Some thoughts on advertising agency new business in two parts

What follows is some serious advice mixed with seriously humorous glimpses inside new business in advertising. I had been peripherally involved in business development activity until 2001 or so. In the advertising industry most mid to senior level people only get involved on a specific meeting basis. Then in 2001, I shifted from Account Management, SVP level, and I took over specific business development responsibilities and it remained a significant responsibility for a number of years afterwards.

Overall, I was very surprised by a number of things when I assumed the responsibility (and, frankly, ongoing as I talked with more experienced business development people and consultants).

  1. Most agencies in the consumer and B2B arena know an incredible amount of things about gaining new customers and yet they don’t apply one iota of that knowledge to their business development program

  2. Most agencies advise their clients on prudent growth strategies (and even apply logic) and yet they don’t apply one iota of that knowledge to their business development program

  3. Most agencies become a dysfunctional moshpit during new business (that doesn’t mean they don’t actually produce some excellent work/thinking, just that if there is ever a place where office politics, and egos, seems to gravitate, its new business process) not applying one bit of how to effectively address a client’s problem

Something wacky happens as soon as the words “business development” or “new business” are uttered. It’s like everyone forgets traditional customer acquisition knowledge, traditional account management principles and some common-sense business building knowledge.

My belief is that people within an organization should be able to seamlessly step into a business development program, maybe on a specific assignment, and contribute. How? The easiest way is to have the same process and same vocabulary so they can apply the same things they are doing (and how they are thinking) to the ad hoc project they are being pushed into (typically in a crisis pressure cooker where “seamless” is treasured). Rarely happens. Oops. Never happens. New business people tend to think what they do is unique, the process and situation is unique, therefore, they are unique in the agency in that they don’t apply the same language or process as the rest of client facing people do. Look. I don’t think I was a great business development person. I didn’t really have the dna for it and the agency politics chewed me up. When you are an Account Director (or group director) and an SVP you are typically more a CEO, when you are a business development director you are more a Sherpa for anyone who thinks they are a CEO (which is anyone involved in new business). Anyway, critique aside, let me break down the “Buying process” with some thoughts.

Part 1: Breaking down the “Buying Process”

Clients or call them ‘Prospective Clients’ all go through the same process (I will talk about lists or building a client base in part 2). Go ahead and use whatever terms you use in your own industry (or your own organization’s thought process) on how you treat your clients’ customer buying process when thinking about it. Some of the words may sound archaic in today’s business world but I still find them helpful:


They either know you, know something about you or know nothing about you. Deal with it. quit wishing it was different and quit living in some universe in which everyone already thinks your agency is, well, they actually think about you at all.

Group your list into those who think similarly. Some will gravitate together. And even if you don’t know, guess. When in doubt assume they know nothing. I worked for one of the largest ad agencies in the world. Maybe less than 50% of general population knew who they were (it helps to remind yourself that your little corner of the world is exactly that – your little corner). Of those who recognized the agency name maybe over 75% actually knew one of our clients. Yeah. That is with one the world’s largest agencies. Humbling, but a good reminder. Thinking about this kind of stuff helps you think out what you actually want to say to people.


Gaining a new client is all about meeting a need they believe they have that was not being met. Period. So, you can either try to stimulate “a problem to solve” (a need) or simply make sure they know you can solve that kind of problem (when and if they ever have that type of problem). The former is stupid and desperate and the latter is good business.

But it is here where I have seen the best laid plans go astray with business development people. Under pressure from their own organization (‘why won’t they meet with us?’, ‘we should be working with them’, ‘we need business!’) a business development person tries to create dissatisfaction in the client’s current situation (notice I don’t call it overselling). Created dissatisfaction is not always a reflection of true dissatisfaction therefore this sneaky nuance dogs this kind of new business lead. The specificity can be good (so you can clearly address the situation), but when a new business person succeeds in this activity it puts increased expectations (sometimes unreasonable) on the table for the agency to deliver. This also translates into an increased likelihood that whatever “it” is cannot be consistently delivered in the experience phase (assuming you actually get there). So forced “stimulus” creates some big issues later on.

Does that mean you can’t generate stimulus thoughts? Nope. Sure can. They just have to be thoughtful and relevant. And the best situation is that the prospect doesn’t feel like it was forced, but rather it reached the conclusion on its own.

Oh. Here’s another thing. If they are happy in an existing relationship, that means they are, well, happy.

Trying to make them unhappy is difficult and it shows more about your own character (or lack thereof)

then it does any competence. Show respect for great relationships. You would like others to show you the same respect. And if they don’t have a problem they typically aren’t motivated to be “stimulated”.

Simply put – No problem. No listen.

