Blair Enns, founder of Win Without Pitching, wrote a great article on 10 new business development myths.

Blair Enns

Blair Enns

In it he references my father, Stuart Sanders (founder of Sanders Consulting Group), and the power of chemistry. His top 10 new business development myths is generally an outstanding list, and there are some great points, and a fantastic understanding of some new business truths. Much of it we’ve been advocating for years, so we’re happy that Blair agrees!

And then he gets to his myth number 4. Chemistry Wins New Business:

“Retired business development consultant Stuart Sanders made this assertion popular a couple of decades ago, but it fails on two fronts.

In the one-on-one client interviews I used to conduct in business development audits of creative firms I too found that chemistry was the most commonly-cited reason a client gave for selecting their chosen firm. But the real insight was in the varied answers to the follow-up question: “What do you mean by chemistry?”

The list of responses to this question was unending and one of the most common factors cited was expertise. “Chemistry” is a vague word (in this usage), like “intuition,” – an easy, lazy even, summary of complex variables. When a client says “the chemistry was good,” she can mean many different things, including, “I thought they were best firm for the job.” As a survey response, it’s a meaningless answer.

The second problem with this myth is that chemistry, which we might more succinctly describe as an emotional response to some sort of personal connection, does occasionally win new business, but focusing on it keeps you from building real expertise. Chemistry, like price, is a tie-breaker used when the important criterion of expertise, perceived ability to get to a high-quality outcome and low probability of disaster are seen as equal among firms under consideration.

To sell on chemistry is to admit that your ability to help the client is no greater than that of your competition. That is the norm in the me-too world of agency business development, but not among Win Without Pitching firms.

The real test of all your positioning work is when the client feels no personal connection, hires you anyway and pays you a premium. I’m not saying chemistry isn’t important or that you can ignore manners and common courtesy – I’m saying to lean on chemistry in the sales cycle is a mistake that will impair rather than aid you.

I know many people will disagree with this, but they’re wrong.”

Wow. If you’ve read our blog or have been to one of our seminars, you know we do stress the importance of chemistry. So of course I will respectfully disagree with Blair.

Let me expand on his points with a few of my own, and you can decide which one of us is most likely correct.

Let’s take Blair’s first point, “…I too found that chemistry was the most commonly-cited reason a client gave for selecting their chosen firm. But the real insight was in the varied answers to the follow-up question.

This is a people business. So people become the deciding factor in any decision. You can’t measure widget to widget in the creative world. There is no widget, no product, no way to measure output, throughput, or size or cost per unit. Ideas and strategy can’t be measured before they’re tried. So any decision will be made on trust. And somewhere along the way, a client must trust in the people that will be handling their business.

I’ve also done many post pitch interviews. And yes, it’s true that chemistry is one of the hot topics, the most cited, that always comes up as a key decision factor. But unlike Blair, I don’t discount what the people are saying. Rather I trust them. If pressed, people will fumble around. It’s not easy to say something negative about another person directly. And that is exactly what you’re asking them to do. “We liked the folks at Agency X better, it’s hard to put a finger on why… and we didn’t like Agency Y at all. Just a bad vibe.” I don’t know about you, but there are very few people in this world that would say something like that. We would never say that to a stranger, much less a consultant that is calling to ask about your decision making process. When you are interviewing someone for a position in your agency, you most likely would not tell the candidate you disliked them and would never hire them. It’s not the professional thing to do.

Another key point is nobody wants to be seen as shallow or making a business decision based on an emotional response. If you state that this multimillion dollar (or even a $1,000) business decision was made because you “liked” someone a little bit more than someone else, you look like a simpleton. You’re also admitting that you’re unable to tell the difference between a good strategy and a bad one (it doesn’t matter that few can, all things being equal). And nobody is going to say something like that – ever. So it falls back on the old “…they had a better strategy, more in-line with our goals…” content answer, “see… we’re smart!”

