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Agency Advice Agencies New Business

13 agency leaders reveal their new business strategies for 2023

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By Sam Bradley, Journalist

January 31, 2023 | 12 min read

As the specter of recession hangs over much of the world economy, ad agencies are paying close attention.

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Should agencies alter their new business approach?

Consumer spending habits end up impacting marketing budgets in many industries, affecting client appetites. With that in mind, should agencies prioritize picking up new clients, or focus on their existing customers?

We asked agency experts to share the approach they're taking right now.

How do you solve a problem like… choosing how much new business to pitch for?

James Wilde, head of new business, Wavemaker

Retaining clients must be the absolute priority. Your start point is assessing your defensive horizon – something at Wavemaker we did assiduously in December. And then ensure that you review it on a quarterly basis.

When it comes to new business, it is tempting to look at sectors in which you have gaps and go for those briefs. But where you have existing expertise can often be a more efficient way to get to a robust pitch response. In addition, there’s no denying the fact that some brands just excite people, and they will want to work on the pitch. This will make your job as a new business practitioner much easier. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t sometimes prioritize these pitches. And then we have the brief itself. It seems like timelines from brief to final response are getting shorter. A six-week or under process is becoming the norm. So, this needs to be taken into consideration when a decision to pitch is being made.

Thrown into the mix is that brands are including different combinations of markets in scope in briefs. This can make it harder to simply say, this is UK/EMEA/global, as it doesn’t necessarily fit with existing agency organizational structures. And finally, when a decision is being made – be confident that there will always be another brief coming to you: tomorrow, or next week. And that this isn’t the last brief you’ll ever get.

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Ed Palmer, managing director, St Luke’s

A growth strategy that focuses on incremental business from existing clients is dangerous. If clients feel you’re always trying to sell them something, it quickly erodes trust. Do a great job, make sure you’re indispensable partners and the income will follow. With early signs of a more promising new business market, pitching is the focus of our growth strategy. New clients create momentum, energize your people and create a more stable income base. We have a deep pool of pitch-ready talent, along with a clear and efficient pitch process, so we can pitch consistently without compromising work with our existing clients.

Garrett Dearey, global head of growth, We Are Social

This is a question that agencies all over the world are considering. I think, however, the doom and gloom of 2023 is perhaps being overstated. Of course, there will be pressure from the current economic climate, and marketers will need to be resilient as ever and look for real value and genuine transformative appointments. From our perspective, it's definitely not about hitting the big panic button and launching into a ‘pitch for everything’ phase. In fact, it is quite the opposite as it’s more about being discerning in what we go for. That way we can put more effort, thought, rigor and finesse into our responses, avoid the high volume of pitches that can put a strain on teams and ultimately benefit the brand we are pitching for.

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Christopher Godfree, head of client services, Across the Pond

This isn’t actually a choice we have to make, because at Across the Pond, we don’t pitch. That’s not to say we don’t still have to generate new business, particularly during economic uncertainty, but not pitching has helped us build trust with our existing clients; they know their dedicated teams aren’t secretly beavering away on a pitch in the background. It’s also liberating, from a time perspective. It’s easy to overlook how much time is wasted, for both agencies and clients alike, with just the administration of a pitch process. This year, we will continue to decline the time-wasting talent show and focus on clients who value our expertise, enabling us to start solving their business problems from the outset.

Mariel Cunningham, assistant vice-president, head of new business, Wongdoody

We’re being very intentional about the prospects we are targeting and choosing to engage. We’re thinking beyond the size of the business and budget to agency fit from an industry, brand, and type of work perspective. We’re signaling this through intermediaries but also our thought leadership and open dialogue with prospects.

This season does call for an organic growth strategy for existing clients. We have chosen not to increase our fees; instead, we are looking for creating opportunities within client accounts, including connecting our global specialists – Metaverse in Europe, comms and creative storytelling in LA, for example – with clients across our 24 global studios.

Ed Brooke, head, Leith

“It takes months to find a customer and seconds to lose one,” according to the late, great visionary coach Vince Lombardi.

