How to Build A Winning Advertising Agency New Business Program


A Winning Advertising Agency New Business Program Is A… Good Thing

This post is all about the most important thing an agency can do … keep growing. Agencies are like sharks. They must keep moving forward or else.

One more quick point.

At over 5,000 views, this is one of my best read blog posts on advertising agency new business. I suggest that if you are really looking for business development secret sauce – a sauce I first learned as Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising’s business development director and then honed as an agency owner and Internet startup CEO – read this post and then give me a call and take me up on my Corleone offer – It’s hard to refuse.

Let’s Go…

When I owned my Oregon agency Citrus, I woke up every morning (and even some nights) thinking hard about my agency’s business development program. I bet as an ad agency owner or manager you have too. One of the things I knew I could and should do was to manage this issue was to know that I had an active, I stress active, new business plan in place.

Here are some (I stress some) of the elements of my new business plan. They helped me grow Citrus (with new clients like Harrah’s, LegalZoom, Nike and the Montana Lottery). I hope my insights help you grow your agency.

Execution Rules.

When I set out to create this advertising agency new business post I didn’t think that it would be this long – warning to the ADHD types. But, advertising agency new business planning is complex and is getting more complex every day due to the rapid changes in our industry and technology. That said, the devil in business development, you know what’s coming, is in the detail. Success is all about execution. For example, running a successful inbound biz dev program that attracts market attention must be based on a sound strategy and an editorial calendar. Staying the course is critical. Another big point: having an agency video on your website is nice (actually, I think it’s critical). But, having a video that goes beyond just being there to getting watched and passed along by your target audience because it provides value is way better. If your video drives incoming interest, tells your agency’s story and builds chemistry, you will drive lead generation. It is all about how you execute.

The Communications Agency Business Plan. First Things First.

I have never been able to construct an effective business development program without first having an agency business plan.

The business plan should include — at least – your business objectives, an assessment of your current strengths and weakness, a category analysis, clear target market objectives, a competitive agency positioning, a service plan (it might mean adding new services), a business development and communications plan and a staff and recruitment plan. Because for many agencies managing costs is the one thing that management can control, make sound cost-effective elements a critical part of your plan.

The plan should also help you plan for your future in the evolving world of marketing communications. I think that client confusion with the evolving state of advertising and marketing – this includes big and small clients – makes today a great time to be an agency. Winning agencies are resolving their business challenges, crafting the right services and guidance and, importantly, are willing to modify their business model to avoid disruption to achieve success.

It is imperative that you develop a roadmap for how to grow your current agency to become the agency of the future. The market, communication tools and client expectations are changing rapidly. Assess your current strengths, weaknesses and how your agency expertise and personnel are going to stay ahead of change (do an annual SWOT analysis). Change can be very profitable. What if you could restart your agency using  a blank sheet of paper? Would you build a replica of your current agency or would it look dramatically different? If you think that change is in order, you better get started. Here is a powerful mantra, 

“If you dislike change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.” General Eric Shinseki.

The Agency New Business Program – Join The 34%

66Armed with your business plan you can get ahead of your competitors by having a comprehensive new business plan. Most agencies do not have a plan. Get this…

66% Of Advertising Agencies Report That They Do Not Have a Business Development Plan. This Is Lunacy!

Your plan should include most, if not all of the following:

Conduct an agency brand review to determine if your current brand, story and services create product and market differentiation; build a positive reputation; generate incoming client interest and attracts talented employees.

Create a set of ‘buyer’ personas so you know exactly what type of client you want and how they think and act.

Have a compelling agency brand story that is driven by your history, products, services and your personality. Need help? Read Seth Godin’s “All Marketers Are Liars.”

Managing the Process.

Unless your phone is ringing off the hook, your agency’s new business program must be an agency priority.

Agency leadership has to be actively involved with establishing new business objectives, strategic planning and execution.

Stay on top of the process. Have at least bi-monthly new business planning meetings.

Business development is 24/7. Your digital marketing program and management and staff activities must be ongoing and consistent.

Hire a Business Development Director to help manage the new business program and act as the agency sales leader or hunter. This person’s key job is to get meetings with the right prospects. Use my Business Development Director’s compensation plan to orient their focus.

Stimulate and empower others in the organization to participate. Everyone is responsible for growth. Best case, they will come up with a marketable new service. At the least they should be keeping their eyes open for leads.

Be Unignorable.

Unnamed jenniferYes, that’s Jennifer Lawrence on the left. I’m using her to make the point about being unignorable. To make it in Hollywood, where there are hundreds of wannabees, you’ve got to be unignorable.

Same for the advertising industry. There are over 4,000 marketing agency options that your prospective client can access. These range from huge multinational agencies (and, yes they go after small clients too) to one-person experts. Clients are baffled by the number of agencies and types and then how to choose between them.

