Agency new business - where's the R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

I have a gripe I want to air. It’s pissed me off for years and I thought it was time I addressed it. In fact, it was one of the reasons I walked away from a very successful new business career to set up this business in the first place. It is my view that agency new business isn’t shown the respect it deserves in the agency world. Unlike strategy, creative, client services, ‘the board’ rarely tells those specialists how to do their job; yet it’s something that happens to new business specialists all the time. You have no idea how mad that makes me. “Yes, it’s respected.” I hear some of you say. But, from personal experience, and from the conversations I’ve had with other agency new business disciplinarians, I can tell you, respect for this discipline is still massively missing in a lot of agencies.

Yes, I’m going to have a bit of a rant about this topic, but I’m also going to do my best to advise how to change the mind-set you may not even be aware your agency has towards new business; and practical ways you can support this role better to the benefit of your agency’s success.

So here goes with the ‘ranty’ bits, and yes, a few of my past colleagues and agencies may well recognise themselves, but don’t worry, I won’t out any of you.

We were in the middle of a big pitch, I was on the operational board, with ultimate responsibility for winning new business for the agency. For the fourth time running the planning lead had excluded me from a pitch team meeting I should have been at. When I asked him why he continued to exclude me from meetings, do you know what he said to me? “I don’t understand why you need to be there, new business is just an administrative role anyway!” I don’t have to tell you how much effort it took me not to deck the chap.

What should be remembered is that the pitch process is the last bit of ‘the sale’ (yes, I used the ‘s-word'). The role of the new business disciplinarian, in the pitch scenario, is
A) to ensure everything runs smoothly
B) that the client’s point of view is being represented properly and that their questions have actually been answered (that includes the hidden questions they might not have been overt about listing, but that a good new business person will spot the moment they read a pitch brief)
C) to ensure that when the team walks into the room they are all landing a consistent story that has the right balance of logic and emotion (it’s not just about the solution, for the most part clients tend to hire the agencies they like)
D) that the chemistry is right not only with the client, but with each other, and
E) as one Global Agency lead once said to me ‘to make all the trains arrive on time’.

So, administrative? I think not, your new business person’s role is to ‘be the client’, support and motivate the pitch team, keep everyone focused, and even act as a therapist when required. You have no idea the number of exhausted pitch team members I’ve had crying on my shoulder when the pressure has got too much for them (men and women). Agency leaders, it’s your job to ensure a) the agency learns to respect the person and the role, b) the agency’s infrastructure and communications supports the new person and team.

Do you know how many times I have seen perfectly good client service people put into the role of new business without the slightest clue about the skills, tenacity, commitment this challenging discipline requires to be successful. It’s criminal and their bosses should be ashamed of themselves. Often, they are brilliant ‘farmers’ and have been successful at running and growing client accounts, but they haven’t got the skills or talent to make it as a new business hunter. They soon find themselves out of their depth, reverting to what feels comfortable (nurturing clients rather than winning them) and then their bosses wonder why they fail to get to grips with the role or win new business.

It doesn’t mean that a previous client services person can’t make a great new business disciplinarian, but it isn’t a transition I’ve seen happen successfully very often. Let me get this clear, participating in a pitch is NOT enough to make you an expert in the discipline of new business. You need to be totally focused on running the pitch (sometimes multiple pitches), setting up the next one, all the while keeping an eye out for new opportunities. My advice would be to make sure the job description is clear (maybe get another new business specialist to write it for you) and that you hire someone that really does have all of the skills and drivers required to do the new business role properly. Please don’t shoe-horn people into the role. It doesn’t do you, or them any favours.

Are you freaking kidding me? This has been said to me at pretty much every agency I have ever worked for (well the larger ones anyway). Pitching is just the tip of the iceberg people. It’s the final push to the summit. What so many agency people fail to see are the millions of other plates we have to keep spinning before, during and after the pitch.

