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Build Winning Advertising Agency

How to Build A Winning Advertising Agency New Business Program

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When I owned Citrus, my Portland and Bend Oregon advertising agency, I woke up every morning (and even some nights) thinking hard about my agency’s business development program. I lived as if Nike, our largest client, was about to walk out the back door along with its revenues. I bet as an ad agency owner or manager you have rough nights too. One of the things I knew I could and should do was to manage this back-door issue was to have an active, I stress active, new business plan in place.

Here are some (I stress some) of the elements of my new business plan. They helped me grow Citrus (with new clients like Harrah’s, LegalZoom, Nike and the Montana Lottery). I hope my insights help you grow your agency.

Execution Rules.

When I set out to write this advertising agency new business post I didn’t think that it would be this long – a warning to the ADHD types. But, advertising agency new business planning is complex and is getting more complex every day due to the rapid changes in our industry and technology. That said, the devil in business development, you know what’s coming, is in the detail. Success is all about execution.

For example, running a successful inbound biz dev program that attracts market attention must be based on a sound strategy and smart agency process if you want to run a 24/7 sales program. Staying the course is critical.

The Communications Agency Business Plan. First Things First.

I have never been able to construct an effective business development program without first having an agency business plan.

The business plan should include (at least):

  • Your agency’s business and business development objectives
  • An assessment of your current strengths and weakness (I have all of my clients do an internal SWOT analysis)
  • A competitive agency positioning (specialization is a good thing)
  • An analysis of your space in the world – as in, why would a client hire you?
  • Clear target market objectives and target market personas
  • A service plan (it might mean adding new services)
  • Your inbound and outbound (think Account Based Marketing) plan
  • The very important objective of running unignorable messaging
  • A dedication to being consistent and efficient – as in having a process

Your business plan should also help you plan for your future in the evolving world of marketing communications. I think that client confusion with the evolving state of advertising and marketing – this includes big and small clients – makes today a great time to be an agency. Winning agencies are resolving their business challenges, crafting the right services and guidance and, importantly, are willing to modify their business model to avoid disruption to achieve success.

It is also imperative that you develop a roadmap for how to grow your current agency to become the agency of the future. The market, communication platforms and client expectations are changing rapidly. Assess your current strengths, weaknesses and how your agency expertise and personnel are going to stay ahead of change (do an annual SWOT analysis).

Change can be very profitable. What if you could restart your agency using a blank sheet of paper? Would you build a replica of your current agency or would it look dramatically different? If you think that change is in order, you better get started. Here is a powerful mantra from General Eric Shinseki. 

“If you dislike change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.”

The Agency New Business Program – Join The 34%

Armed with your business plan you can get ahead of your competitors by having a comprehensive new business plan. Most agencies do not have a plan. Get this industry research…

66% Of Advertising Agencies Report That They Do Not Have a Business Development Plan. This Is Lunacy!

Your plan should include most, if not all of the following:

Conduct an agency brand review to determine if your current brand and services deliver market differentiation; build a positive reputation; generate incoming client interest and attract talented employees.

Create a set of ‘buyer’ personas so you know exactly what type of client you want and how they think and act.

Have a compelling agency brand story that is driven by your history, products, services and your personality. Need help? Read Seth Godin’s “All Marketers Are Liars.”

Managing the Process.

Unless your phone is ringing off the hook, your agency’s new business program must be an agency priority.

Agency leadership has to be actively involved with establishing new business objectives, strategic planning and execution.

Stay on top of the process. Have at least bi-monthly new business planning meetings.

Business development is 24/7. Your digital marketing program and management and staff activities must be ongoing and consistent.

Hire a Business Development Director to help manage the new business program and act as the agency sales leader or hunter. This person’s key job is to get meetings with the right prospects. Use my Business Development Director’s compensation plan to orient their focus.

Stimulate and empower others in the organization to participate. Everyone is responsible for growth. Best case, they will come up with a marketable new service. At the least, they should be keeping their eyes open for leads.


Prospecting is a long-term play and takes time. Be prepared, persistent and patient.

Use Account-Based Marketing. An ex-Microsoft exec, a client of mine, recently lauded  Account Based marketing. He described it as something “new”. I quickly recognized it as ‘targeted sales’ and laughed. Whatever… it works. Here is a Wiki definition.

Account-Based Marketing (ABM), also known as key account marketing, is a strategic approach to business marketing based on account awareness in which an organization considers and communicates with individual prospect or customer accounts as markets of one.

Simply put –> ABM = Targeted Outreach = Direct Interest = Sales. This is a big subject worth studying. It’s all about identifying the target company and its people and then having a sound plan to reach them with the information and insights they will want to read.

