New Business: The Threat and Promise

Although this is a “101” column, the topic of new business needs to be addressed. While going out and pitching new clients isn’t necessarily in the job description of many media buyers, much of the new business an agency gets comes only through the good graces of the media department, which convinces incumbent clients to lay out more money with the firm. This must be managed carefully.

New Clients Determine Your Agency’s Direction

New clients determine the growth, staffing plan, and the very identity of an agency. Folks almost always fail to realize this until it’s too late. The best example that comes to mind is my own experience with Microsoft. We were tickled to win back the account in 1995, but we had no idea that the PR, staffing needs, resource requirements, and noncompete clauses would all conspire to make our firm seem like a mere in-house agency. We saw a lot of diverse opportunities fall by the wayside because of the ever-present immediate resource pressures of the 800-pound gorilla account. I recall pitching, winning, and then turning away large clients like Macromedia and Charles Schwab because of our endless chase with the giant.

This was a strategic mistake. The “Mr. Softee” business launched us into the pantheon of the biggest online buyers, but it stunted us in the long run.

Make a Few Lists

You can’t just chase the accounts that are currently in review. A lot of agency new-business folks simply look at that page in Adweek where it lists all the big accounts that are currently looking for new agencies. But this is like a talent agency hiring new entertainers based on who’s currently out of work. Beware.

We have to think of our clients as our faces to the world. The work an agency does will be exhibited solely through the approval processes of these clients. The very fact that they have accounts in review suggests that they have problems working with at least one agency.

We must make a few lists. The first list should include the unique qualities your agency can use in the marketplace. Then, based on that list, write down the dream clients that would best exploit these abilities. You should come up with five or six optimal companies. Think hard because there are a lot of factors to anticipate. You don’t want one huge client that will dominate your staff and business. You don’t want too many clients from the same category, lest your agency get pigeonholed into a niche. You want clients that will let you do great, cutting-edge work. You want clients that have a reputation for working well with other companies and can make your relationship profitable.

Contact Them

You don’t need a mutual friend or some other excuse. Go ahead and give the marketing chief a call. Be completely open and honest. It’s a great story: You went and made a list, and he or she is sitting on top of it. This is really quite flattering to this person. He or she won’t give you any business right then but will thank you for the call.

And then, nine months later, this person calls you because the company has finally had it with its last agency. And now you’re on top of the list.

Fire Clients

It isn’t all beer and skittles, though. Often it’s as important to fire incumbent clients as it is to get new ones. Sometimes the needs of a particular client change and are less relevant to your agency’s skills. Sometimes, to be blunt, a client just becomes too much of a pain and ceases to be profitable. Cut your losses early. The sooner you do, the sooner you’ll put that staff on one of the more optimal accounts. My own experience shows that if I fail to do this early enough, I’ll lose the staff itself. People hate working on dysfunctional accounts.

The New Business Engine: Media Staff

The real engine of growth in online agencies, however, remains the media staff. A competent group will continue to impress the client into laying out more and more media dollars. This should be encouraged with a little bit of selectivity. Remember the lists we made above? A similar list should be made among your existing clients. Which ones do you really want to grow with? Are there any that shouldn’t grow anymore? Keep that balance.

Media buyers: There are three tactics that you must pursue to grow your business.

  1. The obvious one is to ensure your client likes your firm. To the degree that you impress the heck out of him or her, this will naturally follow. This also has a lot to do with setting expectations as to what you deliver when. In the absence of well-worn paths in the online world, sometimes clients’ expectations become unrealistic.

  2. Put the client’s feet to the budget fires. Ask your client this question: Why is it that you’re spending X in print and TV and only Y in online media? Most likely your client will not have a good answer. See last week’s column for what to do to correct this situation.
  3. Go to your client with unique opportunities. Every day there are new and different things being done online. Some of these things will be relevant and useful to your client’s brands. If you keep bringing these ideas to your client, you will organically grow the business. I caution you, however, on doing “neat-o” things that look very nifty but give scant metric feedback. There are plenty of rich media doodads to do out there that will blow a $100,000 production budget. But, in the end, no one can tell you what good it did. To get this organic growth, you need to be able to show results to continue that program, even as you introduce additional ones.


Finally, don’t be the dog that finally catches the car. When you get the new business, it’s easy to find yourself with a lot of media to buy and only one quarter the staff to do it. We need to be honest with the client regarding how quickly we can scale upward. I’ve been surprised at how understanding clients have been when we’ve been upfront about this. Clients appreciate being brought into this very internal and sensitive issue with some openness and honesty.

Never expect in one month’s time to be able to find four media buyers and a supervisor and get them hired and relocated after a quick round of interviews. Maybe in some other industry or some other labor market, but in this one you’re going to need some time.

It’s also the only fair thing to do for your existing staff. The quickest way to lose staff members is to have them work double time for their existing clients as well as the new ones. That works during a pitch and for a couple weeks after the adrenaline rush of a win. But a month later, it wears thin. A happy and functional agency is one that scales in anticipation of desired business. This might seem an unnecessary luxury to the CFO, but it pays financial dividends over time.

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