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In my last post I waxed eloquent about the economic reasons for pursuing a diverse client base. “Duh,” you say, despite the many agencies that ignore that obvious rule.

Yet there are other reasons for diversification, all of which have their own economic underpinnings but get at larger agency management practices. Here are a few – along with an invitation to share your insights here as well:

CULTURE

  • Diverse client work keeps the creative from getting restless. Sure, they whine anyway. But you can tolerate it better when you know that you’re doing all you can to keep their fertile minds challenged, amused and engaged. You still might find their legendary and ubiquitous carping an irritant, but now you can smugly dismiss it.

BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT

  • The ability to tackle different kinds of challenges makes you more valuable to existing clients. The more you can do – and learn to do well, even for other clients – the more valuable you might be to a client that uses your skills in only one way.
  • A willingness to embrace the new keeps you relevant in the marketplace. You know, that place where your prospective clients live. It’s a cliché anymore to say how rapidly changing advertising, marketing and media are. But it’s dead true. If you aren’t learning how to solve new problems with the next generation of strategic thinking, technology and creative adaptation, then you are the admiral of a sinking ship.

RECRUITMENT

  • Building a reputation for diverse capabilities also helps in recruiting fresh, hot talent. What agency animal with any go in him/her wants to move to your zoo if nothing exciting ever happens there? And with fresh talent should come better service for existing clients, new approaches to prospects and many even a new recruit who brings a client along with her/him.

As a self-proclaimed dot-connector and value-builder in business development and business in general, I strive for situations that are beneficial to my prospects, clients, team members and “the management.” That’s rather than looking for my own advantage first and wedging the needs of others into that.

In my world view, all boats float when you take care of others. (Not to my own disadvantage, mind you. I’m not a chump.) This style is service-oriented, open-ended and focused on mutual benefit. Think of it as doing well by doing good.

Beneficent as that might make me feel, I’ve learned that not everyone responds to that approach. In fact, there are those who are left befuddled because they expect and even want to be sold to. For those people – and I suspect there are more of them than not – there can be a comfort in conventionally defined roles, clear choices and directness. There is no shame in wanting that, nor is there any shame in you responding to that need.

There’s an old saw that goes something like this: People want to buy things, not have things sold to them. Sometimes that’s true, but don’t make the mistake of believing it all the time. Adaptability is a core skill to master if you want to be successful at new business, client management and organizational effectiveness, and that means adjusting your approach to the circumstances at hand.

The signals aren’t that hard to read. If you approach an opportunity from an open-ended, exploratory  perspective and get blank stares or an “I’m-not-understanding-this” response, there’s a good chance your audience expects a more conventional approach. If so, take the cue and shift tactics by:

  • Making it clear why you’re in front of them and what you’d like them to consider or do
  • Being more direct, suggesting a specific solution, for example, and allowing your audience to edit, push back on or even reject it
  • Offering clear go/no-go options if the situation is appropriate

This dovetails neatly with an earlier post about the difference between sales and business development. That post prompted a spirited debate in LinkedIn groups in which I posed the issue. Debate was so spirited, in fact, that I was all but ignored by the combatants, who went at each other with amazing force. Clearly, the topic touched a nerve.

My supplemental two cents on that topic, with the shading of this post in mind, is to draw some added functional (but not qualitative) distinctions between the two approaches:

  • Traditional sales interactions tends to be more structured and close-ended. That serves a purpose when the prospect allows bandwidth for a sales discussion but not a full consultation
  • Classic business development is inherently more consultative and therefore more open-ended. As observed, that’s not a universal recipe for success

All interactions that involve persuasion need to be two-way, but there are different ways to play that out. When your audience wants to be sold to, then it becomes your job to both present and listen.

If you give your audience, customer or colleague the experience they expect in the beginning, you can use those early interactions to build trust and gradually shift the style of the conversation to that mutually beneficial sweet spot.

