Yes, Your Advertising Agency Business Development Director Might Be Doomed. A 2020 Update.
Some updated thinking. I am asked on a high-frequency basis by agency management, that means CEO types, if their advertising agency should have a business development director. Because of this question, I thought I’d update this evergreen interview with Brooks Gilley who knows what’s up.
My current thinking based on talking with many agencies is that, at best, only 50% of advertising agency business development directors succeed. I am about to do some haranguing. Why?
- As is pointed out below, most advertising agencies have a low to a non-competitive brand position. The degree of positioning sameness – “we are a digital agency” or “we are creative thinkers” – and messaging sameness – as in no soul or a distinctive opinion or having the goal of being unignorable – is crazy. How could even a competent business director sell the 50% of agencies that cannot define a strong sales proposition? Or not have a well-considered target market?
- A huge chunk of agencies (it has been reported that up to 75% of agencies) do not have a master business development plan, think of it as a sales plan. How is this possible? And, worse, who is supposed to write the plan? I do not think that a business development director alone can write this plan. It should be an agency self-preservation and growth project.
- Many advertising agency leaders have little experience in writing a sales manager compensation plan. Here is a compensation plan you can use.
- Too many agency leaders hand off the role of business development to the director. I owned my own agency and I devoted at least half of my time to business development. And, I provided daily support and thinking and budget.
Give me a shout if you want to discuss your agency and its specifics.
Back To The Interview About The Doomed Business Development Director.
To quote the Beach Boys… Wouldn’t It Be Nice. Yes, wouldn’t it be nice to have a business development director that brought in more business for your advertising agency than you can handle? But is your business development director doomed from the start?
She or he could be if you do not have agency objectives, a competitive agency brand positioning, something to sell beyond, “Hey we are a full-service/digital/social media agency”. Or, not having a list of clients and categories you want to nail; an active up-to-date CRM system or you are now in a state of panic because you just lost your largest client.
I know that this is a tough job to fill and do. I managed my agency’s business development director at my own ad agency; for Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising in New York and London and as CEO at two Internet start-ups. I have hired ten business development directors over the past twenty years. Some worked out and some, well, not so well. Again, this is one of, if not the toughest, agency jobs to position for success.
But, don’t take my word for it. Before you read on for an expert interview, you might also want to go to my blog post on how to pay an agency business development director.
An Expert Interview With Brooks Gilley On How To Hire A Business Development Director.
Brooks Gilley is the Founder and CEO of Portland’s 52 Limited. 52 LTD is a 15-year-old creative resource company that connects world-class talent with leading brands, marketing departments, design firms, advertising and digital agencies.
In addition to running one of the west coast’s leading creative talent agencies, Brooks ran the Portland Advertising Federation and worked at advertising agencies.
Peter: According to the RSW/US 2014 RSW/US Agency-Marketer Business Report, the tenure of agency business development directors was two years or less. ADWEEK reports that people in this position at large agencies last less than one year. Is this surprising to you?
Brooks: It’s not surprising at all, largely for the fact that agencies I have worked with on business development director searches come to us in a moment of panic, and that’s usually where the ask starts. It’s a role that is needed now but was probably needed at least twelve months before new business gains became an issue. Additionally, it’s not necessarily a strategic role that is esteemed at and supported within a ‘creative’ organization.
So the disconnect is that business development is one of the most critical business functions in an agency, yet agency management doesn’t have the incentive of pursuing that and spending the kind of money and time on business development until there’s a big problem.
I think that’s right. Business development should be an on-going process based on a business plan, not fear. Going out and creating new opportunities, as you and I both know, is a twelve to eighteen-month cycle. So when someone comes into the role, they are often not prepared with the tools they need to be successful. They may not have a CRM system like Salesforce, they may not even have a pitch deck or sales-oriented website. Worse, they don’t even have a clear and competitive agency brand position. No wonder that the tenure is brief.
Are agencies, at least the majority you’ve talked to, not active in terms of their business development program?
