5 Keys to a Successful New Business Pitch

Going after new business is the lifeblood of any creative agency.

Even if you’re satisfied with your current revenues, size and roster, the transient nature of most client relationships means that you need to have an active pipeline to simply maintain the status quo. (And when was the last time you met an agency leader that was satisfied with the status quo?)

Pursuing new clients is time-consuming and expensive. It can also be a hell of a lot of fun, but you need to know what you’re getting into.

Here are five keys:

1. Understand the opportunity.

You need to know what you’re getting into BEFORE you pursue an opportunity, but many agencies neglect to ask the right questions up front.

Ever been out for a group meal and then realized when the check comes that nobody is clear about how you’re paying? Or gotten too deep into a relationship with somebody and are too embarrassed to admit you don’t remember their name?

That sort of thing seems to happen a lot in new businesses pitches. Agencies don’t get clear about the basics. What does the client want to do? Is it a project or an agency-of-record relationship? What is their budget? Does that budget include production and media? What is the agency fee?

I’m shocked how many times I’ve seen agencies get deep into pitches without having clear answers to the most basic scope questions. It’s a million times easier to ask these questions on first contact. Until you know the answer, you can’t really evaluate whether the opportunity is right for your agency.

2. Be clear about what a win will do FOR your agency.

Need the revenue? Is this a chance to open up a new market? Is it a creative opportunity to do something that will help attract talent and other new business?

Agency people are optimists. They see opportunity everywhere and believe that they are uniquely qualified to help the clients solve problems.

But you need to take a hard look and be honest about what a prospective client is going to do for your agency.

And you need to be clear with the whole team.

Too often, agency leaders sell the potential of a prospective client rather than the reality. But pretending that a high-volume churn-and-burn client is something else is only going to hurt you in the long run.

It’s healthier to have an honest conversation with your team and say, “Listen, this client isn’t known for stellar work, but there’s a new client team in place and they’re saying the right things. Money-wise, winning the account would be good for the agency, but the jury is out on what type of work they’re going to want. Shall we pursue it?”

3. Be clear about what a win will do TO your agency.

“We’d make a shit ton more money! We’ll get to work on a bigger stage!”

That may be true. But what will this client do TO your agency? Will you have to change the size of your agency or the way you work? Partner with new companies? What will that do to your culture? How will it impact your team and current clients?

Think a big win won’t have a huge impact? Think again. I was at GS&P when they won the billion-dollar Chevy account; it changed the place. David Jones wrote a terrific piece about Droga5 Sydney and the impact that winning Woolworths (a large grocery chain) had on the now-closed agency.

It’s a well-learned lesson. David Droga recently told Campaign, “We’re more defined by the business we said no to, because you have to know your own brand.”

Often these important discussions — whether a client is a good fit for the agency or not — get punted down the road. “Let’s just meet them and see if it’s a good fit.” And the pitch process can generate a momentum that can be hard to stop. But at some point, you need to ask yourselves hard questions and stop dating if marriage would not be good for your agency.

4. Identify and empower pitch leaders.

Somebody needs to be in charge. Somebody needs to make decisions.

Yes, it’s a collaborative business and good ideas can come from anywhere, but the buck has to stop with somebody.

And yet, the bigger the opportunity, the more cooks in the kitchen.

Peter Levitan tells a great story about an Adidas pitch where they weren’t clear who was leading the charge, and the results were, uh, no bueno. (Losing a “sure thing” global account has the benefit of teaching you some valuable lessons.)

I recommend naming a creative, strategy and account lead for each pitch and publicly saying, to everybody on the team, “They are in charge. They make the decisions. Our success or failure on this one is in their hands.” And then let them run with the ball. They should listen to everybody, but they don’t have to do anything anybody says, even if that “anybody” has his or her name on the door.

Equally important, you need to nail down roles and responsibilities across the pitch team.

It’s bizarre to me how many problems arise in a pitch out of lack of clarity about the basics: Who is doing what? When is it due?

It’s tempting to say, “Well, you need a great project manager and everything will be hunky dory.” Sure, having somebody play that role is invaluable, but everybody on the team has to be clear about what’s expected of him or her.

5. Really listen to the client.

Sure, sometimes a client really doesn’t know what they want. But, generally, the act of initiating a search for a new agency partner suggests that SOMEBODY has said, “I want to do something that my current agencies can’t do.”

It would behoove you to REALLY understand what it is that client wants to do. And most clients will tell you exactly what they need if you stop talking long enough to hear it.

A large pitch team can make it more difficult to get clear in this area. When too many people on your side hear slightly different versions of the “the ask,” it can be challenging to reconcile.

Your pitch leaders need to de-brief after each point of contact with the client. What did you hear? How does this change the brief? What’s our strategy to address the feedback? If you’re not clear, somebody needs to ask the client or pitch consultant for clarification.

I’ve seen prospective clients say some version of, “This is a digital, retail assignment.” And then watched agencies respond with, “Are you also interested in larger brand ideas?” Even if the client says, “Sure, if you’ve got them, we’d love to hear them,” that doesn’t mean that the initial assignment has changed — lose sight of that fact at your own peril.

When Adweek recently named BBDO its U.S. Agency of the Year, San Francisco CEO Jim Lesser pointed to listening as one of the keys to their success: “We always try to come with an opinion, but our real strength is our ability to listen.” It’s probably why their Mattel client said that the agency “felt like an extension of the internal team from the beginning.”

Ultimately, new business wins can be transformative for your agency and for the people inside your company. Approach these opportunities with open eyes and open ears and you’ll have the best chance of success.

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About the Author

John Kovacevich is a writer and creative director based in San Francisco. He’s directed all aspects of agency new business, from answering phone calls from prospective clients to running pitches to presenting work.

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