Advertising agency business development is a tough job. Statistics show that firms win about 25% of what they pitch. That means they lose approximately 75% and the BD pro is at the tip of that spear. I’ve never heard any prospect or search consultant in a postmortem say it was the business development person’s fault, but alas, they always shoulder the blame. And that’s the reason why the average tenure of a BD person is about 18 months although, the latest at Havas lasted only a couple of weeks.
For those with an iron stomach, steel nerves and the patience of Job, new business is the most exciting role at an agency. It is non-stop action, something new every day, hyper-competitive, strategic, cunning, gamesmanship, all in one day, and that’s before lunch. And, the rewards can be very lucrative. You are always meeting new people, learning new things, testing your skills against others, and applying the best the advertising world has to offer in the hopes of winning that next great client. It is a topsy-turvy world, and we love it.
Unfortunately, many BD people can be their own worst enemy. It is true that the most common reasons for a low win rate are other things at the agency; the account lead didn’t impress, the creative wasn’t right, the media was weak, the strategy was off, the owner was, well, you name it. After all, marketers come to agencies for their work, not the BD person. But still and despite all of this, BD people do have an integral role, and there are things that BD people do to let themselves down far more often than they should. From talking with colleagues, agency owners, and BD people, I've seen some common missteps that don't help these efforts. See if you agree.
You think you know
Too often I’ve been in meetings when the BD person starts talking about a market or a customer segment, or some such thing in broad generalities. They think they know the subject, but it quickly becomes evident that they only read the article synopsis or haven’t read beyond the first search result. They think they know enough to impress the prospect sitting across the table while the prospect is murmuring; tell me something I don’t know. BD people are notorious for being a mile wide and an inch deep. Marketers come to agencies to learn what they don’t know. Sure, there are some who really only want a parrot, but those aren’t the ones you want. Do your homework. And then really do your homework! You only get one chance to make a first impression. And little chance to change it later.
You don’t trust your gut
It may seem a bit contradictory to say trust your gut after the last paragraph, but there is a difference. Knowing the facts about the market or the product is one thing. Knowing how to put those facts together in unexpected ways is completely different, even if you are wrong. Borrowing from the last paragraph, marketers come for fresh insights, new ideas, and outside perspective. Once you’ve done your homework, take a shot, follow your gut, push past the discomfort of a new point of view. You are smart. You’ve got broad experience. Trust your gut. Read the tea leaves and share what you are thinking. At a minimum, it will start a discussion, right or wrong. At best, it will build credibility and confidence that your agency might have the guts to find a new solution.
You don’t take risks
You’ve heard the slogan. No pain, no gain. It’s true. Taking risks is painful when you are wrong. It’s also painful when you are right – that queasy feeling before you speak, that uncertainty of bombing on stage, the rejection of your peers. It’s all true. But no one ever got far avoiding risks. Remember to trust your gut but don’t think you know. Do your homework. Brainstorm with your team. Seek insight from people outside the business. Look for inspiration outside the category. Study the leaders, the icons, and award-winning solutions. Look at other countries and cultures. Take it all in and then take a risk with a new idea or a new approach. You might just surprise yourself, your team, and best of all, the prospect.
You don’t make a decision
It is classic agency behavior. No one will make a decision. It can always be better. There is another idea yet uncovered, more discussion to be had or more thinking to be done. While all this is going on, the clock never stops. The deadline is approaching, and the schedule is slipping. It is all interconnected and interdependent. Once the schedule is set, you have to call time. You have to move to the next step. You have to make the decisions that keep the process moving. The RFP due date can’t move. The capabilities presentation can’t be rescheduled. The pitch time is set. If you let the cascading effect of not making decisions eat away the schedule everyone loses. Regardless of who is responsible for the delay, you can’t allow the rest of the team to be short-changed. Get everyone to agree to the schedule and then together reach those critical decisions on time. If someone can’t make a decision, bring the person to help who is next in line and waiting to do their part. They’ll make a much better argument for making a decision.
You talk too much
Plato had it right, “Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.” Don’t be that person. The meeting or call is scheduled. It’s a dream client. The team, briefed and ready. You begin the conversation but don’t end. Too often our instinct is to be sure we cover everything, fill dead air, leave no stone unturned yet at this moment it is not the time to go on and on. Be stingy with your words. Let the subject experts make their case. Give the client ample time to express her thoughts. If you are dominating the call, it might as well be over. Make a note of the key points you must cover ahead of time and stick to it. If someone else forgets their point, remind them but don’t make it for them. Always remember, if you don’t talk too much the right people will.
You skip the process
We’ve all been guilty of cutting corners and skipping steps because of deadlines or budget, or many other factors. It is the nature of this business. But it has to be the exception and not the rule. The key steps of a business development process are necessary for many reasons, the most important of which is the rate of success. Skipping steps, leaving it dormant, jumping straight to the phone all hurt your results in the end. And when that end comes, no one will care if you were too busy, distracted, or forgetful. It is always better to execute less well than more poorly. Establish your process and stick to it, despite the pressures. And don’t be afraid to admit when it gets to be too much.
You don’t bank the future
There are the forest and the trees in business development. We typically race through the day chasing every opportunity we come across without knowing or thinking about what might be ahead in the forest. If a prospect replies they aren’t interested, our instinct is to say goodbye and move on. We too often forget to ask when that prospect might be exploring new resources or when their agency contract is up. If we did, we could bank that prospect for the future and develop a strategy to keep the agency top-of-mind when that time comes. Knowing what lies ahead allows us to use our creativity and cunning to make sure that when we do call again, they will know us, know our value, and be happy to take our call.
You don’t ask for help
You are not a superhero. Not asking for help is in fact, a weakness, a disadvantage, a new business killer. Not seeking input and support from people around the agency is undervaluing and underselling what the agency is and does. And, not asking for an outside objective or experienced perspective is not serving the agency in the best possible way. It seems ironic that this is one of the reasons clients hire agencies, for that outside perspective, but BD people so often think they can go it alone. In this uber-competitive environment, outside expertise is invaluable for every aspect of the agency, most importantly for new business.
You defend the bubble
The idea of living in a bubble is true with almost any group and especially with agencies. Maybe more. It can be a big problem when it comes to judging ideas or introspection after a pitch. I’ve been in postmortems where everyone bashed the client to avoid taking a cold hard look in the mirror. As a BD leader, your job is to get the best out of your agency, and you can’t do that unless you get outside of the bubble to take an objective view of what you did. Only then can you develop ways to get better, ways to do things differently, ways to avoid the problems and pitfalls that held you back. There are plenty of bad clients out there who make a bad decision about who is the best agency for the job. But there is plenty of things your agency can do to improve, but you may never see it unless you can get outside of their bubble rather than defending it.
And, you don’t follow up
The statistics always amaze me. According to a variety of sales research, it takes between 8 and 13 attempts to connect with a prospect, but the majority of BD people quit after two or three. I know their argument very well. I can’t spend all my time tracking down an unresponsive prospect when I have so much more to go after. That is self-defeating. It all boils down to executing the basics well. Manage your time by managing your prospect list, so you will have a chance to follow up appropriately. This business is hard enough. Leaving any opportunity on the table because you didn’t follow up should be a crime, a felony at that.
I’ve got a lot of advice on how to make your business development efforts more effective and would enjoy sharing what I know. If you like this post, click the thumbs up, so I’ll know, and then sign up for my new business newsletter. Find me on LinkedIn for daily tips, tricks, and insights. And, please share your new business advice, successes, and failures. #LetsGrow!