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March 1, 2006
New business is like medieval dating
 have had the pleasure to travel around the country . . . and outside . . . to work with advertising, PR, design and marketing firms on improving their new business success rates.

Consulting on new business success is a little bit about using better techniques, but mostly it’s about changing the corporate culture to approach new business differently. A few thoughts about how to do that:

New business isn’t anything like your everyday business. Most of your daily energy is spent helping your clients build their brands and businesses. New business is about selling your business. You need to shift gears and learn how to treat it like a completely separate business discipline. The famous line, “let the work speak for itself,” is the pathway to disaster.

New business is dating. If having a client relationship is akin to being married, then getting there involves the same kinds of issues that people have when they date each other before having a committed relationship. The new business dating ritual is not “reality.” It’s not “normal.” It’s a very staged, careful and self-conscious process . . . just like first dates in personal life. Your first impressions will dictate whether there will ever be a future together.

Stop worrying about what you can’t control. Clients’ decisions to conduct reviews are motivated by lots of factors . . . and you don’t control any of them. What you can control is the ability to be relevant and top-of-mind when those factors “trigger.” That’s why having a consistent, frequent outreach communications program is critical.

Prospecting is like medieval dating. The knights of yore took their time when courting a lady and so should agencies when pursuing client prospects. There is no point in being pushy because clients have their own timetables (see above). The goal of prospecting is not to win the business. It’s to establish a relationship so you will be considered. Make each client “date” a brief, appreciated event.

You are how you prospect. The medium is the message. USPS letters, post cards and fancy and expensive boxes are very 1980s. In 2006 it’s about special forms of email, custom web sites and intellectual credibility. Think of the act of prospecting as an opportunity to demonstrate your creativity.

It’s always all about them. Agencies regularly get invited to present their “capabilities.” But, on a first date you never want to be accused of “only talking about yourself.” There are lots of ways to turn the capabilities session into being all about them.

Who is the client? Really. Sometimes the person running the review is the lead decision-maker. But just as often it may be his/her boss . . . or even some third party not attending. Knowing this is critical to how you will engage the client during the pitch process. Don’t be shy about asking . . . and insisting on an answer.

It’s the people, stupid. Clients typically say that they picked the winning agency because of their “smart strategy” or “great creative.” I’ve interviewed scores of executives following the review process and will tell you that they use those reasons to appear “professional.” The reality is that they pick the agency based on “I liked them . . . and I trusted them.” Period. So when you lose, face it, it means they liked the other people better.

How you say it is more important than what you say. Think about it, in a play we remember actors and their roles . . . not their lines. In a sea of agency presentations, clients tend to forget the content, but they will remember the personalities they liked. This means that carefully crafting the script, memorizing it and concentrating on your performance is critical. “Winging it” is for losers.

Learn from losing. When agencies lose there is usually a suspension of disbelief (“what pitch?”). It’s painful and they want to forget. Instead, institutionalize a rigorous post mortem process that includes declaring what changes should be made for next time. Doing the same (wrong) thing over again isn’t going to change future outcomes.

Never give up. Once they’re rejected by a client agencies tend to act like spurned lovers and feel like they never want to see them again. That would be a big mistake. One of your best future prospects is the client you didn’t win. History has shown that many times the ‘marriages” with the first-choice agencies don’t work out and, if you’ve remained a “suitor,” you may pick them up “on the rebound.”

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Robb High specializes in helping professional services firms prospect and pitch new business more effectively. To date, Robb has worked with over 100 advertising, PR, design and marketing firms across the country and is a regular speaker at industry events. Previously Robb was head of new business for Y&R Group and before that COO at Kirshenbaum & Bond. rhigh@robbhighconsult.com

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