Uh oh. The senior leadership team in your organization:

“Why won’t they work with us?”

Well. They don’t really seem to have a problem we can solve right now.

“Bruce, do something, don’t they know we have the new antimatter intergalactic social networking


Nope. Probably not. And they probably don’t care because they don’t have a problem.

“Well, we don’t care, call them. Set up a meeting. I want us to invest a lot of wasted energy and time we

don’t have so we can tell them about our gizmo they don’t know they need.”

Ok. Yeah. On random occasions that tactic can work in your favor. Have you ever noticed the “oh let me tell you about the time” war story of success that is told over and over again? – that’s because they don’t want to tell you about the 25 other times they forced their way in and the prospect said “nice gizmo, but I am happy with what we are doing and working with right now.”

Oh. Lastly. On the messaging. You don’t need to solve just one problem. Your organization can actually be good at solving a variety of issues. Remember that.


This is obvious. You are either in a consideration set or you are not. And if you are not, and should be, you can try to fight your way into the consideration set (which is tough because there are a boatload of qualified alternatives out there for people in general … oops … sorry … hate to tell you … odds are that you are not unique) or you can have a program set up in place that doesn’t make it a last minute “please listen to what I have to say”, but rather a phone call that says “hey, I have been sending you crap for over a year so I am reminding you that I can do this.” Oh. Which call would you prefer to make? My point is be in their consideration set, don’t ask to be in their consideration set.


While everyone who is in a consideration set believes that should mean “why even look at others”, that is fantasy-like thinking. Any viable competent business person will do some research. In other words, they will search around a bit. This is making sure your website is updated and relevant. This is making sure that whatever you claim, you back up (as opposed to, “hey, we understand social media, but, oh, we don’t have an active blog.”). This is making sure that your organization’s employees can say the organization is good at the same thing the business development person has said the organization is good at. This is just making sure you show up prepared to back up what you said you could do. Listen and respond. Listen very closely. That’s all I have to say here.


This is mostly pitching & presentation stuff. This is an entire post on its own. Maybe the closest I have written about this so far is my Interviewing 1.5 & 2.0 stuff. It is very much like interviewing – a combination of competency and chemistry. This is really important and the stupidest conversations within the agency happen here. Suffice it to say the craziest thoughts on what really matters tend to arise here. Some thoughts here:

  • Play to win, not to lose. I have watched more agencies invest so much energy simply trying to check boxes I get tired thinking about it. Play to win. Be first or last because anything inbetween is simply an excuse to say something bad about yourself (why you didn’t win) or something bad about them (I cannot believe ‘x’)

  • Speak truth to power. Tell them the truth about themselves, tell them the truth about you. They know themselves but its nice that someone says it out loud. They will find out about your truths whether you tell them or not (so tell them)

  • Address attrition risks prior to pitch. Oftentimes early in the Choose phase (“I have a list, I think I feel good about it, let’s kick the tires”) and far too many agencies rush to the “choose me” phase. Don’t. Don’t rush. Festina lente. Grind out the attrition battle so that if and when you stand up for the final pitch it is not about any obstacles they may have presented and it is all about exploiting the opportunity.


I wrote something about this called “the art of the deal.” But. After you have finished the business development “dance” sometimes people forget that the “buy” moment can dictate a lot of whether the relationship gets off on a good first step or a hesitant step, or, even worse, you trip. You need to figure out staffing, compensation, incentives, all the money stuff. Oddly, or interestingly, this is often the first time your CFO gets involved face to face. CFO’s, in general, are not business development people (that’s kind of why they aren’t business development people), but they often end up in a lose/lose situation in that the first and only time they see prospective clients is over the “money negotiation.” Feel free and plug in “accounting” instead of CFO if that is more relevant to your situation. I always personally thought the CFO should be involved as early as possible face-to-face with a client. This was not a popular belief amongst others. That said. It is nuts that almost everyone on a pitch team is married or in a live-in relationship and they seem to have a brain fart forgetting money in relationships is often one of the most conflict-driven aspects of a relationship. Heck. Everyone has a bought a car, paying the money part is absolutely horrible. Or a mortgage? Rather have bamboo shoots under the fingernails. The last thing an agency wants is to present well, check all the boxes, actually have a client expressly ask to sit down and say “I’d like to buy” and then you slog your way through money and hours. Think about that. New business doesn’t think about this enough.


Experience is just that. They considered you, searched you, and bought you. Time to drive the new agency it just bought. Oh. And months 1 through 6 will set the tone for whatever the relationship ends up being. If they get treated like “hey, we really just wanted the sale” (and are ignored now), well, that’s the kind of relationship you’re gonna get (not so hot if I have to spell that one out). But. If the experience matches up with everything you have been saying consistently throughout the entire process, you are rockin’. To be clear, any transition is difficult. No matter how much you show “the people working on the business” in the actual pitch, winning revolves around thought leadership who will not be invested day to day. All I can really say here is consistency and coherence. What a client gets has to be consistent with what was promised from day one and coherent to what was promised on pitch day.