“Closing the sale” is a concept at once desired and reviled by many creative agency leaders. Desired because it brings in fresh revenue and maybe even prestige if the new client is right. Reviled because it is about sales, and that’s often treated like a dirty word among folks who feel that strategy and creative are higher callings.

But close you must, even though closing a sale is one of the most challenging applications of hard and soft business abilities.

The folks at RSW/US, which provides business development consulting services to creative agencies, have some insights into what it takes to close a new-client sale. And out of the goodness of their hearts – and good business development practices of their own – will share those insights at a free webinar on July 20.

Here is registration information about the next – and subsequent – RSW/US Agency Business Development 2010 Webinar Series sessions:

  • July 20: Check the Box – Counsel on Closing. Mark Sneider, RSW/US owner/president, offers insights and recommendations on preparing for pitch meetings, follow-up how to craft responses to RFPs and RFIs. Click here to register.
  • August 10: Social/Digital Media – Marketer and Agency Perspective. How to be successful long-term in the social/digital universe. What marketers want and what you’re giving them might be two very different things. Click here to register.
  • September 7: Agency New Business. What it takes to create a successful new business development program within the four walls of your agency. Get marketer perspectives on their needs. Click here to register.

———-

Full disclosure: Agency Babylon and RSW/US have a nominal business alliance around endorsement of the webinars. However, I can assure you that I’d recommend them even if we didn’t.

The pursuit and acquisition of new clients in advertising and marketing agencies is a minefield of contradictions.

On one hand new business is essential to the well-being of an agency – quite simply ensuring future revenue. Moreover, good business development outcomes provide opportunities for agency innovation, expertise-building and even prestige.

Yet anyone in an agency also knows that business development gets more back-of-the-hand than open-hand treatment. The reasons are many:

  • Lack of focus – strategic or otherwise – for new business efforts, leading to uncertainty and frustration
  • Truly poor performance by business development hires, maybe on their own lack of merits and maybe exacerbated by an absence of focus
  • Then there’s serious miscasting for the new business role, resulting in a good-person, wrong-direction situation
  • Magical thinking that leads agency leaders to believe that successful business development is [a] just a few well-placed calls away – the rainmaker myth, [b] a volume game – smiling and dialing or [c] something the principals themselves will and can do
  • Not to mention a certain disdain for the sales aspect of new business vis à vis the “higher calling” of advertising and marketing

Many agencies are adrift, yet there are numerous resources at hand to help, resources I use as touch points in my own professional life.

RSW/US is one of those resources, and when they shared their plan with me to produce a series of webinars about good business development practices I was interested. When they further explained that agency principals are the target audience I promptly signed on as a sponsor.

That heightened enthusiasm comes from our shared belief that agency business development wisdom often misses its neediest audience: the agency principals at the core of decision-making about the future of their businesses.

RSW/US webinars are free, they are reasonably brief and they address topics that principals need to hear. The first webinar, sponsored by Agency Babylon, is June 29. So hurry and register.

RSW/US Agency Business Development 2010 Webinar Series

  • June 29: First Meeting and Closing Effectiveness – 78% of Agencies Don’t Know Enough. Explore the deep divides that exist between what marketers want and what agencies present during first meetings and as the closing process. Click here to register.
  • July 20: Check the Box – Counsel on Closing. Mark Sneider, RSW/US owner/president, offers insights and recommendations on preparing for pitch meetings, follow-up how to craft responses to RFPs and RFIs. Click here to register.
  • August 10: Social/Digital Media – Marketer and Agency Perspective. How to be successful long-term in the social/digital universe. What marketers want and what you’re giving them might be two very different things. Click here to register.
  • September 7: Agency New Business. What it takes to create a successful new business development program within the four walls of your agency. Get marketer perspectives on their needs. Click here to register.

———-

Full disclosure: Agency Babylon and RSW/US have a nominal business alliance around endorsement of the webinars. However, I can assure you that I’d recommend them even if we didn’t.