So, what else are we doing when we’re not pitching? I’ve been lucky enough in my career to work at some of the largest agencies in the world, at a UK, Group and Global level. And those roles have always encompassed new business AND marketing. My role has been to:

- create a marketing/new business strategy (and then execute it with maybe one or if I’m lucky two new business managers/assistants – but more often than not on my own)

- develop the prospecting list (huge amounts of time goes into that when researched properly)

- build the agency’s brand reputation via
        * PR (usually managing a PR agency relationship and chasing colleagues and bosses
          around the office for input and sign off)
        * Developing thought leadership pieces
        * Social Media (at least 4-5 accounts, often building them from scratch as they didn’t
          exist prior to my starting)
        * Events (creating, producing and marketing them)
        * Awards (gathering all of the raw stories and hunting down the creative, then re-writing
          badly written case studies into judge-worthy entries)
        * Case studies (gathering all of the raw case study materials - usually with results missing
          – which you then need to pester people for)
        * Every piece of collateral the agency ever produces (PowerPoint templates, marketing
          collateral, credentials, DM and emails for prospecting, internal newsletters, show-reels,
          research projects, thought leadership materials etc, etc, etc) briefing creatives,
          gathering materials, brainstorming ideas, fighting with global, dealing with printers,
          videographers the list goes on.
        * Websites and micro-sites (sometimes project managing them from brief to build as well
          as ensuring content remained fresh)
        * Prospecting (including campaign creation and execution, networking, Intermediary
          profile updates and relationship building, RFI/RFP/Tender writing and design
          management – sometimes even doing it myself when there were no designers available,
          guerrilla marketing, cold calling and or managing a lead generation agency, keeping up-
          to-date with the trade press, keeping the CRM up to date etc.)

 - Oh and on top of all of that we’re expected to kick-start, run, pitch doctor, present and win ALL pitches (and still expected to deliver on all of the above) manage budgets (fill in time sheets - to be fair I was always naughty and never did those bloody things – sorry old bosses, I know I was a nightmare with that – ha-ha)

So, in answer to the original question……NOT! It is not bloody quiet, EVER! And I’d like you to just think for a second what it feels like to be expected to deliver on all of that (sometimes with sales expectations in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of pounds) often on your own, or with a tiny team of one or two people, having to cancel your holidays constantly “because there’s a big pitch on”, working when you should probably be in hospital with a tube in your arm full of penicillin and still be expected to be fun and happy and excited all of the time. So here’s how you can support the role: make sure they have the appropriate level of budget and resource to do the job they love – winning new business for you. Don’t exhaust them to the point they crack. Ensure the rest of the agency knows and understands there is more to new business than pitching.

Yes, it’s the job of the new business department to bake the cup-cakes, herd the cats, create the rainbows and make the unicorns turn up on time so everyone is showered with glitter and awesomeness. But, actually, new business is bigger than that weird department that no-one knows what to do with (I often had to fight for my team and I not to be shoved into the darkest corner, next to the photocopier and recycling bins). It’s a discipline, but it’s also a culture. It’s a mind-set that the entire agency needs to embrace. A truly successful new business team is only as good as the rest of the agency they represent. Without you all, their careers are doomed to end up in those recycling bins and the ‘we won’ parties will be few and far between. What’s an interesting observation is that the smaller, independent agencies tend to be better at making new business part of their culture. Maybe there are less egos involved, maybe there is more of a ‘we’re in it together’ mentality when there are less of you. Ultimately this culture MUST be driven by the owners/founders and leaders of your agencies. My advice is step back and look at what you can do from an infrastructure, operations and KPI perspective (across the entire agency) to ensure that the everyone is contributing towards a new business culture, driven by your new business specialist.

I did warn you it was going to be a rant. Look, don’t get me wrong. I did, do and always will love new business (it was a great career for me and it is even better to have it at the heart of the business I now own). But I do think that agency people, across the board, need to step back and actually have a good hard look at the role of new business. It’s not administrative. It’s unfair to set people up to fail by expecting them to be something they are not. You are ill-informed and quite frankly naive if you think pitching is all a new business person does or should do and that they have plenty of down-time. New business isn’t won by a department you all need to play your part….and that starts with everyone respecting the role and specialist discipline that agency new business actually is.