average last less than two years. If you look at other B2B businesses, you will find a much higher value placed on sales and business development expertise. In most industries, training and professional development are inextricably linked to business success. Why not for us?
Despite the murky career path, there are many agencies that do an exceptional job of winning and growing clients. And, there are agency owners who place great value in their business development efforts, invest in talent and training, follow rigorous processes and practices such that their results stand out from the rest. I’ve heard win rates north of 75%. But for many others, it just isn’t so. And for most, the win rate is 10 – 20%.
The decision-making is often self-fulfilling. One agency owner told me, “I can only get 10 – 20% of the business I chase so why should I invest or divert any more resources. It just doesn’t pay off.” Contrast that with another agency principal who said, “I treat my business development team as the most important asset in my agency. Some years I only grow a few percent but other years I grow up to 30% and always search for ways to make that 30% happen more often.”
In this business, your clients are your most valuable assets. Without them, there is no tomorrow. But your next client will become your most valuable asset the day after tomorrow. In fact, new business IS the future of your agency. If you don’t invest in it as if it is your most important client and treat it with the attention, energy, and passion as if it is your favorite client you will struggle and dread new business more than any other aspect of your agency.
If you want to turn your agency new business effort into the best part of your agency, do these 9 things:
- Be the business development cheerleader. Inspiring the best from everyone, especially your BD leader. Never forget, BD is a team sport
- Measure BD activities every week, every quarter, every year and develop action plans together to improve every aspect of the process both within the BD’s responsibilities and across the agency. In case you forgot, BD is a team sport
- Keep your BD people focused. Make sure they have the time to do the important things and aren’t buried in meaningless work that no one else wants to do. BD leaders say that busy work is one of the top barriers to success
- Keep them growing professionally. Avail your BD leader of the resources, people, and data around the industry that can help improve their skills and their success, stay up to date on best practices, thought leadership and professional development. Professional development is at the top of a BD leader's wish list
- Hire, nurture and empower an experienced, trained business development professional or provide proper training for your next BD leader
- Dedicate agency leadership time to business development and do so consistently. Lack of leadership time and attention is a top frustration of BD people
- Make the time for reviews and postmortems, not only with the BD person and the pitch team but with others in the agency who are involved
- Educate the rest of the agency on business development goals, practices, challenges, and successes. Ask for feedback and ideas. Isolation is a common complaint of BD professionals
- Pay for workshops, training, seminars and networking events. There is no better way to revive and inspire your BD pro than to expose her/him to the world outside your agency bubble.
Most important of all, the average win rate for new business is 25% or less. That means your BD person loses 75% of the time. That is tough on anyone’s ego and so you need to give your reassurance and commitment often so they can get back in the ring and fight the good fight over and over again. #LetsGrow!
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