The meanings of certain business concepts are open to interpretation, even when the convoluted language of business is momentarily stifled. The varying takes on terminology are a matter of perspective, and perspective by its nature is highly subjective.

Consider the terms “sales” and “business development.”

To some, business development is just a fancy term for sales. Some sales pros hear the words business development the same ways those Peanuts kids hear adults talking – just a bossy, squonking sound. That is to say, the words often have no meaning to them.

So, what is the distinction between sales and business development? Moreover, in the context of advertising and marketing agencies, why should the distinction matter?

First, let’s agree that neither professional discipline is inherently inferior to the other. In some instances they can and should coexist.

Some typical characteristics of sales activities:

  • Tactical
  • Transactional
  • Immediate outcomes expected
  • Revenue growth is primary success measure
  • Probable lower cost to achieve outcomes
  • Sustainability of sales is more uncertain
  • Valued personal characteristics: high emphasis on short-term objectives, unencumbered by larger organizational objectives, money motivation is paramount (within the constraints of ethical behavior, you’d hope)

Some typical characteristics of business development:

  • More strategic, ideally
  • Consultative in approach
  • Longer term outcomes, although not to exclude near-term performance
  • Requires more flexible measurement of value
  • Probable higher costs over the long term
  • When managed well, higher value outcomes sustained over time
  • Success measurements anchored in strategy, which is more subjective
  • Valued personal characteristics: strategic thinking, larger organizational objectives are a priority, service orientation, money motivation is healthy but not overwhelming

So why does it matter to know the difference? Because either approach will have a major impact on what kind of business you operate.

If your service offerings are more commodity-like and your business model hums along on project work using recurring skills sets, then a sales approach might serve you best. If done well, sales can ensure a steady stream of projects to keep your team busy. The downside is that you’re likely to always compete on price and are unlikely to win higher-margin accounts. But that might work for you.

If your value proposition is strategic and creative problem-solving and you best serve large and sustained accounts, then business development is your primary tool. You might have to invest more time and money into pitches, but the payoffs can be bigger budgets with higher margins over time, plus the opportunity to infiltrate the client and extend your service reach.

Whichever agency type you are, make sure you apply the right approach and be realistic about the outcomes you’re likely to get.

UPDATE:  Join the tug-of-war discussion on this topic at LinkedIn in the RFP Database group (login required).

Alex Bogusky, partner in Crispin Porter Bogusky, cultivates what he calls a “Zen Buddhist” attitude about new business wins and losses. Scratch the word “losses,” though, because he claims to have never lost a pitch. His rationale (or rationalization): When a client chooses another agency instead of his “it was meant to be” and is not a loss at all. Moreover, he’s proud to have never learned anything from his mistakes.

Droga5 founder David Droga declares with confidence that his agency, which is named after the laundry markings in his boarding school underpants, won’t pursue any new business that requires spec creative concepts – unless the prospective client ponies up a pitch fee. Still, clients seek them out at least as much as they seek clients.

Michael Goldberg, EVP and chief marketing officer at Zimmerman, prides himself on working for the “Glengarry Glen Ross” of big agencies. He boasts of bringing juice and has an incredible pitch close rate to show for it. For him and his CEO, any loss is a weakness and deserving of excruciating dissection, collective culpability and self-flagellation.

In style, philosophy, attitude and business practices they couldn’t be more different. Yet all of them are top dogs at storied and successful agencies, and all were featured speakers at the 2010 Mirren new business conference in early April.

My takeaway from these three presentations, as well as much of the other largely stellar content and networking at the conference is this: There is no silver bullet when it comes to agency new business development. No one set of tools, sure-fire process, perfect elevator pitch or precisely curated Rolodex.

I’ve long understood that pursuing and acquiring new clients is a process that is as distinctive – even to the point of eccentricity – as the specific agencies engaged in the process. At least that’s what I thought was true. Attending Mirren helped turn my assumptions into convictions.

