The quest for new business

Written by Jon Ross
15 Jun 2022

The four critical areas for successful new business development

To be consistently successful in winning quality new business, agencies must do these four things effectively:

  1. Marketing – Building the agency’s reputation and generating leads.
  2. Networking – Developing meaningful relationships with sources for referrals and prospective clients (including your “dream” prospects).
  3. Sales – The relentless pursuit of qualified leads by the agency’s pitch team.
  4. Organic growth – Having a systematic process for gaining feedback from existing clients to identify opportunities for expanding these relationships.

Each of these is an important opportunity to grow revenue and reputation. However, many agencies leave all the above to already very busy account directors and account managers with no business development support. This almost always leads to inconsistent efforts and disappointing results.

The most successful firms invest early in their evolution in a dedicated, experienced and non-billable leader of Business Development to support senior team efforts in all four of the above areas. As the agency grows, the Business Development leader is then supported with resources of his/her own (which leads to an even greater return on investment).

Without effective marketing, 90% of your prospects won’t even know your name.

Marketing is where too many agencies suffer from insufficient leadership, resources and effort because they don’t see an immediate pay-off from these investments. They don’t appreciate that reputation and the ability to consistently drive leads are built carefully over time.

These agencies keep experiencing the “Yo-Yo Effect”. This happens when marketing is too often put on the back burner due to over-worked client leaders who have been assigned responsibility for driving agency marketing. When the company’s teams are fully booked and billable with client work, marketing takes a back seat to clients’ needs.

Then, when the agency experiences a decrease in revenue and billable activity, the marketing effort starts up again but is now led by a different team and often with no actual business development experience. At many firms, this process of inconsistent effort and inconsistent resources repeats repeatedly.

At best, whatever efforts there might be are undisciplined and rambling instead of being value-added and tightly targeted to the right set of prospects for the agency.

Marketing activity and resources are up, down, up, down, etc. Hence, the dreaded Yo-Yo. The cycle keeps repeating itself. And neither reputation growth nor significant lead generation are ever really achieved.

More than any other factor, consistency of effort over time is the key to marketing success. This requires:

  • Dedicated leadership from an experienced, non-billable, mid- or senior-level person.
  • Making this person accountable to the CEO for plan execution and achieving pre-determined success metrics.
  • Adequate resources to build the reputations of the agency, specific practices and specific leaders.
Content creation
The development of thoughtful content should be an ongoing responsibility for each senior client leader.

If the leader of Business Development is mid-level, that person will largely handle logistics while working closely with the owner and practice/revenue stream leaders on strategy. If at a senior level, s/he can drive more strategy and qualification of prospects but may require a junior resource for logistics.

With either level for this position, it’s vital that practice and revenue stream leaders understand that their expertise and deep knowledge are required to develop compelling content for marketing that drives lead flow over time. In other words, the role of Business Development is to support the senior team members as they develop deeply valuable content… and not to replace their efforts.

The development of thoughtful content and differentiating intellectual property should be an ongoing responsibility for each senior client leader. These people are the agency’s deepest thinkers in their clients’ (and prospects’) respective industries. What they know (not what they do) is what best differentiates your firm and provides value to prospective clients.

The most important reputation-building elements include:

  • Content marketing (especially in the age of COVID) which offers value and utility to its recipients and isn’t just another sales pitch.
  • Using your practice/revenue stream leaders’ industry-specific knowledge to bring fresh insights and new thinking to prospects which they don’t already know.
  • Supplementing this knowledge by investing in original insight-oriented research into your target categories.
  • Speaking opportunities in front of prospect-rich audiences.
  • Sponsorships with organisations that enhance your firm’s stature and credibility.
  • Attendance at conferences which attract the right prospects for your agency.
  • Earned media efforts.
  • Social media tactics and media buys.

Very importantly, you also need an ever-growing and actively managed database for executing ongoing outreach to your target prospects. The bigger this is, the better if all contacts are qualified prospects or sources of referrals. There are now multiple software solutions available which “scrape” websites and other online information to help you build a prospect database much more quickly than before.