First and foremost, agencies should commit to servicing the clients they have and not be distracted or take their eye off the ball in pursuit of new ones. Then it’s about identifying the capacity and bandwidth that they can and most importantly want to spare on new business.

There’s got to be a real desire and hunger across the agency when you go for something; all in, no half measures. We’ll be applying these principles again in 2023, along with a real focus on growing our new Manchester base.

Adam Grant-Jones, chief growth officer, Kin+Carta Europe

We believe in qualifying carefully and then making sure you win what you qualify. This is even more important with the post-pandemic rush behind us and economic headwinds gathering. Avoid the urge to go for every opportunity and focus on those that you will win, and that offer the most resilient revenue. For us, we are seeing resilience in the public sector and financial services. This strategy means we can throw our best efforts at the opportunities that mean the most.

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Marina Filippelli, chief executive officer, Orci

It’s obvious why we tend to think about new business within the context of business development, but we should also consider it within the larger ecosystem of our agency business model – and that ‘secondary’ context might actually be more important.

With the ongoing uncertainty of a recession, the best thing agencies can do is make strategically-sound bets on the businesses they invest their energy, time and ‘pitch power’ into. Not only will this balance out the threat of overextending your resources and teams for the wrong or even least-likely-to-pan-out work, but it should also serve as an added incentive to make intentional, purposeful choices about the opportunities you chase. Look at every opportunity to determine whether it ladders up to bigger agency goals and creates space for you to flex your strengths and hone your capabilities.

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Kris Tait, managing director, US, Croud

I don’t think the approach should change in response to the economic outlook. Sure, it’s possible that there will be fewer opportunities, but it’s also possible that there will be more (January suggests so). I consider momentum to be an incredibly important factor within agencies, as growth means opportunities for staff, new experiences and learning – stagnation is particularly risky. In 2023, we will continue to put our clients first, as well as scale our agency and capabilities. The talent market has cooled off slightly, so if opportunities to win come our way, scaling staff is less of a concern.

Kev Chesters, strategy partner, Harbour

This is a critical issue in an oversubscribed industry, with far too many agencies chasing far too few clients. Budget cuts coupled with scope creep compound the need for endless hopper filling. The best answer is not to ‘pitch’ at all in the traditional sense – why give away your core product for free in the hope of a headline? Present an approach and credentials. Be confident in your quality. The best approach to picking projects is not to chase after all potential clients like some puppy on heat. Take time to properly investigate the budget and opportunity. Then believe in what you’re selling.

Garrett Garcia, president, PPK

The age-old question, to pitch, or not to pitch. I’ve seen too many agencies with incredibly successful new business pipelines absolutely crush their staff and lose sight of their existing priorities with legacy clients chasing after shiny new objects. Cultivating incremental growth amongst existing clients is not only easier than pitching, it actually fosters deeper relationships and trust with clients. Recession or not, I will always err on the side of protecting our staff’s work-life balance and our longstanding client relationships over the appeal of racking up a sexy list of new client brands.

Corey Smith, new business director, Pink Sparrow

Pink Sparrow’s strategy for 2023 is centered around new capabilities and expanding services for core client growth and attracting new business. In terms of new services, we’re growing the scope of our sculptural offerings through an investment in newly acquired large-format 3D printing equipment. We’re also focused on escalating our design offerings through more specialized personnel growth. This year presents us with the opportunity to establish a full-service design studio, adding further value to clients who need a one-stop shop for design and fabrication services.

Sarah Ann Walters, chief client officer, Grow

We’re hyper-focused on pitching opportunities where we know we can do our best work. That means investing time upfront in opportunity qualification to determine the right fit between the client’s needs and our capabilities, passing on the ones that aren’t great fits (even when it’s tempting not to) and going all-in on the ones that are.

When we stay focused on right-fit opportunities, we can take time to understand what matters most to the client, build relationships from the start, and respond with insights and enthusiasm that they recognize are unique to them. It’s the difference maker in pitching versus winning.

Thanks for reading this week’s debate. If you feel like joining in the conversation in the future, let me know: sam.bradley@thedrum.com

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