You Can’t Win At Ad Agency New BusinessWithout Understanding What Clients Want – Not As Easy As It Sounds.
What is the second sweetest sound in ad agency new business?
Its the sound of prospective client on the other side of an email or phone call (remember those?) that tells you that you are on the short (or most shortest list) for a sexy project, or better yet, their AOR assignment.
You put the phone or Mac down and you say your equivalent for ‘sweeeeet!.”
By the way, the first sweetest sound is… You’ve won.
Back to reality. OK, now what?
(FYI: This blog post is an excerpt from my new book on pitching and presenting, see the ** below.)
After you have covered the basics with your team, it’s time to start to begin to craft the presentation outline (hopefully you are past a go-fishing RFP) via a deep dive into this client’s head.
From a pure sales perspective, this is the hottest type of new business lead your ad agency will ever get. This client is motivated and has been thinking about their needs for a while. They have put in the time to launch their process. They are very serious. They asked you to participate and want to like you.
Empathy please. Agency selection is hard work for clients. They know that poor decisions at the beginning of the pitch process will lead to selecting the wrong agency and will therefore cost time, money and possibly delay the market share gains they need. CMOs want to look like they are making the right decisions. New CMO’s need to look sharp fast.
The Three Client Questions
In my experience, clients start their agency search process by asking three questions.
- What is the specific assignment?
- What type of type of relationship are we looking for?
- What type of agency do we need?
1. Type Of Assignment
In a best-case scenario, the client has done their internal homework and has been transparent in telling you what they require from the scope, timing, and compensation structure of the assignment. You’ve determined this from a deep read of their pitch request document, and in the best-case scenario, you have had a chance to meet with the client and ask questions.
The savvy client has used a smart internal or search consultant-guided process to get to this stage.
They have (or should have):
- Committed to a deliberate process from needs assessment through an RFI and RFP agency process to get to the final short list.
- Defined their sales, market share, and ROI objectives
- Agreed on scope of work
- Set a budget and compensation scheme.
- Picked a search team and identified a decision-making system.
- Closely examined a range of possible agencies.
- Interviewed agencies to get to a finalist list.
2. Type Of Relationship
You should be able to determine what type of relationship the client is looking for – and why. Some relationships are unquestionably worth your effort. Some might not be.
The fall 2013 report “4A’s and ANA Guidelines for Agency Search” outlines six types of agency relationships. I’ve listed them as described by the 4A’s and ANA (Association of National Advertisers) in order of desirably and added my personal take on what this could mean for you:
Agency of Record (AOR) Search – An AOR relationship usually sets long-term strategic and communications direction for a brand (i.e., ongoing retainer-based relationships).
My take: Although getting more rare, AOR assignments are the Holy Grail. An AOR relationship should deliver a higher pitch ROI due to long-term agency revenues. Take an all-in approach that demonstrates that you will be a dedicated agency partner that will invest in the client’s success for the long haul.
Specialty Agency Search – These are agencies that have a specific expertise (e.g., mobile, event marketing, digital, social, media planning, or CRM). These agencies often supplement an AOR relationship or an existing roster.
My take: Sweet. You have a skill that the client needs and cannot get from their current agencies. The client really needs what you have to offer. The bad news is that you might be up against similar specialist agencies. How you position your agency to create differentiation between the other specialists will be key.
Ad-hoc/Tactical Agency Searches – Typically smaller to mid-sized agencies used for more routine, turnkey work at a lower cost with a shorter turnaround time. These agencies can complement other agencies on the roster and free up core agencies to do more strategic work.
My take: Again, this is a good one. Small to mid-sized agencies know that getting that first foot in the door can lead to additional assignments and that all-important opportunity to excel and build a personal relationship. While the client is looking to fill a very specific need, you should be able to show that you have the skills and depth to be on their agency roster.
Project Reviews – Client searches for an agency to perform a specific, one-time deliverable.
My take: Projects can be a pain in the butt. They are short term, eat up staff time and can be inefficient from a pitch ROI perspective. But, like the tactical agency search, if it gets you in the door and if the client is large enough, go for it.
Roster Agency Search – Could involve a review for a specific assignment or might entail a qualified vendor status review with no specific assignment as part of the roster review. A roster agency is one that has met the criteria to be considered for a client’s brands but may not yet have been awarded a brand assignment.
My take: Boy, this is a tough one. Is it worth the effort? Is it a fishing expedition run by a junior client or consultant looking to grow their agency information database? Tough to figure out if you should go for it or not. The ROI on this type of search is much lower – or will take a long time to pay off. You will have to decide if the long-term business opportunity outweighs the short-term pain.
International Agency Search – This is a search for an AOR to manage a global brand. This search is usually done to identify a lead office in a core market, which will then coordinate efforts with other offices around the world.
My take: These are usually multi-national network agency searches. However, I’ve worked with mid-sized agencies in Europe and Asia that have pitched across borders, so I think that there are more agencies pursuing international accounts than we think. If you are a medium size agency, note that big clients are well aware of the inefficiencies of working with massive agencies, and many have been seeking smaller specialist or creative-focused shops to work across their markets.
3. Type Of Agency
Once the client knows what kind of relationship they are seeking, they will think through the type of agency they need to meet their needs.
