Thoughts on the Agency Business Development process…

tombstone_smallDespite my focus on mobile marketing for the last 7 years, I am at my core business development person. Selling was how I cut my teeth in the digital space in the mid-90s and how I evolved into my current role. It stands to reason that one’s ability to successfully sell professional services offerings will ultimately result in one becoming capable of delivering them. You sort of have to become the product. Which is what happened over a period of 10 years. It wasn’t really until the mid -2000s that I began to take on more of a SME role as my level of seniority developed. This has afforded me a unique perspective of the professional services industry in which we both dwell.


Marketing / Creative services are either tactical (we build/make stuff, we have some black box technology, we create rich media units, etc.), consultative (we get hired to think and solve complex problems), or a combination of the two (we solve strategic problems then have unique solutions for implementing those strategies).


It was really just dumb luck that at the beginning of my career that I fell in with some very smart people who took a consultative approach to selling creative services. I was very very fortunate to start out immersed in selling problem solving services (thinking and doing) as opposed to selling a new ad widget or video rendering technology. I mostly worked for small boutique firms who offered some sort of highly specialized solution within a focused discipline (gamification, multi-media, Pharma marketing, etc.). Most of these firms were still small enough that they did not have the benefit of an established marketplace reputation or an adequate level of brand awareness to drive inbound leads. So, we had to cold call: identify appropriate target brands, find the names of the key stakeholders who held the budgets, get their attention and force them to consider our expertise or solution. I did this for years – calling, emailing, networking, cajoling, and harassing brand managers and CMOs to take notice give me a shot. The nuances of this process seemed laborious at the time – we would literally spend weeks tweaking phrases and words on outbound prospecting emails, honing, fine tuning, optimizing until we hit the exact note needed to drive a response. Once we were able to distill the message down the to perfect pitch we would save these intros and use them across all of our sales channels: elevator pitch, phone calls, website copy, PR, etc. There was something about this process that became fun, game-like and rewarding once the message worked. This process enabled me to get the attention of some extremely hard-to-influence executives. I became quite effective – I once got legendary auto executive Bob Lutz to respond directly to one of my emails –which prompted a 3 year relationship with GM on a host of strategic programs to help usher Chevy, Pontiac and Cadillac into the branded gaming space.   Doing this for so long afforded me not only a valuable set of skills- but more importantly it provided me with a different perspective on selling – and specifically the process of selling in our industry and how to grow professional creative / marketing service businesses.


Large agencies conglomerates (WPP, Publicis, Omnicom, and their ilk) are NOT by nature sales-driven organizations. The nature of these organizations is built on sheer size, capacity and the resulting reputations that are fomented as a result. Most of them (I’d go out on a limb and say all of them) lack a sophisticated business development and sales process. I am sure that there are people within these organizations who will passionately disagree – and be pissed off at that notion. Please note: this is not a knock on the many great and extraordinarily competent folks who work in the BD departments at these monoliths. Not at all. They are not the issue. It’s the nature of the industry and the structure of the large agency business in which they work that is the issue. The sales process issues we face are not germane to one single agency – it’s an industry-wide affliction. BD in its true nature is just not part of the big agency culture. Mainly this is due to the place that large agencies hold in the market. Their size and reputations afford them a spot on the list of ‘go to’ options for large brands and corporations who are looking to spend big sums of money on marketing services.

When Amex or Pfizer or PG have a new marketing initiative, they all have the same short list of agencies that will automatically get the RFP. Hence, the business development culture of large agencies is by and large a reactive model – where entire teams are hired to respond to RFPs. An entire industry has been created around RFP creation and RFP response. This ecosystem includes a myriad distinct support services and organizations. A simple search for RFP support services on Google brings up a slew of offerings: rfp response templates, rfp consulting services, rfp response software, rfp contract negotiation platforms, rfp pricing software, rfp presentation solutions, rfp mediation services – and the list goes on.

We frequently work with a consulting firm whose entire business is a RFP development consultancy – who evaluates the client need, writes the RFP, identifies the target providers, and manages the entire agency vetting and assessment process for the brand. It’s their whole business. How did we get to this point? The culture of RFP response is now so ingrained into the fiber of the agency industry that it is nothing short of an addiction. But it makes sense: how can any agency not respond to a potential $100mm revenue RFP? It simply has to.