Manage an active Excel prospect database and/or CRM system. If you have to, keep it simple – use a pad. But, do it.

Build an “A-Level” prospect list. Establish selection criteria and do your research. I’ve always thought that there are three types of desirable clients: Those that pay well (that means they are profitable); those who demand great work; those who are famous and enhance your reputation. Two of the above are good. Pay well is best. My agency’s client Nike had all three.

To build up-to-date lists I’ve used the services of The List Inc., Red Books and LinkedIn. You can also hire interns or go offshore for worker bee assistance.Build an email list to keep all prospects, clients, and associates aware of agency thought leadership, news and growth.

Advertise. Yup, test targeted advertising on LinkedIn (via your corporate page); ditto on Facebook and Twitter.Referrals are good. Manage your referral process. Periodically ask your friends, family, business associates, employees (many don’t think about new business) and current clients for referrals. have a referral system.Track the career path and whereabouts of past clients. LinkedIn notifications could become your best friend.

Read business publications, industry trade press, and pertinent websites. To manage agency time, assign information buckets to different staff members. Get past just reading the same trade press your competitors read.

A Word On Incoming. Pitch less.

Pitching and even working on everything that rings the doorbell can be a mistake. Qualify the lead. Pitching the right accounts will increase your batting average. Pitching the wrong accounts will sap your agency’s energy, cash and time. Read my book on pitching if you want to find out why pitching everything that raises its hand can put you out of business. Remember, you have a business plan that lays out the type of clients you want and can win.

Business Development Tools.

Years ago I heard Jonathan Bond of New York’s Kirshenbaum Bond make this comment about new business activity: “I don’t know what works so we do everything.” Here are some tools worth considering.Make sure that you have an agency website that sells. The great majority of agency websites do not. Get past brochure-ware. Here are some blog posts about how to create winning, sales-oriented agency websites.

Maintain sales pressure. Schedule your outbound marketing to keep up consistent sales pressure — you can’t tell when a prospect will have a new project or an AOR account looking for a new agency. I’ve always made it an agency priority to send out high-value emails at least every four to six weeks.Deliver high-value thought-leadership. Clients are looking for strategic agencies and solutions to their pain points and objectives. But, keep in mind that you are not the only thought-leader on the block. There are zillions of Google results for “best advertising blogs”. To beat these horrific odds you need to become a narrow-subject thought-leader to break through the clutter. Its way better to become a niche advertising or category expert than be a Me Too generalist.

Be smart. Before you make any calls, do basic research so you know about your prospect’s business, possible pain points and what sales messages might resonant. Have a smart sales script that puts the client first. Remember the rules of Account Based marketing.Want more inbound? Get your brilliant thinking out there via a strategic social media program. Blogs (uniques blogs that is), Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook (sponsored posts work hard for me) and the strategic use of Instagram and Pinterest (yes, Pinterest) will take time — but work. Don’t forget SlideShare, YouTube videos and good old-fashioned white papers, monthly emails and speaking engagements. Get your brains out there and make the client you want you by looking like you can help them get their bonus.

Do not overreach. One of the keys to social media success is selecting platforms that your agency can manage on a day-to-day basis. There are a lot of empty agency blogs and Twitter feeds that do much more harm to reputations than good.

Be efficient. Optimize and integrate everything you do. Try the Rule of Five. Amplify everything you do by five. The white paper goes in the mail (yes, mail); on your blog; on your LinkedIn page; out via Twitter and on SlideShare… You get the idea.

Run events for prospects and clients. My agency Citrus got senior executives from Facebook, Google, Google Maps, LinkedIn and Yahoo! to speak at our own Portland “Meet the Makers” events. We just had to ask nicely.

Turn cold calling into warm calling. Yes, the phone still works – if handled with care. I like to soften the prospect with a series of insight-rich thought leadership mailings (if it’s email you will see if has been opened) and then call early to reach the key prospect before their day begins or to leave a mini-pitch voicemail. Consider having a script handy.Email. Yes, email still works and volume is now being driven by increased mobile usage. But, make sure your emails have value and don’t overwhelm. KISS works here.

Another big point: having an agency video on your website is nice (actually, I think it’s critical). But, having a video that goes beyond just being there to getting watched and passed along by your target audience because it provides value is way better. If your video drives incoming interest, tells your agency’s story and builds chemistry, you will drive lead generation. It is all about how you execute.Be different… Sometimes it is good to break out of digital… A personalized letter, as in paper, or mailing just might break through the digital clutter. How about an agency zine?