Part 2: Building your business

Ok. It’s like business leaders have a brain cramp when it comes to this discussion. Who should be on my list? How many prospects on the list is the right amount? Consultants will say “pick your top 50 prospects.”

Say what? I don’t get it. This may sound flippant, but I don’t care how many are on your list. If you use the idea below, your list will be more driven by your objectives and plan than by “here is who I want to go after.” And the sheer number will become irrelevant, ok, maybe less relevant, if you apply the total list against the buying process in part one, because all of a sudden instead of a zillion prospects the prospects will start dropping into slots in the buying process and group together instead of being one giant mass of prospects. So, you can have a zillion, but they will be grouped together in manageable numbers. So. Here is what I suggest. (it is pretty simple and I cannot remember who in my past gave me the idea).

Stack triangles.

Put your two largest clients at each of the two bottom points on the bottom triangle. Add them up. That is the size of the largest prospect on your first customer prospect list. It reflects a reasonable size your current process and capabilities can absorb. You can keep them happy. And you can keep the two (and all the others on the bottom) happy so they stay.

As soon as you get one that size (or close). You are now at the bottom of the next triangle. Slide that one to the bottom left (or right if that floats your boat). Put your next largest client on the other point and add them up and do it all over.

In the meantime, go ahead and put all your clients in the triangle. Give them dots. Triangles with dots in them always look great. There you go. Your growth plan. You’ll stop stacking triangles when you see a number that looks like what you want for your organization and, yes, an agency should have some sense of how large they would like to be.

Oh. That also means your prospect business development list changes. Should you have had all these new guys on your original list? Of course not. Why waste your time preselling someone you like, but probably weren’t capable of properly servicing? On occasion, do one of those not on the list track you down? Sure. And you deal with them if they do.

Is it good to change your prospect list like this? Sure. When you get to a certain size some prospects drop off your list because they aren’t worth your while. What do you say to the new prospects when you begin communicating? Easy. “Hey. We have grown. We always had the expertise, but now we have the process/infrastructure capabilities to work with you.”

**  note: Prospects like that kind of stuff. It’s called realistic truth or honesty.

The triangles plan of action shows two things (other than you actually have a plan):

  1. A reasonable logical growth plan
  2. How high or how big do you want to go plan of action (and how to get there)

Sure. There are exceptions. Sure. You make adjustments. Sure. Stuff happens (like you stop paying attention to a client who was on the bottom of one of your triangles, and they get pissed off and leave). But this is about a reasonable growth plan. And retention plays a role, but that is a different post (but it is very easy to build retention into your business development plan because you know your average length of client relationship so you can factor that in. So. Just answered that. Excellent. I just eliminated something to write).

In the end.

Those are two basic and relatively simple infrastructure ideas for a business development program.

Pretty simple huh? Yup.

You know what? Business development is fairly simple. It’s not about cold calling (which really isn’t that effective and in most business categories isn’t really the way to jump start a relationship). Don’t believe me on that last point? C’mon. How often do you pick up the phone to blindly call some girl (or guy) and say “Hey, you don’t know me, but I am guessing you have had a bunch of relationships that didn’t work out, but I am a really neat guy (or gal) so why don’t we meet and go out some time?”

Hmmmmmmmmm. Imagine a dial tone somewhere in that scenario.

Does what I suggest work? Look. I almost guarantee if you play the numbers right in what I just described you should get a couple of meetings fairly fast (out of sheer dumb luck your message will hit a couple of people in the stimulus phase). You will generate some ongoing meetings without cold calls. And you will grow so you can revise your prospect list often enough to keep it fresh. But. Remember. It is a program not a tactic. So, you gotta keep it going to make it work.

Oh. Also. Remember. A business development program should simply be an extension of everything else you are doing as an organization. Not some mysterious voodoo program where everyone looks askance at the biz development people (I have been looking for an opportunity to write askance for a while). They shouldn’t be using wacky business development words and phrases that make people think they bumped their head on a dumb stick, but rather use words and process the entire organization uses.

Last warning.

Beware the business development person or consultant who comes in with “here is the process and what we do.” Just shoot them then and save yourself a lot of heartache. They should be coming in saying “I know the principles to have a successful program, but let’s talk about what makes you successful – and vocabulary – with existing clients and I will build a business development program around that”.

** note: Don’t shoot that person. At least right away.

There you go. Good luck. Add some business.

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Written by Bruce