Drew McLellan

Seven Steps in the Agency New Business Development Process

By: Drew McLellan | June 11, 2018 | 
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New Business Development Agencies know what it’s like to do new business development, but do they know how organizations think during their search for an agency?

When a company decides it needs help, what does that process look like? And what can agencies do to earn new business?

Agency owners don’t like to hear it, but business leaders don’t pay much attention to which agency is doing what, nor do they search for agency blogs to find a right fit.

Instead, the people running those businesses think about the problems they face and wonder how an agency could help alleviate their burdens.

Unfortunately, business leaders rarely have time to conduct a thorough search for a solution on their own.

Higher-ups usually delegate the task to a mid-level manager who searches for an hour or two.

Agencies have a limited window of time to get noticed and appeal to a prospect who’s typically a junior employee reporting to the ultimate decision maker.

It’s not easy, but it’s achievable.

Delegated searchers look for content, list placement, and prospect-friendly websites.

People should be able to find your agency easily and decide for themselves whether you offer what they need.

There are thousands of articles about how to attract that web traffic—but this isn’t one of them.

Instead, let’s discuss what comes next: the first meeting.

The First Meeting: Differentiation

Whether you go with a formal presentation or an informal coffee meet-up, the truth is that all the business development process presentations look the same.

Steve Boehler, a founding partner at Mercer Island Group, recently joined my podcast to talk about what businesses experience during the search for an agency.

Steve told me:

When we’re briefing the client to get them ready, we tell them to make sure they take detailed notes. By the time the third or fourth agency presents, they won’t remember who said what.

In a one-hour meeting, agency folks have very few interactions with their actual prospects.

They deliver speeches instead of hosting discussions, turning their potential partners into an uninterested audience.

The agencies that win the most deals buck this trend by differentiating themselves from the crowd.

What does that differentiation look like, though?

Here are seven steps Steve and I discussed to break free from the competition and ensure you win the deal:

Think About Their Business, Not Yours

This conversation isn’t about you and your new business development process. It’s all about the prospect’s business and the associated challenges.

Agencies that stand up and boast about their case studies, technical capabilities, and talented staff do nothing but bore their audience. Everyone talks about those things.

Buck the trend by focusing more on how you plan to solve your prospect’s problems and less on all your agency’s accolades.

During the podcast, Steve told a story about how Jon Landau, Bruce Springsteen’s manager, once tried to quit over a minor issue in a song.

When he told Springsteen’s manager, the manager told him Landau couldn’t succeed until he learned success was not about him.

Landau adapted to the situation and stuck around to get his first producer credit, eventually becoming a music industry billionaire.

So remember, it’s not about what your new business development process—it’s about what the business needs, agency or no agency.

Study the Prospect in Advance

The most important part of a pitch happens before it even begins.

Don’t prepare a cookie-cutter presentation: learn about the client’s business issues, industry trends, and competitors’ successful strategies.

Many agencies do the research and then waste it by focusing on themselves during the presentation.

Spend more time talking about what you’ve learned and where the opportunities lie.

Talk about the client’s needs first, because if you lead with information about why your agency is the best, the audience will no longer care.

Bond Over Their Problems, Not Your Answers

Are you sensing a theme yet?

Structure the new business development presentation to connect on the prospect’s terms, not your own.

They might not like your potential creative components or general solution, but if you demonstrate an understanding of the problem, they’re more likely to work with you to find something they do like.

Turn the presentation around when the clients introduce themselves.

Ask those in the room to tell you who they are, what their business roles are, and—most importantly—what they want most from the meeting.

In five minutes, you’ll learn more about what the prospect wants and will differentiate your agency as the one that listened best.

For added showmanship, jot down the top desires on a whiteboard and return to them throughout the presentation.

This personalization combines client ideas with your pitch and gets them working with you before they hire you.

Create the Meeting Agenda Together

Do your homework and have preliminary conversations about what to expect.

Then, at the beginning of the new business development meeting, review what you’ve discussed and create a plan for what to cover next.

Let’s say you know this client wants to increase sales in California, and your whiteboard shows all the top priorities people gave during the last step.

Outline everything they expect as you understand it.

Then, pause to ask whether they want to add anything else: what’s missing? What are you overlooking? What connections have they just now drawn?

Through this exercise, you’re demonstrating that the agenda is about your client’s business, not your sales.

As clients help you define the problem, they’ll become much more likely to agree to your eventual solution.

Address Surprises as They Arise

No new business development meeting ever goes as planned.

Maybe the person who set up the meeting doesn’t have the power to hire you.

Maybe you’ve been talking to the marketing director, and now the owner is sitting in.

Different parties have different priorities.

Maintain your good impression by asking more questions and talking less.

Shy away from presentation and focus more on conversation.

If someone in the room says, “No one has asked us that before,” then you’ll know you’re on the right track.

Sometimes surprises don’t have an answer.

If you came prepared to talk about California sales, and one prospect mentions she’d also like to boost sales in Texas, adapt your presentation to cover the new ground.

If that’s not possible—perhaps the new question requires more research—admit you don’t have current info to cover that in detail, but you would love to come back and discuss it further.

Make the client feel heard, and your chance to convert will continue to increase.

Make the Case for Yourself

Now, with all the previous goals accomplished, you can finally start talking about yourself.

You got your prospects to tell you what they need, made them feel heard, and demonstrated your understanding of their business issues.

Now, they need to know what you plan to do for them.

Before you jump into specific solutions, take a quick break to discuss why your agency is the right one for the job.

Discuss how you’ve handled similar issues before.

Highlight people within your organization who excel at the things you’ll need to do for this prospect.

Then, turn it around and make those advantages personal to the business in front of you.

Even though this part appears to be about you, it’s still about what your prospect needs.

The facts about your agency don’t matter in a vacuum, but they do matter in the context of how they can help the business right now.

Tell a quick story, “We did this before for another client, and that led to a 30 percent increase in sales.”

Keep it relatable to make even the most self-centered part of the presentation seem like it’s more about the prospect than you.

Ask Them to Hire You

By the end of the new business development meeting, you’ll have talked the entire time without asking for your prospects’ business.

But once you’ve wrapped it up, ask them to hire you.

Say something simple such as, “That’s all we had planned for today. Now, here’s the real question: do you like it?”

The question sounds risky, but they understand that you want their business.

If you speak confidently, authentically, and positively, they’ll tell you what they like.

Give them a next step to take, whether it’s an invitation to see your agency or a written proposal to review.

New Business Development is Long-term Affair

Throughout the process, keep the interaction conversational.

Selling is a long-term affair, and every moment along the path can swing the balance one way or the other.

The more small wins you get during the conversation, the more likely you’ll get the big win later.

About Drew McLellan


Drew McLellan has been in the advertising industry for more than 25 years. For 18 of those years, he has owned and continues to run his agency. McLellan also leads the Agency Management Institute, which advises hundreds of small- to medium-sized advertising agencies on how to grow and build their profitability through agency-owner peer networks, consulting, workshops and more.

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