Think even more different. Over the years, I’ve used online surveys, postcards, music CD’s, etched wine bottles, targeted micro-sites, digital mad libs (yes, mad libs); books like Jeffery Abrahams’ “101 Mission Statements From Top Companies” and even Krispy Kreme donuts to get meetings. Here is a case history for a food-smile-based program that announced our new Portland office. We delivered a box of hot Krispy Kreme doughnuts and a personalized digital promotional program to generate awareness and smiles.Get out of the office and go to events to hear new ideas and meet new people. Join relevant groups and organizations.Guest post to get more eyes on your thinking. See what I’ve done with my friends at HubSpot. Writing for them even got me a speaking gi at their huge fall event.

Create some buzz. PR is your friend. I highly recommend that you think of PR as an essential business development tool.

Win creative awards. Go get some EFFIE’s to support your ROI story. But, watch the award budget.

First Meetings.

Whatever solicitation marketing you did worked and you landed a meeting. Here are some first meeting basics:

  • Keep it simple. don’t overwhelm the clients.
  • Listen: Probe for problems. Consider going beyond solution sales to tell them what they should be worried about. For more on this sales technique, I suggest that you read “The End of Solution Sales” in the July – August 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review.
  • Sell something special: Deliver a USP.
  • Deliver an unignorable insight. Ask me about how to use Google’s consumer research.
  • Make friends: Work the chemistry and dazzle.

The master goal: Get a second meeting to keep the dialog going.


Getting an RFP is like getting asked out on a date or for a test-drive. You should be flattered — but. To manage incoming, build a RFP decision matrix. You should quickly have an idea of which RFP’s to respond to and which aren’t worth the effort. RFP responses always chew up agencies. Make sure that this date is worthwhile.If it’s a go, ask for a meeting to discuss the RFP. If the client is unwilling to give you some time, you might want to pass. Read up on why you might want to NOT pitch that account.Here’s a decision matrix…do not Pitch that account! 

Keep your response lean. Chances are that the client has asked for too many responses and could become brain-dead by the time they get to yours. Make sure you answer every question in the RFP before you go beyond what they are asking for.Once you have ticked all the client boxes, go beyond. Don’t forget to include agency personality and consider an “Easter Egg” surprise element.


Oh, the uncertainty. Does the client have a favorite? Is this a strategic search or just a scheduled management or procurement exercise? Does the incumbent have an advantage? What type of agency is the client actually looking for? Who is the key decision maker? Do you present what they are asking for or what you think they need? Helping to understand the client’s motivations is where your most experienced management comes into play.

Pitching is an art. I’ve been pitching new business since the 80’s, ran business development at Saatchi & Saatchi in New York and London and pitched often for my own agency. OK, I admit it… I want you to buy my book on pitching and presenting. You can buy it at Amazon right here.

Here are what I believe are the primary elements of a perfect pitch process. This is only a topline list.

  • Pick a pitch leader and the right team for planning and writing.
  • Watch your costs. Create a budget. We have all seen pitch costs gone wild.
  • Create a timetable that includes strategy development, creative development and staging and rehearsals.
  • Consider building a war room, it can be an online war room, to help focus your effort.
  • Determine the client, category and customer issues and opportunities and make sure you address them.
  • Use research to support your strategic insights. But, note that the other agencies might be doing the same. That said, clients are always interested in seeing brief strategic videos of their customers talking about their products and services.
  • Determine and manage how you communicate your strengths and manage your weaknesses. Consider doing an agency SWOT analysis through the client’s lens.
  • Talk more about them than you. Actually, talk much more about them.
  • Act like you really want the business. Surprisingly, I’ve been told by clients that not all agencies know how to look interested.
  • Pitches are theater. Stories are better than endless credentials. Case histories are better than showing endless amounts of work. For inspiration, watch Steve Jobs.
  • If you can, get the client to come to you. I’ve pitched in too many soulless client boardrooms or hotel conference rooms. It can be a buzz kill.
  • If you have to go to them, find a way to scout out the room and equipment ahead of the meeting.
  • Put your best presenters in the room. Don’t include talented but uninspiring people simply because it is their turn or that they worked on the pitch. I’ve made this mistake. It’s a bad one. Get ahead of the problem and train your team on how to present. Do this now.
  • Don’t forget to smile. Interpersonal chemistry wins pitches.


The business of running an advertising, digital, experiential, design, PR agency is hard work. Too many agencies sound alike. Clients are skittish and are overwhelmed by choice. It is therefore essential that you create and run a business development program that makes you a stand out candidate. That means that you need to look and sound like an agency that can clearly meet a client’s needs. That means that you need to have a standout brand and sales proposition. That means you need to both target the clients you want and are able to be found by them when they are out looking for you.

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