I firmly believe that the only way you will win the new business game is to be unignorable. Stand out, make noise, say something different, be a sales entity and sell. Big point: your agency website, your digital front door, has only about 8 seconds to make an impression — and, get that client to want to make contact. 8 seconds. This isn’t a design issue. This is a sales issue. I urge you to read The Unignorable Advertising Agency.


Prospecting is a long-term play and takes time. Be prepared, persistent and patient.

Manage an active Excel prospect database and/or CRM system. if you have to, keep it simple. But, do it.

Build an “A-Level” prospect list. Establish selection criteria and do your research. I’ve always thought that there are three types of desirable clients: Those that pay well (that means they are profitable); those who demand great work; those who are famous and enhance your reputation. Two of the above are good. Pay well is best. My agency’s client Nike had all three.

To build up-to-date lists I’ve used the services of The List Inc., Red Books and LinkedIn. You can also hire interns or go offshore for worker bee assistance.

Build an email list to keep all prospects, clients and associates aware of agency thought leadership, news and growth.

Referrals are good. Periodically ask your friends, family, business associates, employees (many don’t think about new business) and current clients for referrals. have a referral system.

Track the career path and whereabouts of past clients. LinkedIn notifications could become your best friend.

Read business publications, industry press and pertinent websites. To manage agency time, assign information buckets to different staff members. Get past just reading the same trade press your competitors read.

A Word On Incoming.

Pitching and even working on everything that rings the doorbell can be a mistake. Qualify the lead. Pitching the right accounts will increase your batting average. Pitching the wrong accounts will sap your agency’s energy, cash and time. Read my book on pitching if you want to find out why pitching everything that raises its hand can put you out of business. Remember, you have a business plan that lays out the type of clients you want and can win.

Business Development Tools.

Years ago I heard Jonathan Bond of New York’s Kirshenbaum Bond make this comment about new business activity: “I don’t know what works so we do everything.” Here are some tools worth considering.

Make sure that you have an agency website that sells. The great majority of agency websites do not. Get past brochure-ware. If you don’t think that prospects are overwhelmed by agency websites, especially me-too websites, spend some time on my Pinterest ad agency website directory

Maintain sales pressure. Schedule your outbound marketing to keep up consistent pressure — you can’t tell when a prospect will have a new project or an AOR account looking for a new agency. I’ve always made it an agency priority to send out high-value emails at least every four to six weeks.

Deliver high-value thought-leadership. Clients are looking for strategic agencies and solutions. But, keep in mind that you are not the only thought-leader on the block. There are 299,000 Google results for “best advertising blogs”. To beat these horrific odds you need to become a narrow-subject thought-leader to break through the clutter. Its way better to become a niche advertising or category expert than be a generalist.

Want more inbound? Get your brilliant thinking out there via a strategic social media program. Consider: blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook (sponsored posts work hard for me) and the strategic us of Instagram and Pinterest (yes, Pinterest). Don’t forget SlideShare, YouTube videos and good old-fashioned white papers, monthly emails and speaking engagements. Get your brains out there and make the client you want you by looking like you can help them get their bonus.

Do not over reach. One of the keys to social media success is selecting platforms that your agency can manage on a day-to-day basis. There are a lot of empty agency blogs and Twitter feeds that do much more harm to reputations than good.

Run events for prospects and clients. My agency Citrus got senior executives from Facebook, Google, Google Maps, LinkedIn and Yahoo! to speak at our own Portland “Meet the Makers” events. We just had to ask nicely.

Optimize and integrate everything you do. Try the Rule of Five. Amplify everything you do by five. The white paper goes in the mail (yes, mail); on your blog; on your LinkedIn page; out via Twitter and on SlideShare… You get the idea.

Turn cold calling into warm calling. Yes, the phone still works – if handled with care. I like to soften the prospect with a series of insight-rich thought leadership mailings (if it’s email you will see if has been opened) and then call early to reach the key prospect before their day begins or to leave a mini-pitch voicemail. Consider having a script handy.

Be smart. Before you make any calls, do basic research so you know about your prospect’s business, possible pain points and what sales messages might resonant. have a smart sales script that puts the client first.

Email. Yes, email still works and volume is now being driven by increased mobile usage. But, make sure your emails have value and don’t overwhelm.

Sometimes it is good to break out of digital… A personalized letter, as in paper, or mailing just might break through the digital clutter.

Think even more different. Over the years, I’ve used online surveys, postcards, music CD’s, etched wine bottles, targeted micro-sites, digital mad libs (yes, mad libs); books like Jeffery Abrahams’ “101 Mission Statements From Top Companies” and even Krispy Kreme donuts to get meetings. Here is a case history for a food-smile-based program that announced our new Portland office. We delivered a box of hot Krispy Kreme doughnuts and a personalized digital promotional program to generate awareness and smiles.

Get out of the office and go to events to hear new ideas and meet new people. Join relevant groups and organizations. Here is a post I wrote for AdPulp on curiosity and advertising agency growth.

Guest post to get more eyes on your thinking. See what I’ve done with my friends at HubSpot. Writing for them even got me a speaking gi at their huge fall event.