I think that’s absolutely the case. Some of them may not have a plan or system well-articulated; they may have a database but it’s not current and there’s no follow-up process; they may not have their own internal marketing plan; they don’t have online and offline strategy. It is very scattershot. For example, I know of a few Portland agencies that say, “Okay let’s put all of our money into this next trade show and scramble up some meetings and dinners, and try to pick up some people that way.” There is no comprehensive view on how to do business development.
Even worse, there is no consistency. Even if an agency has a system, as soon as a new client is landed and that client gets on-board it is all heads-down. So then what happens with the business development person? They become a bit marginalized. So that rigor and consistency that most sales organizations have, agencies don’t.
Is that because agency leadership has not come from a sales and marketing background?
Speaking from a mid-size market like Portland, a lot of the shops have only had organic success. The work is won on referrals or past work. So what happens is, these agencies will catch a trend, they’ll be the sort of agency du jour for a period of time, and – I’ve seen this happen over and over again – get to a point in their maturation where they’re not the hot shop that people want to work with, and then it’s “Oh shit, now what? We need business development.”
At that point, agencies start to ‘experiment’ with business development people, and I think “experiment’ is the right choice of words.
When an agency CEO comes to you and says that they want to do a search for a business development director do they have a clear description of that job? Do they actually know what kind of person they want to hire?
Rarely. We usually help them craft that document and what the job description looks like. A problem is that agencies are inclined to be drawn to the classic sales profile. “We need someone who can go out there and hunt because I don’t feel comfortable hunting.” I think that that’s a very consistent theme. “I’m a creative, I’m an account guy, I’m a… But, I am not a salesperson.”
Unfortunately, selling advertising/communications/digital work is not a purely ‘rational’ sale. There is a need for building trust and being strategic – a problem solver who understands the intricacies of today’s media landscape. I think there’s an unrealistic expectation about how fast it takes people to really understand the agency, the market gaps, how to craft a meaningful pitch, build a relationship and then get to close.
What do you see as key attributes for a business development director?
Research is a huge part of the job. The business development director should be interested in geeking out and seeing what people are doing, how and where clients are spending money, what they will need in the future, and who’s currently doing their work. I think having an analysis of the road is critical.
They also need organizational skills, tenacity, and structure around planning. How do I go out into the market and talk about the agency? When do I do that, how often do I do that, what are the message and tools in which I do that? And then, do I have management commitment and internal relationships to spend money and agency time on outbound marketing for the agency?
Is this ultimately a mission impossible? Are most agencies trying to find someone who understands and can help even craft the agency positioning, ID the kinds of clients they want, know how to market the agency to generate awareness (which is complicated ‘cause you’re talking to clients that are somewhat inundated from time to time by agencies wanting to talk to them), building lead generation programs, once they make the connection knowing how to build a relationship and have a conversation about the advertising process and what the agency brings, and then finally closing?
Yikes, does this person even exist?
CEOs are asking “Hey, let’s craft a job description,” and my pushback to them is “We might be talking about two or three people.”
It is generally better to build business development into agency culture and not count on just one person to do everything.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to an agency CEO who is thinking of hiring a business development director?
Well, I have more than one piece of advice. The first thing I would say is to create a mid-term strategy and build in patience. I’d define that as being 18 months. I’ve seen people who would have developed into really great business development people, but they spent six to eight months of that new role putting all the pieces together including a plan, a CRM, and marketing materials.
That person then is months into their tenure, and the CEO says, “Hey man you haven’t sold anything. You’re out the door.” And that’s classically the mistake that I’ve seen. So there’s really poor identification of what do we need and what do we want and the time it will take to get there.
Leadership structure is another issue. Who is responsible for participating in building and running the plan including identifying, prospecting, presenting, capturing, closing…who participates? What is the committee of people who fill that loop? What is their commitment to be participatory in that? Because I have been a business development person in an agency, and one of the challenges that I had, I was reliant because of the agency principle in this case who would kind of come and go.
Finally, agencies need to recognize that business development is ‘sales’. A lot of agency people get caught up in the passion and they forget that it’s a business. If an agency isn’t growing it isn’t a fun place to work. Business growth allows the passion to rule and the passion fuels business. That is why business development is ultimately everyone’s job.