How to Deliver Long Term & Sustainable New Business Success

Agencies of all sizes are wrestling with the demanding question of how to deliver long-term sustainable success in a potentially very challenging year.

To help, the BD100 and ALF Insights gathered leading new business professionals for a panel discussion and networking event on the topic at Accenture Song’s London office.

Moderated by Propeller Group Director of Content, Branwell Johnson, the panel included:

  • Helen Lee, Head of Growth & Marketing, UK & EMEA, Wunderman Thompson
  • Jack Thomas Williams, Growth Lead, ACNE London
  • Isabella Gelston, Senior New Business Manager, Accenture Song

Experience of the year so far

Proceedings began with Branwell setting out indicators of a more positive outlook for the year, ranging from recent agency holding group results and big pitches afoot to headlines on brands increasing marketing spend.

The panel agreed new business had been insanely busy so far and it was important at this juncture to qualify where to allocate resources. Helen Lee said: “There is a sense of urgency and competition in the market. But agency leaders are cautious as we know that intense competition in new biz can impact client retention. Important to find the right balance when the pitches are coming thick and fast.”.

New biz teams are finding a shift in what clients are looking for from their agency partners. “Clients want more than a response to the brief”, said Izzy Gelston. “They want to sense how you can help them in a broader sense. How can you shift their reputation? How can you help them grow sustainably?”

Helen added: “There is a real shift away from specialist briefs. It’s less about being a CRM or ATL or creative agency. Clients want integrated pitches which cover all bases.”

But Jack Thomas Williams added: “When push comes to shove, pressure is high and budgets are tight. There are still lots of brands who want a simple brand campaign over something much bigger – and more expensive.” 

Modernising the BD team model

Agencies are changing their internal BD structures to reflect the changes in client demands.

“There is no room for silos,” said Helen. “We are fully integrated into the PR and marketing team. Our focus together collectively is always on driving new businesses, prospecting and conversion.” She pointed out he team now sits next to the CEO – reinforcing the central role played by BD.

Jack and Izzy shared their experiences working as part of consultancy groups (Deloitte and Accenture respectively). “Marketing and BD both sit within Growth,” explained Jack. “But our Deloitte relationship means we have an ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ growth strategy. We’re always looking at new ways to add value to these different types of clients.”

Izzy added: “BD teams are constantly evolving and changing. Our team is only three people. But we tap into a wider Accenture Song network. As we reshape, we go off-site for strategic planning sessions where we decide where we need to ‘flex’ – so for example right now our focus is pitching.”

 Strategies for BD success

The BD Holy Grail is to develop a steady pipeline of opportunities throughout the year. But it’s easier said than done. The panel explained what was working for them. 

“Outreach needs to be multifaceted,” Jack noted. “You need to talk to someone seven times even to be recognised. So, we need to engage with people intelligently and often..”

Helen and Isabella both agreed that all marketing must be strategic and never generic. “I hate the word prospecting,” Helen continued. “It makes me think of all the really crap cold emails I’ve received. What I like to think about is marketing-led growth with a focus on genuine engagement through top-tier, hyper relevant content.

She pointed out that sometimes agencies produce too much content and the aim should be how to squeeze as much as possible from a hero piece- including in-person events followed by virtual events, relevant Linked In activity and then to encourage potential clients to come in for a workshop.

Jack added: “Real life events are so much more impactful. The networking and learning opportunities increase tenfold.”

Channels and platforms must be evaluated carefully. Helen said: “We know the channels like LinkedIn and we are refining our ABM (Account Based Marketing) approaches and getting smarter with how we use them.” Isabella added that there are always “new tricks” for old platforms and everyone is getting smarter with data. 

The diverse skill set of successful BDs

Ultimately success will depend on the individuals within a BD team – and if tactics and technology are changing what of the skill sets needed by a new biz professional in 2023? 

The core strengths remain. Helen pointed to resilience. “Business developers are a rare breed. Not everybody can do this. You will lose more than you win. You need to lose, get up and go again the next day. You need positivity and I will always hire based on attitude over experience. Because there are some qualities you can’t teach.” 

Isabella added. “You need real emotional intelligence. You have to be able to read, understand and communicate with colleagues from around the business as much as prospects. I think that most people often land in BD accidentally – and these people succeed because they bring diverse skill sets which help them stand out.” 

Recent years have seen a growing awareness of the need to safeguard employee mental health and the rollercoaster of BD certainly puts people under pressure. Jack had some good advice for the audience: “Good agency cultures stem from the top. The key to staying sane is to stay emotionally stable. It’s not life or death. Don’t let wins carry you too high, or losses sink you too low- stay in the middle. Leaders should foster a culture of openness where colleagues don’t feel pressured to hide stress or concerns.” 

Helen Lee agreed. “Leadership teams recognise the pressure we face – and recognise the importance of setting boundaries.” She added that she turns her work phone off at 8 pm  After 8pm I turn my work phone off. “Most things can wait until the morning. Burning the midnight oil is often just a waste of oil.”

Improving the pitch process

The need to pitch and the BD teams’ role in prepping an coaching the pitch team will remain a constant foe the foreseeable future. It takes a lot of resource of every kind to pitch, so what could potential clients do to help with the process?

Helen was in no doubt:  “Tell us the bloody budget! No other industry operates by keeping budgets so closely guarded. It can waste so much valuable time if we don’t know how much someone can spend.”

She also flagged the importance of tissue meetings “to creatively share and learn about each other” and said the agency had turned down pitches where clients refuse to hold one. “It’s a red flag. You have to be able to push back. Transparency helps all parties.”

Jack agreed. “There is a massive need to re-address agency relationships from parent-child to parent-parent. We want to work and create together. The key is in a good brief.”

Isabella pointed to the IPA Positive Pitch Pledge as a valuable resource and backed the general wish for a contribution to the cost of a pitch. “These are our guiding principles – and I think we should share with all our clients. Really we spend most of our day working for free. Would a law firm do the same?”

Of course, with so much time spent and resource involved in a pitch it’s essential to qualify the potential client before making the decision to invest. The panel all had various frameworks for evaluation of the opportunity. Jack said: “Qualifying directly relates to the winnability of an opportunity and having that sit down moment with the people [in the agency] making the key decisions is vital.” 

Find the BD 100 2023 list here and the BD100 winner (sponsored by DNA Recruit) and Rising Star 2023 (sponsored by jfdi) will be announced alongside the ALF Awards on April 19th. Propeller Group is also delighted to be sponsoring the new business win of the year award.

Click here to book your ticket now – you can use the following discount code – ALFIES2023.