Here is my short list of agency types and how you might position your agency based on pitch-oriented typecasting:
Regional Leader – No one knows your local or regional market better than you. Your market-driven reputation drives your new business success. There are agencies that are asked to every regional or local pitch simply because they have been around forever, know their markets, and thrive on referrals.
Creative Hero – Your work stands out, gets discussed, has won awards, and builds market share in competitive categories. Clients want creative agencies (it is an essential part of what we offer), but creativity is in the eye of the beholder and can be difficult to demonstrate – especially when pitching less experienced clients.
Full Service Provider – Our industry has gone back and forth on the value of the full-service agency. I sense that we are currently experiencing a shift towards full service agencies that can deliver an integrated approach. There are so many moving parts to marketing today that some clients are becoming overwhelmed and need a single strategic partner that can help build an integrated plan. There is agency selection research that backs this up.
The Specialist – You have positioned your agency as an expert. You could be a mobile, social media, content, experiential, PR, or digital expert. The list of specialization opportunities keeps growing. Maybe you are a Vine or data visualization expert. If you are, and the client is looking for a Vine program, then you could be exactly what they need.
Strategic Guide and Resource – You have developed a reputation for your strategic insights and guidance. You’ve solved tough client problems in the past and have the cases to prove it.
Category Market Expert – You know the client’s category better than any other agency. You’ve supported this fact with extensive client category history and a thought-leadership program.
Target Market Expert – No agency knows the client’s target market and consumers better than you.
Big – When I ran business development at Saatchi & Saatchi, we led every pitch with a global map showing all of the Saatchi offices. I called it our dot map. We had dots everywhere. Big multinational clients want integrated global services and an agency that can run campaigns across borders. These clients need (or think they need) big networks and lots of dots. The downside of big is that clients can feel like they will get lost inside a huge agency, that not all of the agency dots are created equal, and that the agency’s moving parts don’t work synergistically.
Into The Client’s Head
Now that you have a macro understanding of what assignment + relationship + type of agency selection criteria decisions the client has made, it’s time to go deeper into developing a more fine-tuned assessment of what they really want.
Getting into the client’s head can make or break your success rate.
As you move through your pitch development process, work to understand what this client is actually looking for and why they actively selected you. Here is a place to start. You can always ask.
My agency Citrus did consumer advertising for Providence Health and Services, a huge 80,000-employee west coast health care organization. One day we were invited to pitch their employee recruitment account. Recruitment? Really? We were not recruitment specialists but were asked to pitch against two very experienced experts: JWT Inside and Bernard Hodes. Before commit- ting to the pitch, I asked “Why us?” The client’s answer wooed me. I was told that we were included because we weren’t a recruitment agency and might come in with new solutions. We did just that in the final presentation and won the business.
There are many scenarios for how you might have gotten invited into a pitch. For the sake of argument, we’ll use what is a relatively standard path taken by experienced clients. Less sophisticated clients are harder to read since they probably didn’t do a great job of providing a detailed pre-pitch brief.
In a best-case scenario, you received an RFI. You answered the basic information, met the client’s initial criteria, and moved onto a more detailed RFP.
You answered the questions, provided requested information, may have started to dazzle them with some strategic insights, and are starting to think that you know what this client is looking for. Maybe you do and maybe not.
If you are brilliant or just lucky, you’ve made it to the finalist stage. You have to be thinking that this client digs your stuff. Regardless, you are now in deep and have to compete with other finalist agencies for the account. Obviously, the client must dig the other agency’s stuff too.
Since each agency search is unique, there will be particular requirements for individual clients. That said, based on client agency selection research and my experience, the great majority of clients are looking for one or all of these four attributes from their new agency.
The Four Sweet Spots
- Strategic thinking and guidance. The client is looking for an agency that is skilled at converting a business objective into a strategic communications program that delivers measurable results.
- Creativity. This is the agency’s ability to convert a strategy into a compel- ling communications program that gets the attention of the target market and turns them into a “liker” or better, a buyer.
- Category or target market expertise, or both. Prior experience is like comfort food for clients.
- And then there is all-important chemistry. Chances are good that you will be up against look-alike agencies. You all probably share similar attributes, skills, and histories. You might even be wearing the same Armani suit or Tory Burch shoes.
Because of this, the ultimate selection factor is often based on personal vibes. The client wants to feel comfortable with and inspired by the agency’s culture and people. They are looking for a dedicated partner who will care as much about their business as they do. They want a confident agency that looks, acts, and feels right.
I can’t stress the chemistry thing enough.
Here is what Avidan Strategies’ 2012 survey of agency search consultants revealed:
“Practically every consultant, or 96% of the sample, pointed to “chemistry” as the key factor for winning. But what exactly is chemistry? Generally speaking it is simpatico between the client and agency teams.”
So while you are thinking about how to express your agency’s core skills, work history and style, remember that how you express who you are could be the make or break part of your pitch. I’ll talk more about chemistry later. But it is imperative that you keep personal chemistry in mind as you start to think through what this client really wants.
Remember the ** from earlier?
This blog post on understanding client need is from “The Levitan Pitch. Buy This Book. Win More Pitches.”
My account wants me to tell you to buy the book so you can win more pitches and make more money so you will need more accounting services. Well, I think he want ME to need more accounting services.