So regarding Blair’s first point, I hope you’ll agree with me, people will never tell you the truth about chemistry. But it’s there.

His second point is “…chemistry, which we might more succinctly describe as an emotional response to some sort of personal connection, does occasionally win new business, but focusing on it keeps you from building real expertise.

Yes, chemistry “occasionally” wins. A couple of years ago we had a string of 26 wins in a row, all directly related to chemistry. But that’s not the point Blair is making. His point is about creating a strong agency position.

I believe understanding chemistry doesn’t take anything away from being an expert. If you’ve been reading any of our branding ad agencies articles, then you know we stress the importance of being an expert. Agencies must own something, stand for something, and put a stake in the ground. We state many times that past history, experience, and expertise is IMPORTANT. To survive in today’s market agencies must have an expertise or focus. But that still leaves hundreds, If not thousands, of agencies in the hunt, depending on the expertise area and the perception of the client. And those very experts may be in the pitch going against you!

That leaves… what? Exactly how is a prospect going to decide between two or three outstanding firms that offer true expertise and insight into their business challenges? After all, they all offered some outstanding strategies, killer ideas, and a great team to help this prospect achieve their goals. Now what? Exactly how is a prospect going to decide between them?

  • Some may use a scorecard. (I liked them a little more so I will give them a +1.) Chemistry.
  • Some may just decide. (They fit my mental model on how to proceed.) Chemistry.
  • Some may go around the room and check consensus. (Everyone votes.) Chemistry.
  • A few may fall in love with the big idea. (That was epic! I think we all agree, that’s what we’re going to do!) Chemistry.

If you’ve been through our training you get the references.

Let me share with you a little chemistry story. Out of the thousands that we have, this one really underscores the point.

chemistry is a powerful tool

Accept that your agency has strengths and weaknesses, and use every tool to achieve your goals.

Last year a Very Big Agency called me out of desperation. They had been invited into a global brand pitch opportunity, and they felt they had no chance of winning. But they really wanted to win.

Over the phone they outlined the following situation: Another Very Big Agency had to drop out due to a global conflict someplace, and that opened a spot. They were the last agency in – never a good thing. The search consultant had a personal beef with the agency, in fact hated them. Also not good. And they only had a few weeks to get ready. Really bad. Other firms had been prepping for months.

Great. We weren’t even at the gate, and we were already being handicapped. Every other big agency in the hunt was smart, capable, with loads of experience, they were more liked, and they had more time. I still thought we could win.

I dragged the agency team, with some kicking and screaming, into putting the entire focus on winning the chemistry battle. Oh sure, we had a good show, the best content we could develop, and we had some great capabilities, but our focus was on chemistry. Besides, every one of the other agencies in the hunt had something just as good – but they were all focused on being the brand category expert! They were not focused on the chemistry battle.

A key part of the chemistry battle was assigning a point person to each one of the 17 client-side decision makers, someone who was aligned with their profile. We tailored the entire presentation to the lead person’s personality and had elements included for each of his direct reports.

Everything from the greeting when they walked into the agency space, the décor, the small subliminal details, the walking tour, the final presentation, everything was nudging a part of their brain, the way they think, how they process information, and most importantly, how they make decisions. Every step of the review was focused on building a mental model in their mind that there was only one agency that truly understood them, their culture, and their brand.

When it was all said and done, our agency won going away. The search consultant stated it wasn’t even close. When you take a bunch of the top global ad agencies, the world’s best strategist and experts, put them in a heated pitch process for one of the world’s largest brands, every capability, area of expertise, functional ability, etc… it all blends together in the mind of a prospect. An hour after an agency finishes it’s presentation very few prospects can recall the details. But chemistry, that stands out. And we won by understanding that and using it.

Blair ends with “I know many people will disagree with this, but they’re wrong.” Perhaps. Blair is a smart guy, and I love his work. But history and experience have proven to me that we’re not wrong. Chemistry wins.



Toolbox photo by Florian Richter and used under creative commons