New clients are essential for ad agency success. What are the best qualities of a person who can successfully match a good client with a deserving agency? How can you spot that future superstar, the one you can keep, grow and mentor? What does it take for her or him to be successful year after year and keep the agency growing client after client?
I recently surveyed a broad and diverse group of ad agency business development professionals. I have also met many who haven’t been successful in the role and heard about even more from agency owners. My experience shows 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, can persevere and pivot, and pivot back, all while establishing trust and collegiality in a natural, efficacious way.
That person has to know how clients think (not always logical), how they think about agencies (not always good), what they think they need from an agency (not always right) and what criteria they use to evaluate your services (not always smart). Above all, they must be iron-willed to persevere rejection, disappointment, and failure – in between the big wins. And, with perseverance comes the courage to know when to cut your losses and move on.
In my experience, the best business development people are detectives, opportunistic, relationship builders, persistent, and strategic, all while being confident and genuine. If you are considering a BD person for your agency or promoting someone from within, be sure to consider these qualities to ensure that you won’t be looking for someone else in eighteen months.
Why? Why not? Who? How? But. Isn’t? It is the language of business development. The differences from one client to the next can be huge, which is why a BD person must be able to listen more than they talk and ask provocative questions that push beyond the first answer to get to the real challenges and unearth the insights that make the difference between winning and not. The best BD person thinks like a detective, asking probing questions that allow them to explore the clients’ minds. It is human nature not to expose our ignorance however by doing so in a tactful way always uncovers deeper insights that help position your offering in a way that solves their problems. Does your candidate listen more than they speak?
The same is true when searching for new prospects. Probing the marketplace, the press, social channels, friends, colleagues and partners with a detective mindset ensures that opportunities are genuine and not merely superficial. Prospects can sometimes be shrewd and manipulative, painting a picture of opportunity that doesn’t always pan out. A good detective will be able to separate the real from the rest to avoid wasting time on dead ends.
The knack for thinking on your feet, spotting an opportunity and adapting quickly is critically important in today’s environment. Making a plan is important. Working the plan is essential. But having the courage and intuition to pivot where the opportunity exists is golden. You can always get back to the plan, but opportunities arise and fade before most people can react. And, knowing when to let go is equally as important. If the opportunity isn’t going to pay off, pivoting back without losing focus or spirit will keep the momentum going forward. Being able to spot the opportunity and react is a rare quality that is surprisingly successful. Does your candidate get frustrated when they have to deviate from a plan?
Relationship building is one of the best-known qualities for business development. Exploring a candidate’s network is a great indication of suitability. We all know the theory of six degrees of separation. Today, with all the methods of connecting, it is more likely to be three degrees apart. An extensive network of relationships and the ability to maintain those relationships will pay off time and time again. Someone who can find people who know people, who know industries, who know solutions or innovations can make all the difference. Is your candidate a natural relationship builder?
Building and nurturing relationships are also essential within the agency. New business is a fast-paced team endeavor. It requires a wide group of people to contribute beyond their normal duties and to do so with creativity and inspiration in an often chaotic environment. The better the internal relationships, the more effective he or she can be at bringing colleagues from across the agency to task. These same people have experienced the agony of defeat from past pitches making it even more important to nurture strong relationships that bring out the best in the whole team, time after time.
Persistence is another critical trait for business development. It is too easy to give up when prospects don't respond or "go dark" yet that is the prospect’s behavior all too often. Statistics show that you have to make 8 – 18 attempts before getting through. Giving up at number seven might miss out on a big opportunity. Selling is a process and often a long and frustrating one. The bigger the client, the longer the process might take. The risk is bigger, but so is the reward. Without persistent to hang in over the long haul, you’ll have to churn through so many opportunities to find one that responds that quickly. Business development is both a marathon and a sprint. You have to take the time to do it right or the frustration will choke you. Does your candidate have a half empty or half full attitude?
To have meaningful conversations a BD person must first understand the industry, the market and what the client is looking for to have credibility while being able to position the agency, armed with the facts that will really sell your services. Being strategic means knowing how to go about choosing an opportunity. Just because it is within reach, doesn’t mean it is good. Understanding the fundamentals of the agency business, the customer's business and the competitor’s offering are critical to making winning decisions. Being able to assess an opportunity for its potential value, and understanding the trade-offs and risks are core qualities as well. Does your candidate act strategically or emotionally?
Above all, be yourself
I’ve seen many aspiring BD people try too hard to be someone they aren’t. They try to sound smart. They try to be empathetic. They try too hard to close the sale, and that relegates the relationship to the worse kind of salesmanship. In truth, new business isn't about the BD pro. It’s about the customer, their needs and their time frame. Despite many off-putting qualities, prospects are people first. To engage, connect, and build trusting relationships, BD people have to be comfortable and confident in being themselves.
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 with these qualities 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 are committed to long-term growth. Make sure that BD person is someone with the right qualities to succeed. #LetsGrow!
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