You just fired your last BD person. You are ready to hire your first BD person. Everyone in your agency is a BD person. No one in your agency is a BD person. Agencies do business development in a variety of ways. Big agencies have big teams. Small agencies have the founder. Medium agencies have a variety of solutions. In every case, the BD team is always in the crosshairs when new business calls. But do they really matter when it comes to winning?
If you are a BD person, you will say yes, of course, I matter. If you are any agency owner, you will say, well, yes when it comes to losing and no when it comes to winning. If you are a search consultant, you will say, not really. If you are a prospective client, you will say no. The point, there is a lot of different opinions about the role and responsibilities of a BD person and a great deal of misunderstanding about the impact a BD person has on the agency’s new business success.
There are a few factors to think about when considering a new business person’s role. They have the primary responsibility of finding new opportunities and setting the agency up to win. Granted there is a lot that goes into that, and talent and expertise play a significant factor in the success of that person. Even though most BD people are judged on whether the agency wins or not, the BD person actually has less to do with actually winning. It is the agency that the prospect is considering, and the representative people will collectively or individually win or lose, not the BD person.
I’ve done a lot of postmortems for agencies after a pitch, and I have never heard a lost prospect say anything negative about the BD person, let alone blame them for the loss. In many cases the BD person gets compliments, and in some cases, I’ve heard disappointment that the BD person wouldn’t remain on their proposed team. What I do hear are things like the creative was weak, the strategy wasn’t right, the other agency did more, the other agency has more category experience, had better ideas, and so on. None of those are the responsibility of the BD person.
And yet, so often the BD person is blamed. Maybe not directly but many agency leaders don’t want to take responsibility, either. I hear things like; it wasn’t a good fit, that marketing exec was an idiot, they wouldn’t know a great idea if it poked them in the eye, we need someone who can find us prospects who appreciate what we do. And with that, the downward spiral begins or worse; they fire the BD person because they lost or they keep losing.
According to my research, the top factors that agencies report for losing new business are clear, and none of them include the BD person.
Now don’t get me wrong. There are bad BD people, some of which I see turn up again and again. I guess they are good at selling themselves. But too many good BD people become the sacrificial lamb when the problem squarely lies elsewhere. Statistically, BD people don’t last very long at the agency. On average, about 18 months. Some of those get burned out, frustrated, or feed up but many are the casualty of misplaced blame. And that doesn’t serve the agency well, not to mention the former BD person.
I am grossly simplifying a complex issue to be sure. The BD person is responsible for finding good quality, qualified opportunities and the due diligence to help the agency be successful. If they don’t, they have some explaining to do. And when they explain, it is often the result of the agency not having a clear and strategic focus on who they are and what clients fit them best. More often, the agency tells the BD person to go after anything and everything, thinking they can win on their charisma or past accomplishments. They set the BD person and themselves up to fail. And then the blame game begins.
The BD person is responsible for managing the process through to the pitch, harnessing all the resources of the agency to achieve their best. Sometimes BD people aren’t good project managers, and the process is chaotic. Agency leaders who allow that to happen are setting themselves up for failure. When your strategist doesn't have the time or creatives miss deadlines, or production doesn’t come through, everyone losses. I hear agency leaders blame it on the BD person when in fact, their strategist, creative director, whomever, isn’t upholding their responsibility and the effect cascades all the way through.
It is a complicated process with tough deadlines and impossible requirements, yet somehow agencies make the best of it and win. When agencies think the BD person will make it all happen, they usually lose. Conversely, when agencies approach it as if their best client just asked for a Super Bowl spot, they have a much better chance of winning. That means all the supporting cast does their part and more, not just the BD person. That means the leaders in the agency take what the BD person serves up and makes it great – in strategy, in creative, in media and in account management, or whatever the pitch.
Does the Business Development person matter? Yes, but not in the way many agencies think. Overextended, too many client demands, vacation, not enough staff, too much going through the agency, and so many more excuses get in the way of the real problem. Except for a few legendary superstars, most BD people can’t talk the client into hiring the agency. They don’t spin a story so irresistible the agency team doesn’t matter; they don’t satisfy the prospect’s need to meet and understand the people who will be entrusted with their success. The old way of hiring a salesperson with a golden Rolodex is not the solution. Not today. Not for most agencies.
Your BD person matters up front and in the process, but then the baton gets handed to the team. If you don’t win, it is likely poor performance or things your agency just isn’t good at, or entirely subjective creative tastes, or perhaps factors completely out of your control; chemistry, diversity, politics. It could have been wired for someone else right from the start! But it won’t be your BD person. Thank her or him for bringing the opportunity and apologize for not hitting a home run. After all, tomorrow is a new chance at bat, especially if you have a good BD person in the dugout.
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 Twitter and LinkedIn for daily tips, tricks, and insights. And, please share your new business advice, successes, and failures. #LetsGrow!