Managing for Success

New Approach to New-Business Development
by Matthew Sheppard

Ask anyone who runs an agency, especially a boutique agency, and they'll tell you that the most challenging aspect is new-business development.

Developing an account, growing the business and expanding your services once you've established a client relationship is relatively easy. Provide good client service, good value for money, efficient and timely solutions, some great ideas and you're good to go.

Finding new business however, is the biggest pain in the proverbial butt!

We used to develop target lists of clients that we felt would be right for us, lists based upon a selection criteria: We'd look at their revenues or marketing budgets (to establish whether they could afford us), we'd look at their past communications efforts (to understand if they have ever purchased similar services to those offered by our team), we'd look at their location (the closer the better), and we'd take a view of their brand to better understand if it would in fact be right for us.

We'd then research the heck out of them. What are they up to? What's worked for them in the past? Are they launching anything soon? Who do they need to reach? Where are they in pain? Armed with the list, we'd brainstorm some initial ideas to address some of their issues and then we'd hit the phones, we'd send emails, letters, links, whatever and then follow up, again and again and again in the hope that based upon our initial thoughts and solutions, we'd enter into a discussion that with some careful handling would turn into an opportunity.

Now, we have had some success with this process. As a result of it, we are now working with a leading leisure and hospitality provider, have been awarded a great project with a leading fashion retailer, and earlier this year we bid (and sadly eventually lost) on an opportunity to become creative agency of record for a national casual dining chain.

However, most of the bites lead to clients that either take our initial recommendations and run with them (this happened just last week), or come back to us and ask us to develop our recommendations on a project that we eventually discover hasn't received internal approval -- or a budget allocation. Ultimately, we're being asked to provide a feasibility study, blueprint and budget for an executive who intends to take our work up the chain of command to see if they can gain some traction (and perhaps pat on the back) on an interesting thought that they had earlier.

When, on the rare occasion, you get the opportunity to talk to prospective clients and ask them, "What would convince you to look at a new agency?" the answer is often, "Come to us with some great thinking ... new ideas .... " But do they realize how time consuming and costly that really is -- especially when, for the most part, the intent to switch agencies or engage some supplemental resource is slim?

So what's the answer? Our plan for new-business development works, it really works, but it's costly and wildly time consuming and honestly we need to do about 10 times more than we are currently doing if we are going to meet our own goals for growth.

So earlier this year we turned to Plan B. We took a look at our existing client list and asked ourselves where they came from? We also looked at the synergies between each client and us; as a result we found some interesting facts.

The majority of our clients have come to us based on direct relationships with any one of the members of our team (we really are friends with our clients) or they have engaged us based upon a recommendation from an existing client. Most interestingly, all of our clients take an alternative approach -- for one reason or another, more traditional forms of communication don't resonate. They are (or at least were when we started with them) private businesses -- no shareholders means they run relatively flat organizations, they are all quick to make decisions, look to take risks, and are free to blaze a trail of their own. Perfect!

So now it's about the network. The goal, five face-to-face meetings each week; shake the tree and make it happen! It's too early to profess major success, but we are encouraged with the conversations we've entered into. One thing is clear though: As the resulting connection is a sincere, honest relationship, gone are the wild-goose chases.

This article has been written and reprinted with the permission of author Matthew Sheppard and Ad Age.

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