If done right, content marketing with value-added thinking is a numbers game. The larger the database, the more readers and then the more visits to your website all leading to more new business opportunities.

How to succeed in your marketing: Consistency of effort, accountability for tangible results, allocating sufficient resources and unflagging commitment by ownership.

To boil down “How to succeed in your marketing” into a handful of must-haves, these would be: Consistency of effort, accountability for tangible results, allocating sufficient resources and unflagging commitment by ownership.

Networking – Making the right connections will make a big difference for your agency.

Every member of your senior team should be responsible for developing relationships with sources of referrals and possible future clients. The agency should research and develop a list of these people and then make specific assignments to its senior leaders.

Be intentional and transparent about the goal of eventually adding the companies you target for networking to your client roster. Whether by attending in-person functions or remotely, take advantage of the best opportunities for appropriate consistency in meeting your target prospects or the people who can refer you to them.

While you’re at it, add in at least a few of your “dream clients” to provide even more energy and aspirational drive to these efforts. Both your core networking targets, and dream prospects should be companies your firm is built to service at a very high level. And be sure to target those companies that can take the most advantage of your agency’s value proposition.

The Business Development leader should ensure that agency networking is thoughtful, carefully planned and strategically directed. Each leader should have research and an arsenal of tools including a fact sheet and potential insights into prospects’ brands and business.

Productive networking isn’t about working the crowd. It’s about first building a sense of positive familiarity followed by the sense of trust in the senior leader and your agency brand proposition. Trust that you can solve their problems and provide salvation.

Improve your chances and save time by first qualifying your prospects.

An agency’s effectiveness at sales is a product of both mindset and design. The team should enjoy the challenge of pursuing qualified prospects and be equipped with a proven best-of-breed process consistently followed by everyone, all the time.

The first step towards successful selling is the proper qualification of prospective clients. Is this prospect a good fit for your agency? Do you truly want to work with them? Will you be a credible candidate in their eyes? Do you have a realistic chance of winning?

You’ll save an enormous amount of time and protect your team’s energy by carefully qualifying leads so you’re not chasing the inappropriate or impossible.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Why is this prospect looking for an agency? Probe into this just as deeply as you can.
  • Have they used agencies before? If so, how many? What happened to the previous agency? Do they burn through agencies or demonstrate loyalty?
  • How many agencies are they asking to participate in this pitch? If it’s more than a few, take a pass unless you have a champion at the prospect to be pitched. This is especially true of RFIs and RFPs.
  • What do you think of the work their previous agencies were doing for them? That may be a good indicator of what this client is willing to accept.
  • What are their expectations? Are these reasonable? What do they want done better or differently than before? Why?
  • What’s the budget? If you can’t get a reasonable answer to this question, pass. If you do get an acceptable answer, will you be able to earn on fair profit while meeting their expectations? If not, pass.

All clients are not worth having. By doing your homework, you’ll protect the agency by minimising the pursuit of opportunities that are a big waste of effort and thinking by your team.

The characteristics of a pitch process that wins more often.

Most agencies have at least a tribal knowledge of how they approach the new business process. However, in many cases, not every senior leader either understands the process or adheres to it. The “process” changes from pitch to pitch and leader to leader. The direct result is inconsistency and inefficiency instead of focus.

Younger team members involved in the pitch are unsure and tentative as confusion reigns. Some leaders have the pitch ready in plenty of time for meaningful rehearsal while others are finishing up the pitch deck and talking points late into the eve of a pitch the next morning. The agency either keeps losing or the winning rate is not what it could be if the entire pitch team went in with confidence.

If that sounds like your company, here’s how to fix the problem.

First, develop a flow chart and timeline detailing every step and due date of the new business process. Include what role within the agency works on each step.

Second, the leader of Business Development oversees the process to ensure that it is clearly understood and being followed by everyone for every pitch.