Create some buzz. PR is your friend.

Win creative awards. Go get some EFFIE’s to support your ROI story. But, watch the award budget.

First Meetings.

Whatever solicitation marketing you did worked and you landed a meeting. Here are some first meeting basics:

Keep it simple. don’t overwhelm the clients.

Listen: Probe for problems. Consider going beyond solution sales to tell them what they should be worried about. For more on this sales technique I suggest that you read “The End of Solution Sales” in the July – August 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review.

Sell something special: Deliver a USP.

Make friends: Work the chemistry and dazzle.

The master goal: Get a second meeting to keep the dialog going.


Getting an RFP is like getting asked out on a date for a test-drive. You should be flattered — but. To manage incoming, build a RFP decision matrix. You should quickly have an idea of which RFP’s to respond to and which aren’t worth the effort. RFP responses always chew up agencies. Make sure that this date is worthwhile.

If it’s a go, ask for a meeting to discuss the RFP. If the client is unwilling to give you some time, you might want to pass. Read up on why you might want to NOT pitch that account.Here’s a decision matrix…do not Pitch that account

Keep your response lean. Chances are that the client has asked for too many responses and could become brain-dead by the time they get to yours. Make sure you answer every question in the RFP before you go beyond what they are asking for.

Once you have ticked all the client boxes, go beyond. Don’t forget to include agency personality and consider an “Easter Egg” surprise element.


Oh, the uncertainty. Does the client have a favorite? Is this a strategic search or just a scheduled management or procurement exercise? Does the incumbent have an advantage? What type of agency is the client actually looking for? Who is the key decision maker? Do you present what they are asking for or what you think they need? Helping to understand the client’s motivations is where your most experienced management comes into play.

TheLevitanPitch_COVER_SmallPitching is an art. I’ve been pitching new business since the 80’s, ran business development at Saatchi & Saatchi in New York and London and pitched often for my own agency. OK, I admit it… I want you to buy my book on pitching and presenting. You can buy it at Amazon right here.

Here are what I believe are the primary elements of a perfect pitch process. This is only a top line list.

Pick a pitch leader and the right team for planning and writing.

Watch your costs. Create a budget. We have all seen pitch costs gone wild.

Create a timetable that includes strategy development, creative development and staging and rehearsals.

Consider building a war room, it can be an online war room, to help focus your effort.

Determine the client, category and customer issues and opportunities and make sure you address them.

Use research to support your strategic insights. But, note that the other agencies might be doing the same. That said, clients are always interested in seeing brief strategic videos of their customers talking about their products and services.

Determine and manage how you communicate your strengths and manage your weaknesses. Consider doing an agency SWOT analysis through the client’s lens.

Talk more about them than you. Actually, talk much more about them.

Act like you really want the business. Surprisingly, I’ve been told by clients that not all agencies know how to look interested.

Pitches are theater. Stories are better than endless credentials. Case histories are better than showing endless amounts of work. For inspiration, watch Steve Jobs.

If you can, get the client to come to you. I’ve pitched in too many soulless client boardrooms or hotel conference rooms. It can be a buzz kill.

If you have to go to them, find a way to scout out the room and equipment ahead of the meeting.

Put your best presenters in the room. Don’t include talented but uninspiring people simply because it is their turn or that they worked on the pitch. I’ve made this mistake. It’s a bad one. Get ahead of the problem and train your team on how to present. Do this now.

Don’t forget to smile. Interpersonal chemistry wins pitches.

As I said earlier, need help growing your agency? Give me a shout.


Free: 26 Ways To Grow Ad Agency Profits
Business-building tips from over 30 years running ad agencies.


  1. Hi Peter, I’ve worked in agency new biz dev for over 15 years and have experienced the worst of what you state. I am now a loyal follower of yours and am with an agency that understands, with a lot of help from me. I would like to point out that one agency you list in Pinterest as Cool Distant Agencies has a typo. It states “…advertising agrency.” Hope it is your error and not theirs.

    • Thanks for this great article Peter. I noticed one of the trackbacks to this page is a 404: “Is the Agency New Business Garden Planted for a Good Harvest? – The ANB Blog”. Just thought I’d point that out for your readers. Keep up the inspiring work!

  2. Peter – I like your no-B.S. approach in your other writings but want to add a suggestion that worked when I built a $20MM marketing agency in just 3 years with only 20 employees: become relevant, not unignorable. We would sell against NYC agencies all the time and win because they were selling their “creative portfolio” and ad awards while we were selling business results (increased leads, sales, share of wallet, etc.) Guess which one the CMO (and CFO) cares about? I know because since my agency days, I’ve been a CMO in 4 companies. My recommendation to any agency is to hire/integrate senior marketers for both account strategy & business development to become relevant. I used to openly challenge any prospective client to compare the LinkedIn profiles of my staff against a traditional “creative agency” (in fairness, we didn’t sell advertising – we sold integrated marketing). Keep up the great writing.

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