I don’t care how big or old your agency is — you want to win more new business. If I could bottle business development success — I’d be a billionaire. Honestly – getting new business for your agency is not as mysterious as we make it out to be.
There is a methodology that works. But it requires work. That’s why agencies struggle. They wrestle with being disciplined enough to do the work consistently.
That’s why I knew I needed to get Peter Levitan on the Build a Better Agency podcast. Peter’s book, Buy This Book, Win More Pitches, is a brilliant read on how to get your agency noticed and pursued by clients you’d love to work with. Peter has spent his career building successful brands, digital technologies, publishing and advertising environments, and highly effective marketing programs for Fortune 500 companies. He has 30 years of experience running Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising Worldwide, his own Portland Agency, and as the CEO of two Internet start-ups.
On the podcast, Peter and I talk about truly differentiating your agency, how successful agencies prospect and what you need to do right now to get your new business program in high gear. We also delve into personas and how inbound has changed the agency new business model.
You’ll probably listen to this one more than once when working on getting new business. Peter’s straight to the point style and 30 years of success in the field success make for an incredible interview.
To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site (https://agencymanagementinstitute.com/peter-levitan/) and grab either the iTunes or Stitcher files or just listen to it from the web.
If you’d rather just read the conversation, the transcript is below.
If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Build A Better Agency where we show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invest in employees and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of expertise as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host Drew McLellan.
Drew: Hey everybody. Thanks for checking out this episode of Build A Better Agency. Drew McLellan here and I am really excited about the topic today. This is a topic that I love to talk about, agency owners are obsessed in talking about and our guest today is a huge expert in the area of getting new business and in pitching and positioning your agency, so we’re going to dig into all of that. Build A Better Agency is all about helping agency owners just like you do it a little bit better, so you can make a little more and worry a little less and so with that, I want to introduce today’s guest, Peter Levitan.
Peter is a builder of successful brands, digital technologies, publishing and advertising environments and highly effective marketing programs for Fortune 500 clients, ad agencies, tech companies and publishers. He spent 16 years at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, running their business development and some major accounts. He owned his own agency, I believe up in Portland and was CEO/founder of two Internet startups. Many of you are familiar with The Levitan Pitch. Buy This Book. Win More Pitches., which was a great read. And we’re going to really dig into Peter’s expertise around how agencies can grow their business. So Peter, welcome to the podcast.
Peter: Well, thank you very much. Thanks for the introduction. One thing you didn’t say, was that I did all of that in two years so.
Drew: And you are only 29, right?
Peter: Actually 26, thank you.
Drew: That is right. Sorry, didn’t mean to overshoot. So Peter, give us a little more background. Have you always been in the agency business for the most part, is that the lion’s share of your professional career?
Peter: Well, it’s interesting. I was thinking the other day, what is the string? What ties sort of my having left college to where I am today and I realized that to a certain extent, I can call it creative selling. I started as a photographer in San Francisco. I had a commercial photography studio. Then I moved back to New York City where I grew up and went into advertising, then I had two Internet companies and then my own advertising agency and my own business today, which is helping agencies develop better, smarter business development programs and across that entire life span, I realized that I have been selling. So, whether I’m selling my photography to agencies or today selling my consulting practice to agencies, it’s all about selling. So, I think I’ve really come down to the conclusion that I know how to sell stuff.
Drew: Well and when you think about it that, isn’t that what agency’s job are too is to help clients sell their stuff, so it makes sense that you’ve hung out in that space for as long as you have then.
Peter: Right. Well it certainly helps.
Drew: Yeah, yeah. So I know one of things that a lot of our listeners are thinking is Saatchi & Saatchi and he did big brand, big new business, so help them understand maybe a little bit about your own agency after you left Saatchi and just how some of this translates, everything we’re going to talk about today. If I’m a 10-person agency in a second tier or third tier city, how do I scale this stuff down?
Peter: Well, it’s really about fundamentals and as I say that word I’m thinking about the start of NFL football season. To a certain extent, while the NFL is different from high school football, essentially they’re trying to get the ball from the what is it called? Wherever they start into the goal. And to a certain extent, that’s all that agencies do and it’s consistent whether you’re a 1,000 person agency or a 10 person agency. And what it comes down to is understanding what your goal line is, understanding what your objectives are and I don’t think, frankly, that that’s any different in my conversations with major agencies down to small shops, 2, 3, 10 people. It’s really understanding what the objective is and then focusing on it and I think that that’s in particular, critical for small agencies that are time stressed, management is stressed. It’s really all about focusing and understanding what the objectives are and being realistic.
Drew: Yeah if anything, smaller agencies are trying to do the same job, they just have fewer resources to do it with, right?
Peter: Exactly. It’s interesting, the Saatchi bit. I haven’t worked there in about 20 years, but it becomes the way people position me. So, I’m positioned as a Saatchi guy and I certainly use those words because frankly, let’s face it, that it helps me position myself.
Drew: Absolutely, great cache.
Peter: Exactly. But the reality is I probably learn more running two Internet companies and running my very own agency, which fluctuated between about 25 and 35 people over the course of 7 years. So, I learned more running an agency than I ever did actually working at Saatchi and this is in respect to business development.