The reality is – and this is not a secret – the vast majority (90%) of RFPs are really nothing more than self-indulgent fishing expeditions on the part brands who KNOW of this culture and rely on this process to verify and uncover invaluable marketing expertise from agencies at no cost. For the agencies, it’s a huge resource drain that expends an incredible amount of human capital with minimal return. Imagine if you were sick – like deathly ill – and had the opportunity to have a world-renowned medical specialist come to your home (after having prepared hours upon hours of vast resources of expertise) to present you with critical information on the state of your health and include in this assessment free diagnosis and strategies to improve your health. Now, imagine if you could have 10 Doctors offer the same thing, each with a difference approach, a different set of research and a unique perspective. At the end of these 10 presentations you would know more about your own health than anyone in your entire age group. And it wouldn’t have cost you a dime. As a matter of fact, each of these Doctors would be clamoring to have the opportunity to share this information. Doctors who went through years and years of specialized training, paid top dollar to go to the most specialized schools and spent countless hours working in emergency rooms to hone these skills. And they give it away for nothing so they can win you as a patient. What brand wouldn’t participate in this process? They would be dumb not to. But we are the dumb ones. We are the doctors, the specialists, and the experts. And we give away our stuff for nothing. (Now, of course we don’t save lives or perform heart surgery, but brands pay top dollar for the important role we play in the lifeline of their respective businesses).


Harsh Reality: Most RFPs have been pre-awarded to the winner long before the actual evaluations and dog and pony shows have even started. It’s an obscene system. One of the many outcomes of this process (aside from the waste of human capital and lost hours from key executives) is a lack of sales skills and business development know-how.


Few people know really now how to sell. It’s just a reality. It’s a specialized skill – no different from someone who is an expert in something as specialized as Data Analytics or coding software. And despite its value to an organization, it is a skill that is not highly respected. People hate sales reps. Sales people have gotten a bad rap – in large part due to the ineptitude of most salespeople. Many (I’d say most) are just out for the sale, the revenue, the deal. They don’t offer any added value. It can be said with little argument that the entire idea of a “salesperson”, particularly in the service sector, is an antiquated role. Sales is an art and a science – a process – driven by a well-organized effort of a professional services firm that offers and delivers expertise to a specific marketplace. Of course the best sales people are the opposite of these things, but as there are very few good ones, the bad ones drive the perception of the sector.


I have an entire course in my head as to how to revamp the entire RFP process but in the short-term before anything radical can be proffered, I have some simple ideas that can make the whole process a bit more efficient and a lot less costly:


  • Throw back the bad fish. First and foremost, agencies need to create very clear criteria of the type of RFPs that they will respond to. This process in itself is really a re-evaluation of their entire business – and its worth its weight in gold. Who is our ideal client? What level of spend? What verticals are the best fit? What type of businesses do we service best? Size? Location? Once this is established, it becomes easier to evaluate incoming RFPs and know which “bad fish” to throw back. There is nothing more dignifying than calling a brand and saying “Thank you for the consideration, but this opportunity is not a fit for us. Best of luck.”
  • Push back. 98% (some would say 100% and would be right) of RFPs are garbage anyway. Most are poorly written, lack clarity and ask for things that the client doesn’t really understand. (Somewhat like walking into a Doctor’s office and saying, “Hi, I’m looking for heart surgeon. Can you please fill out these forms? It will help me determine if you are the right one – oh, and be prepared for a full presentation next Wednesday”). Brands self-diagnose and make things up and create false needs all of the time. Or they provide a prescription of what they think they need and then look for the agency that will best deliver on that assumption. We should be demanding clarity –and offer to re-write the RFP on occasion – in partnership. I know this may sound Pollyanna but it works – I’ve done these countless times successfully.
  • Specialization and not commoditization: Successful agencies should not be pursuing commoditized assignments – they should be targeting strategic relationships with clients. Commoditized service inquiries invariably turn out to be price-shopping expeditions. In these scenarios, your value propositions are secondary to the costs – and that is a bad way to start a professional services relationship. Define your area of specialization (digital media services for CPGs, or, Mobile Marketing for B2B, etc.). Deep and narrow roots have stronger footing.
  • Fewer people on the RFP response team. Adding more bodies looks/feels good (its “inclusive” and “democratic” and “diverse”), but makes the process painful. While I understand fully that most large RFPs are complex and require input from specialized units, the strategic direction of the response can usually be formulated by a small group of strategists who understand the digital ecosystem enough to weave the larger story.
  • Identify the real sales people in the company – and use them. Sales people tend to look at things a differently: A ‘Lets win the account’ context, as opposed to a ‘lets solve their problem’ context will drive a completely different approach and outcome. Sales is 95% a relationship thing – and 5% capability. People hire (and fire) people – not processes and technologies – those they buy or rent.


I recommend you read the book: Winning without Pitching Manifesto by Blair Enns – best book I’ve read on this – ever.

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