Pitches in the Dirt

If new business is the lifeblood of the agency business, it’s suffering from chronic anemia. Business-development approaches have never been as lifeless, mundane and rote as they are today.

Ad agencies are squeezed to deliver bottom-line results, forcing an institutionalized focus that has stunted creative thinking. This has deadened the brand value of some of the industry’s best-known firms. No one is intimidated anymore when they come up against Y&R, TBWA\Chiat\Day, JWT, DDB, McCann, Burnett or any of the other industry behemoths.

Pressure to perform has always been an issue. But over time, the best firms—professionally and financially—have been those that revel in the desire to develop fresh campaigns with cutting-edge ideas. Most of those also never lost sight of the importance of top-line growth, regardless of market conditions.

New business is the winning formula. Organic is the best kind of growth. So, how should agencies proceed?

For starters, invest in business development, don’t cut back on it. Enough with assigning account people, even senior ones, to generate leads or oversee the pitch process. A “spare-time” or “night-job” approach almost never yields results. Nor should it. If you’re not willing to put at least three full-time, top-quality people on the job, you won’t win. The group leader also must have a place at the management table equal to that of any other department head.

Second, take the same creative approach to new-business presentations as you do to creating work for existing clients. There may be only one chance to impress, so pull out all the stops. Does your credentials presentation live up to that billing? Likely not.

For all the genius in this industry, it’s remarkable to see agencies falling short in the most basic ways. Here are a few recent examples:

Don’t be arrogant—connect. Blatant arrogance is a sure way to lose an opportunity. A principal at Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, which has its share of really talented people, not only failed to attend a new-business presentation but, at a follow-up meeting, spent the entire time regaling the client with tales about himself and his important business connections. The agency lost the business then and there.

Get excited. At its soul, advertising is an emotional business designed to trigger an emotional response from consumers. A well-rehearsed, canned presentation is not the way to go. Most agencies talk the talk, but very few demonstrate the intensity and passion at the core of this evocative and powerful medium.

Who’s in charge? Nothing is worse than a presentation in which the participants interrupt one another, don’t finish their thoughts and create confusion about who is running the show. Recently, DDB in New York was pitching a major technology firm. The agency showed some excellent creative work, but the client was so put off by the obvious conflict among a number of top executives that the shop didn’t make the short list. Presentations should be choreographed and directed like a great commercial, complete with warm, friendly and accessible people, great art direction and a single point of view delivered in a clear and creative context.

Do the homework. You need a relevant strategy that brings the client to life. It’s not brain surgery. Focus on the client, and offer incisive thinking about the business. Superficial research won’t do. Dig deep, and convert that intelligence into direct, effective communication. Ideas that can be blown out into fully integrated campaigns are increasingly at a premium.

So, there it is. Bottom-line thinking cannot dictate new-business efforts. As Bill Bernbach used to say, “Advertising is much, much, much more art than science.” Great agencies create and fight for great work. There’s no better place to do that than in new business.