Drew: So give us an example of something that eluded you when you were at Saatchi, but you learned, you got punched with it square in the forehead at either your own shop or one of the startups?
Peter: Well, I had an interesting point in time near the end of my career at Saatchi. I was running business development in Europe and at the same time we were a very successful London agency, but we were having trouble in our New York office. In fact, things were kind of falling apart. It was the last year that Morris and Charles actually owned and ran the agency and New York itself was having problems. So I moved from London back to New York to run business development and I started to ask around to see what the plan looked like, P-L-A-N and people said, “Well we don’t have the business development plan.” And I realized something, well two things.
One, you need a plan and when I started to talk to management about having a marketing plan for the agency, they couldn’t wrap their head around that. I think that they were so used to doing things the old way, then the idea of actually having a plan with objectives and strategies and target audiences was something that was alien, strangely enough to an advertising agency. So that was my big lesson. It’s important to have a plan.
Drew: Yeah, absolutely. And yet, most agencies that are listening to this podcast and most agencies that you and I interact with on a regular basis, don’t have a plan for getting new business. So, when I talk to agencies and I say, “Well tell me about your new business plan,” I get the, “Oh, well.” First I get the cobbler’s children excuse and then I get the “Most of our businesses is word of mouth or referral.” So in essence, I translate that to, “We sit around and wait for opportunity.”
Peter: Well, I agree completely. I think the problem with the word “referral” unfortunately is on one hand it works. There are a couple of agencies in Portland that have been around 30 years and they are very well known and they get incoming calls. That’s nice. The other problem with referral, which is really a problem, is it becomes the default. So if you don’t do anything else and I ask an agency, “How do you win business?” And they don’t do anything, they say, “Well, referrals.” Well of course it’s referrals, but if you were to sort of turn it into a dating situation, it’s like sitting by the phone, waiting for the phone to ring. It’s not a particularly robust technique in terms of growing your agencies. So, referrals I think are good. It’s nice to be referred to because I think your reputation is the most important thing you have. On the other hand, you’ve lost control of the process at that point.
Drew: Well, my perception of that is, is you don’t have the volume that you need and they’re choosing you versus you choosing who you should be working for. So you’re taking whatever comes through the door as opposed to saying, “Here’s who we should or shouldn’t work for.”
Peter: Exactly. Even though you said it, I’m sure you’re tired of the analogy of the cobbler’s children. It’s absurd. It doesn’t make sense and frankly, if I was a client looking at agencies, one of the things I would look at and I’m not everybody, is how do they promote themselves? So, I’ll go to the website. The first thing many clients look at is an agency website and it is mind blowing to me how similar they are and they’ve gotten even more similar as a lot of agencies use similar WordPress themes. It’s just bizarre. I don’t understand it, but it’s such an easy fix.
Drew: Well and even worse than the themes are the language they use to describe themselves. I was poking around on your website and your blog and you had a great blog post where you basically showed how different agencies refer to themselves and they use every agency it seems like use the same 10 words to describe themselves.
Peter: I’ll be kind to agencies. It’s very difficult to find new words to express what you do when what you do is very, very similar to the guy down the street, so I get it. I’ll point to your audience to two websites that I think are interesting. A friend of mine in London has an agency, great name for the agency, London Advertising. It’s essentially a one page scrolling website. They have a video, which is something I always recommend agencies to do, just figure out a way to get a short video on your website to introduce yourself. And so I suggest people look at London because these are very strategic guys. And I found a website the other day that I thought was just the way it was actually drawn as an illustrated. It’s a website for a public relations agency, international agency called Frank PR and right off of that, you’ll see that these do not look like all other agencies and you don’t have to build a website that is wacky, you just have to find an angle and both of these companies have done that.
Drew: So I think we’re in agreement that a lot agencies struggle with getting new business and where they struggle is they don’t apply their resource to it in a thoughtful sort of planned way. I’m curious your take on how that comes to be. When I look at the situation, I think every agency owner will tell you without hesitation that new business and cash-flow and having enough work to keep their good people busy, is the heart of what makes their agency thrive. So in theory, they’re saying it’s their oxygen and yet they don’t do anything to make sure they get more oxygen. So, from your perspective, what gets in the way of agencies having a robust new business plan or marketing plan and actually doing all of the things that they tell their clients to do to help grow their business?
Peter: Well, I think one of the issues and believe me there are many, so it’s hard to completely generalize, but I think one of the issues is that many agencies actually do not understand sales. And I often find and sort of laugh at the idea that we call sales in the agency business development and it becomes an euphemism. The bottom line is it’s sales. I just don’t think a lot of agency CEOs or leaders actually understand the sales process. Frankly, I think that they should read sales books and I have to say I know many of them do that, but they need to read them, they need to look at videos online, they need to go to conferences where people are talking about sales to both be conscious and be stimulated to do it right.
So I’m going to say that since easily 60% to 70% of agencies don’t have business development plans, even a one pager frankly, guys, one page. They also don’t really understand sales. I invented three words today, I’m sure they’re somewhere out there, but smart sales pressure. I thought, “Okay, that’s really what it’s about.” It’s being very smart about who your potential customer is or in this case client. what their needs are, how you’ve positioned your agency to meet those needs and then you got to apply a little pressure to it. And it’s not cold-calls, it’s more like warm calls and it’s very much about fault