Third, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Never try to “wing it”. Without question, the more you rehearse, the stronger and more persuasive your presentation will be. Why waste all of the time, money and hopes you’re already invested in this pitch by not spending just a few more hours to make it a winner?

Fourth, win, lose or draw, there should always be a debrief session to learn what went right in the pitch, what could have been better and how the overall process can be improved. This is the agency’s opportunity to institutionalise its new business knowledge and skills, hone the process and continuously improve its winning percentage.

Using the best tools for the job.

It’s important that your agency have the right set of tools to support the sales process.

Perhaps more than anything else, you need to have proprietary IP, products or methodologies based on which you then showcase your best thinking and novel solutions. We often see great ideas being buried (and lost) within the overall response to an RFP or presentation because their importance was not linked to a larger whole.

The firm’s Business Development function also needs to make sure that all of the other sales tools are as compelling as possible, tailored to the specific prospect and actively updated. These include but aren’t necessarily limited to:

  • Capabilities (Brief, factual and differentiating).
  • Website including sections dedicated to each practice’s expertise (Their websites are still too often overlooked by agencies as their potentially most powerful new business weapon including its SEO).
  • LinkedIn (For not only the agency itself but also its senior people).
  • Case studies (Short, insight-rich and 100% truthful).
  • Bios (Powerful photos which capture the subject’s personality with brief text that highlights his/her contributions to clients and not their personal preferences in music, travel, food, etc.)
  • Collateral pieces (both digital and printed) that support the agency’s brand proposition and explain any unique service offerings.
  • Boilerplate text for responses to appropriate sections of RFPs or RFIs.

These materials collectively and individually are designed to provide prospects with a deep confidence that your agency has the knowledge and experience to do an outstanding job in each industry you serve.

Business Development should also carefully catalogue all previous new business efforts (presentations, responses to RFPs/RFIs, research, new insights, outcomes and more). This historical information can then be used to help with current opportunities and as teaching tools for younger and less experienced staff members.

All clients are not worth having. By doing your homework, you’ll protect the agency by minimising the pursuit of opportunities that are a big waste of effort and thinking by your team. 

Participating in the sales process will build your future leaders.

You can grow your next generation of leadership by providing mid-level staff with a meaningful role in the development of pitch strategy, writing the first draft of the pitch, participating in all internal meetings and (where appropriate) in the presentations themselves. You’ll be honing their strategic thinking and presentational skills as those can only come from experience.

Also, unless the most senior leader wishes to be the client’s point person and get called for every little tactical question, your mid-level person should play a significant role in each new business presentation. That gives the prospect and soon-to-be client the opportunity to see them as a credible and reliable contact for management of the tactical plan.

Organic growth.

Achieving growth from the clients you already have is far less expensive than pursuing new ones. Yet many agencies have no systematic process for organic growth. Other agencies don’t spend enough time providing their clients with new thinking or truly understanding the new challenges they might be facing.

As we conduct client feedback interviews for agencies, what we hear most is that the agency is not coming up with the next big idea and seems happy to simply keep executing the existing program. Clients have challenges that change over time. Unfortunately, many agency leaders are timid and feel as though offering new ideas is overly selling and not wanted by their clients. They’re wrong.

The most successful agencies design the senior role so there’s time allocated to monitoring (and thinking about how to meet) incremental client needs. They have a deeply ingrained sense of “How can we be of greater service?”, truly view the client’s business as their own and think far beyond just executing the tasks at hand.

Unsurprisingly, these agencies are just as systematic in their approach to seeking organic growth as they are in targeting new clients. Their business development function is an important contributor to this through:

  • Ensuring that the companies client service and practice leaders have regularly scheduled sessions with their client contacts to discuss not only what the agency is doing but whatever this client’s toughest challenges may be today.
  • Annual survey calls (not web-based) conducted by an objective party not on the client’s team to explore opportunities and challenges which your major clients are facing.
  • Incorporating key learning from interacting with clients and prospects into the firm’s client service delivery process and IP.
  • Coordinating internal account reviews long before the due date for contract renewals or completion of major programs/projects.