An anonymous, uncensored look at the new business approach of the massive holding company and their multi-country pitch practices.

new business nightmares

What a tangled web we weave in new business.

I recently had the great experience of running into one of our alum; someone who went through our training many years ago. After a long and very successful career, they’re out of the agency business now, doing some consulting type work and enjoying the fruits of their labors. So of course I asked for some of their thoughts on the current state of advertising and new business from the very highest levels. Must have touched a nerve. Below is the response.

Ad Agency Pitch Process Trouble:

After 25+ years in the agency zone, I know how much help is needed there. I don’t think I’ve ever known a pitch that wasn’t some shade of chaotic, with too many chiefs. My personal experiences pertain largely to global agencies and global clients, where new business was always a nightmare especially as it moved into the holding company zone. Some companies have done a much better job at mastering this (WPP) than others and have gotten rid of some of the barriers to success. But in reality, big agencies are still silo-ed, territorial, non-diverse, and are all about who shines brightest.

JUMP FIRST: People would always assume a tremendous urgency, jumping straight into being “busy” and from one pitch to another, instead of really taking the time to go through a thorough and intensive pre-pitch and strategy process. More haste, less speed. Time, money, ideas and opportunities were wasted more often than not – and of course this often came at the expense of current clients.

SILOS: A pitch lead might be appointed, but working across dozens of markets meant there had to be a “divide and conquer” approach. And consequently, territorialism + functional silos were rife. Often the financial aspects would be managed through different channels, and even though there would be an attempt to balance all resources and costs – at the end of the day, the financial negotiations were increasingly and unilaterally managed at a CEO, CFO and Procurement level. Not healthy.

TOP DOWN: The gap between holding company and markets in some organizations is acute. In others there is a much more collaborative and “grown up” approach, but in the end the work and delivery comes from the market, and they were often last in the “respect” food chain. A far better strategy would have been to pass the responsibility to the people running the markets to actually lead the charge.

POOR TOOLS: You have to have lived through the pain of gathering micro-media costs from 70+ markets to understand how few agencies have truly grasped the technology opportunities to minimize the grunt work and provide super nimble tools for the multitude of alternative budget scenarios that a client will send through before we even get to present. ALL agencies should get their act together in this area.

EGO: In one memorable pitch, for a brand that shall remain nameless but focused on women’s products, 16 people piled into the pitch – two of whom were female. Always too many chiefs. Always too many politics.

NEVER SAYING NO/FISCAL IRRESPONSIBILITY: This one I’m sure you’ve come up against time and again. But the resources, money and creative energy that go into chasing long shots, or even hopeless cases, still blows my mind. There is a great lack of accountability for the time and money squandered on this kind of venture. More transparency is needed. Tougher criteria and like W&K – more guts and confidence.

MARKETING AUTOMATION: I’ll put my hands up here and say that when I was in the biz dev frame, I knew way too little about CRM and lead nurturing. Today, of course, we’ve come a long way in market automation. But how many companies truly use the power and potential of this capability embedded in their biz dev teams, to look at biz dev as – I think you allude to in other language – a highly orchestrated process?

TALKING ABOUT THE WRONG STUFF: One agency I know actually separates their review of tools from the main pitch, as the nuance behind planning tools, adtech etc., is just that – nuance. Unless tools are highly differentiated, these days fewer companies may care about what’s under the hood. They do, however, want to know that what you’re offering, particularly in the data space, is real and not hubris. Winning is about great chemistry, great capability, great work and great proof.

We’ve seen more change in the last 3 years than in the previous 30. I know that some organizations have come a very, very long way in improving and maturing their winning approaches and unifying P&Ls and reducing self-interest. They have to change, given the massive explosion of smaller, younger agencies that are more egalitarian and agile, and altogether different culturally.

Ad Agency Pitch Process:

Having helped many of the so-called “Big Agencies” win any number of pitches, I can say these comments ring true. And the higher the stakes, the bigger the account, and the more global it is, the truer this is.

Unfortunately, too many marketing professionals have deep skills in marketing but aren’t sure of the right way to win new accounts. In fact, we work with a few agencies that are not impressive, but they still seem to get all the clients and projects they want. They’ve figured out the new business game.

Reading between the lines in the above point of view is there are many still out there who are great at advertising. There are too few who truly understand how to build a new business machine. Another way to look at this is perhaps it’s time to develop a “fifth discipline.” If the key skills for the success of any marketing firm are the traditional 4 (strategic, creative, media, and execution) now is the time to focus on a fifth critical skill – new business.

Developing the right new business skill set requires a strong understanding of key new business processes. And without proper new business processes, an agency doesn’t grow. The key new business processes are:

  1. The outreach process
  2. The chemistry process
  3. First contact process
  4. The closing process
  5. The formal review process

If your firm is having difficulty implementing any of these processes, we can help. Or you can keep on fighting… expecting different results while doing the same thing.


Photo by Yuliya Libkina and used under Creative Commons.