Why Do Ad Agencies Hate New Business?

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Robert Sanders
Robert Sanders




For an industry that makes its living on selling marketing services, why don’t many agencies focus on marketing themselves? Over the past years and thousands of agencies, we’ve heard many of the excuses. Here are a few of the more common:

1) Our leads all come from referrals.

Referrals are important. And we strongly recommend you work hard to keep the referral pipeline full. The problem we find is sooner or later you run out. We can’t tell you how many agencies have called us after a year or two with little or no referrals. When asked about their new business program, they say most of their leads are from, you guessed it, referrals. Only they haven’t gotten any recently. Unless you keep feeding the relationship pool with new contacts, the referrals will dry up. And growing your relationship pool takes a strong outreach program, i.e., new business.

2) I’m in advertising, not new business.

This makes no sense to us. Every person who works in an agency has a unique set of skills -- strategy, creative, digital, etc. But they all need to be focused on new business -- the life blood of any agency. This is really saying they’re afraid of new business where the normal rules don’t apply and there’s risk. Careers and egos could get bruised. So get out there and practice learning a new skill. Get comfortable with new business. Find a new business trainer and approach it like any other skill by learning from a pro. And make new business part of everyone’s job.

3) New business is sales.

Yes, we get it -- you’re a professional marketing firm that does real branding work for real companies. Very strategic. The whole “selling thing” is tactical, down in the weeds. But, if you don’t sell your services you can’t do any of the strategic stuff. In the agency-client world the old “hard sell” rarely works, but building relationships works. Focus on developing your relationship-building skills. Now.

4) Clients reject sales attempts.

It’s true that prospects reject most hard sell attempts. There are many cold calling firms, sales systems, and door knockers that have muddied the waters. As a result, many clients have a “shields up” attitude. What is also true is most prospects are on the lookout for fresh thinking, industry insights, and value-based ideas. They are willing to build a relationship with a few smart people who offer something of value. After all, it may help with their job, keep them informed, and could solve the very problem they’re facing. So start providing something of value to prospects beyond “we’re creative.”

5) Client work must come first.

After all, if you do “great work” the clients will come, right? This belief is so dated it boggles the mind. Frankly, we should know better. First, the marketing landscape is filled with great creative firms that have gone out of business. Second, this belief skips over one of the great issues facing the entire marketing world today -- an overabundance of marketing messages. With all the marketing messages filling the world, how can your great creative work hope to stand out? Better to work on a targeted list and focus on building awareness and relationships with a few key prospects.

6) New business is too hard.

This may seem simple, but it’s a very interesting point. Most agency leaders view themselves as professionals. They understand all the nuances of marketing, creative, design, and more. And new business seems alien to them. They have a hard time understanding it. They often confide that “the normal rules don’t seem to apply.” And frankly, this is a correct view. We often say the skills it takes be great in advertising are 180 degrees opposite of those it takes to be great at new business. Perhaps it’s time we recognize the need for a new skill set within the agency world -- new business.

7) Agencies don’t have anything to sell.

Ideas are impossible to value -- right? So what you do offer to your clients that they value? Relationships? Business building strategies? Sales? What are the tangible benefits of working with your agency? If you can’t answer this question, you could be in real trouble. Understanding new business is really the study of why your clients come to you -- and creating the opportunity for more clients to discover those benefits.

8) We're too busy to focus on new business.

One of the questions we ask when working with agency staff is: “Which of your current clients is the most important?” The answers range all over the board from one client to another. Of course, it’s a trick question, and the answer is the agency. Without the agency, you have no other clients. It’s our way of stressing the importance of new business to the agency. It’s urgent for your future to make time for new business. Focus on building a new business system that will generate a steady stream of leads into your agency. Protect your best client: the one that will always pay the bills.

9) We have too much new business now.

Outstanding! This is really good news, and consider yourself one of the lucky few. That said, now is the time to really ramp up a strong new business system. You have the capital, the resources, and you’re on a roll. Set your agency up for long-term success while you have the luxury. In addition, you can work towards dropping a couple of problem clients or move into new categories or position the agency for the next generation. Better to act now and not be forced into action after the good times end.

10) I already know everything about new business.

We’re happy to believe that. And we’ve found that it really doesn’t matter. There is always value in having an outside perspective on your new business activities. After all, we’ve traveled around the world, consulted with thousands of agencies, and just may be able to offer you something you haven’t thought of. Don’t forget the all important role of teaching your staff. Find the tools necessary to teach new business to your next group of leaders.

Now is the time for action. For your agency to reach its potential, you must take action. You need to install a new business system and the skills needed to support that system. Quit being in denial. Admitting you have a problem is the first step in fixing the problem. As agency leaders, how many times must you face the agency growth problem before you take action? Pretending that new business is great doesn’t help anyone -- if you’re not growing.


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