The Ruthless Pursuit of “No” and Other Rules of New Business

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Robert Solomon
Robert Solomon




Maurice Levy, the chair and CEO of the French holding company Publicis, is reputed to have said about new business, “You never really know why you win; you never really know why you lose.” I have no idea if Levy actually said this, but no matter. I believe it to be true.

I have been on the receiving end of many a condolence call from the prospective client that goes something like this: “You and your team were great, really great, and it was a hard, really, really hard decision, but we’ve decided to go in a different direction. But let’s stay in touch.”

And there have been a few occasions when I received this kind of call: “You and your team were great, really great, and it was a hard, really, really hard decision, but we’ve decided to go with you and your team. When can we get together to kick things off?”

The difference between winning and losing is often the thinnest of margins, and there are so many variables in play when you pursue a new client -- money, the work, the people, the politics, did I say money -- it is impossible to know exactly how you won or lost.

My agencies have done extraordinary work for prospective clients and lost. My agencies have done average work for prospective clients and won.

I had one prospective client tell me our agency didn’t understand their business and that’s why we lost. I had another prospective client tell me we understood their business so well that’s why we won.

I once had a client visit our agency, listen to a credentials presentation, and make a decision on the spot to proceed. I had another client who never did make a decision, which means none of the competitors won.

In a new business effort in which there might be anywhere from 3 to 10 finalists, how do you avoid becoming one of the silver medalists? How do you walk off with that one gold medal?

With new business, there might be as many pieces of advice -- some wise, others not so wise -- as there are agencies, but I think there are three relatively simple rules to follow:

1) Be ruthless about the accounts you pursue.

New business is all about handicapping risk. Smart agencies evaluate potential clients as carefully as clients evaluate them.

You want to avoid the long shot opportunities and focus instead on those in which you have a reasonable chance to prevail. The key to winning is less about the accounts for which you decide to compete, and more about the accounts for which you decide not to compete.

Do we really want this account? Can we help the clients achieve their goals? Do we like them? Will we get along? Is the money fair? Is the investment we need to make to win commensurate with the opportunity? How many other competitors are there? How do we measure up? Can we staff this properly? Will pursuing this account undermine the work we are doing for current clients?

Questions like these help agencies reduce risk, increase the potential for reward, and help arrive at a decision to proceed, or more likely, a decision to not proceed.

2) Once you’re in, go all out.

I am reminded of a player on a sports team who, in response to a question from a reporter, says that, “We left everything on the field.” The meaning is clear: That player and his teammates gave maximum effort, win or lose.

If your agency is selective about the accounts and clients it chooses to pursue, it should be better able to devote the time, attention, and resources necessary to compete effectively. They follow every step included in the previous chapter. They leave everything on the field.

3) Pay attention to relationships.

I was in a pitch once for a major financial services account. The agency I was working with was eliminated; the client chose another shop. But at the proverbial eleventh hour, a very senior client person stepped in and steered the account to an agency that also had been eliminated, proving once again that, in new business, relationships matter.

It’s easy to say the client’s decision will be based on strategy, the ideas, and the work, and I know of no clients who willingly will admit to choosing an agency because they felt comfortable with the people they interacted with during the pitch process, but do not underestimate the power of personal connection.

Staying with the sports metaphor for a moment: If the score is close between your shop and a competitor, how the client feels about you and your colleagues could very well be the tiebreaker. You want to be on the winning side of that decision, and this means paying close attention to casting your team, and to taking all the necessary steps to close the gap between you and the client.

Getting to “yes” in new business is a little like shepherding a bill through the U.S. Congress. There are a thousand opportunities to veto something, but only one clear path to passage.

It’s no wonder so little legislation becomes law and why so few new business initiatives result in a win. I suppose many of us could take our marbles and go home but, for a few of us, that’s the maddening beauty and wonder of advertising.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from The Art of Client Service: The Classic Guide, Updated for Today's Marketers and Advertisers, 3rd Edition by Robert Solomon. Copyright (c) 2016 by Robert Solomon. All rights reserved. This book is available at all booksellers.


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