Affirmed is my belief in these fundamentals to successful new business development, principles that apply to agencies of all sizes and service sets:

  • Vision (or maybe being on a mission) for what the agency can, should and will be, as opposed to allowing the organization to become whatever work it can get
  • Affirmative leadership that means what it says and says what it means, especially in its desire for revenue growth
  • A spirited internal cultural that embraces the new, relishes a challenge and collaborates to win fresh opportunities
  • Accountability not only for new business results but also for supporting new business efforts
  • Process and resources scaled to meet new business objectives consistently over time, not just when its convenient

A final thought: If there was indeed a unified approach to new business development, let’s say the convergence of the three speakers cited here, it could become known as the Zen Underpants Juice manifesto. And who would want that?

I could be accused of being a lazy blogger, because what I’m about to do is recycle a few older posts for your consideration. Maybe that makes me an eco-friendly blogger. Whatever.

The point is, several rounds of agency business development advice I dispensed within the past six to nine months might have fallen on deaf ears while agencies were operating in fear. Business development was put on hold, positions were eliminated and pursuit of business became disorderly and at times hysterical.

My hope is that now is finally the time for agency leaders to pay attention and consider these points in light of the economy’s and industry’s signs of recovery.

From the looks of it, I was on a business development toot in November 2009. A premature optimist, I suppose. But now is not too soon for agencies to get serious about strategic business development. Those that dropped the ball in the past year or so have some serious ground to make up if they want to compete for and win the business that will truly propel growth in the coming years. Sure, any reasonably capable agency can win new clients, but don’t you want to win the right clients?

Nobody wants to be in new business development. It’s the job that most everyone shuns in an agency because it is:

  • Sales (spit at the ground twice)
  • Too open-ended a process that can lead to no discernible outcome
  • Deemed neither intellectually nor creatively rigorous or rewarding
  • Full of personal rejection (ha!)

Let’s face it, being a chief new-revenue generator appears to be a thankless job. If you read Advertising Age, and especially the Small Agency Diary blog, it’s a wonder that the rate of involuntary institutionalization among new business types isn’t astronomical. Take as an example the blog’s most recent post on the topic, “Marketers exhibit cad-like behavior at the RFP ball.

There is nothing in that reasoned and perfectly well-written post that isn’t true. Nor is there anything in it that is new. As revenue wranglers, we relive and retell the same stories again and again. Could it be that these things will never change, or do we just like to wallow in our woes? Maybe both, but here’s the skinny:

  • Winning new business is an endless, and often thankless, process. But it is a necessary one for both agencies and the companies that issue those RFPs and agency showdowns.
  • The process is inconsistent, sometimes chaotic and even unfair at times. By all means feel frustrated by it, but also do your best to just deal with it.
  • As I have written in the past, agencies can control what kind of  and how much pain they’re willing to bear by thinking strategically and behaving systematically when it comes to business development.

Look, I grouse about this state of affairs, too. Yet the war stories are fascinating to recount, even without the embellishments. I even admit that they’re fun to tell and hear.  Still,  I reject the “business development is so much rejection” sop. When done with vision, leadership and pragmatism, business development for agencies is strategic, creative, intelligent and deeply rewarding.

When it comes to the new business pitch process, it’s generally presumed that the agencies invited to the festivities are in a subservient position. They need the business – are in the very business of winning new business, especially in these lean times – so they’re held hostage to short account tenures and endless business pursuit.

An article in Advertising Age archly titled “Hmm, It’s 2010 — About Time for Chipotle to Switch Up Ad Agencies,” cautions brands to wise up by laying out the consequences of their fickle ways. Calling out specific major brands as “serial reviewers,” Ikea, Chipotle, BMW, 1-800-Flowers and Quiznos are among those getting the scarlet letter.

The risk for these brands is that the very best agencies, the ones they might most wish to have woo them, will take a pass next time the business is up for grabs. And it appears to be happening. That doesn’t mean no one will pitch for it; never gonna happen. But you do reap what you sow.

While the name-dropping smack down has its entertainment value, it also is filled with advice to agencies, making it worth a read.

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