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The changing face of new business development

April 26, 2013 | 9 min read

Duncan Slater of Origin in Manchester has been developing new business for agencies for some 25 years. Here he outlines how the art of winning new business has moved on - even if some agencies haven't!

New business – the very sound of the words is enough to bring hardened agency folk out in a sweat. Regardless of who does it, business development is often a thankless task where blame is often the name of the game and praise is a quality in short supply. To many, it is the land of phone monkeys, schmoozers and second-hand car salesmen.

Speaking as a new business professional for (gulp) 25 years, I can say that, whilst it is a much maligned and misunderstood profession, it is also one in a state of huge flux – a flux which I believe will lead to a fundamental (and long overdue) re-evaluation of the role and the genuine benefits it can offer any agency.

So what has changed and why?

Up until recently, the job of a New Business person was straightforward: phone up marketing decision makers and get a credentials presentation. Once in the meeting, bombard them with case studies until they gave in and offered you a place on their pitch or a project to chew on. Once you’ve picked up the brief, disappear for a few weeks and return to knock their socks off with a bit of showbiz (or as one director I knew called it “tits and tinsel”).

Compared to business development in the present day, things couldn’t be more different.

The phone is no longer the magic instrument it once was – marketing professionals have wised up to cold callers plus the added volume of calls from telemarketing agencies (about 100 outbound calls per person per day) has made it unwise to even consider picking up the phone. In a recent survey of marketing decision makers, 80% said they found the vendor, not the other way round. The secret is no longer getting people to pick up the phone but getting them to contact YOU.

Please note I use the word ‘contact’ there (not ‘phone’) because prospective clients have never had a greater wealth of information at their fingertips. At the touch of a button, they can look at your work, consider you and reject you before you even know it’s happened. You can plague them all you like with stuff that you do and stories of how brilliant your agency is but one-way traffic like that is doomed to failure.

Why? Because you haven’t built a single thing around their needs (and no, “their needs” is not as simple as “your agency”!). Believe it or not, people are only interested in what you’ve done IF it addresses their needs/problems/objectives/fears. Take the time to do your homework and increase the chances of having a peer-to-peer conversation rather than coming across as a grubby salesman (because by then your brand will arguably be tainted already).

One relevant area where this is especially true is procurement. Over the last four or five years, cost effectiveness has come under the microscope as never before. The increased role of procurement in agency selection mirrors this development. Whilst it’s not an essential part of every pitch, it IS an essential part of many so it needs bearing in mind. For some reason, agency people seem content to regard procurement people as either unimportant or as a threat. In both cases, this usually results in the same behaviour – ignoring them. This is both dangerous and short-sighted; even the smallest level of engagement with the right procurement person can make a huge difference when agency decisions get made.

This brings us on to presentations. For many agencies, the credentials presentation has (unfortunately) evolved into a slick and polished monologue. An opportunity for you to boast about how great you are, the awards you’ve won and fab work you do – without once considering the person/people sat across the table from you. As Phil Jones Deputy MD at Brother UK has said in the past “Many continue to get it so wrong, writing page after page of chest beating copy that means nothing. We’ve won this, we’ve won that. And?...”. Your first meeting with a potential client should not be a broadcast moment, it should be an opportunity for dialogue and discovery. Without dialogue and discovery you are going to leave that meeting without finding out the ‘real’ brief, the state of the market, the corporate dynamics…the very things that will give you the competitive edge in any pitch. Yes you could find out some of these things online but why pass up the chance to hear it from the horse’s mouth – with all the vital contexts and nuances such discussions can contain?

Of course face-to-face conversations are no longer the only way of accessing vital info on a prospect. The worlds of digital and social media have exploded recently with all readily accessible data that could help frame and shape your approach. Not only the usual avenues of Twitter Facebook and LinkedIn but blogs, YouTube and many, many more. A digital dig-around can often unearth unexpected nuggets on a potential client so take the time to be thorough – it could be worth your while.

Another mainstay of the agency new business armoury is also undergoing a significant change – case studies. All to often, these become a wall to hide behind and a barrier to original thinking (or applied thought about the prospect’s situation). Some agencies have chosen to break out of this mould by different means

• Involving their clients in the telling of their stories so the language and tone of voice is more applicable to a fellow marketing professional.

• Creating and marketing their own products (Elmwood’s Builder’s Tea is an obvious example http://www.elmwood.com/home/about/tea-and-beer/make-mine-a-builders/) this is a fantastic opportunity to showcase your values as an agency in action.

• Making the presentation interactive (no that doesn’t just mean asking questions) – instead of just prattling on about your process, ask questions that make them a part of that process.

• Creating something ‘other’ – maybe it’s a concept film, maybe it’s a bespoke app, maybe it’s a presentation interpreted via the medium of mime…as long as its relevant and targeted at least it’s not 46 slides of a keynote.

Only once a full process has been undertaken can you know if the opportunity is right for you. And if it’s not, don’t be afraid to turn it down. It may seem an awful thing to do, but if it’s not right for your agency, it will cause more trouble than it’s worth (trust me).

The next stage is a particular bugbear of mine – the mystery of the disappearing agency. Following a pitch brief too many agencies seem content to go away and never call the client until the day of the pitch (and then it’s only to confirm parking arrangements). Behaviour such as this not only leaves the prospect out of the process, it also misses the opportunity to discover if your work is on the right track before you present it. Keep the prospect in the loop at every sensible opportunity; be open-mouthed (and open-minded) about your thinking and the routes you’re looking at.

And as far as ‘Showbiz pitches’ are concerned, please accept the following cautionary tale. After a lot of hard new business work, I once managed to wangle a place on a £10m European pitch for a very trendy brand against a bunch of West One luminaries. We pitched and unfortunately lost. I went to the pitch debrief and got the shock of my life when the client berated me for losing the pitch by “trying to win it in the meeting”. The business could have been ours (he went on to explain) if we had only used the pitch to develop our ideas rather than try blast it out of the park. It really pays to respond in the way the client wants NOT the way you’d like to respond yourself.

Despite all this daunting talk of rapid change and the need to acclimatize quickly, I truly believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel for New Business professionals. This new way of doing business sees a far more egalitarian way of developing business where those in new business no longer feel like ‘reps’ but rather work alongside clients to help determine and supply their real needs. The future is a bright place in new business for those willing to embrace the change.

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