If there’s any one “system or process” that agencies really struggle to put into place and consistently execute on – it’s agency new business development. You know you need to do it. You know your business literally depends on it. And yet, you let client work and other fires steal your attention from this mission critical aspect of owning an agency. But, how do advertising agencies get new business?
My podcast guest John Heenan and I had an amazing conversation about getting back on track and making sure that new business is no longer an afterthought. He has spent time on both sides of the aisle, on the client side with Sony, and Philips and Uniden and on the agency side as CMO and new business leader.
He can show you how to find those great clients and make your process work much more efficiently and effectively so you can implement your agency new business plan both consistently and well.
Let John and I help you flesh out an agency new business plan of attack that you can stick to with:
- The experiences John had on the client side that led him to working on matching up agencies and clients
- Why cohesive culture throughout the agency matters for clients
- How do advertising agencies get new business
- Why you must treat your agency as your #1 client
- Crafting the first impression that leads will have of your agency
- The importance of getting crystal clear on what your agency is selling
- Director of Delivery: an important role inside modern agencies to make sure agencies deliver to clients
- Why agency owners need to get out of the day-to-day and focus on new business
- What John does differently to help agencies with new business
- Why your agency needs to be rapidly changing
John Heenan is a former Chief Marketing Officer / New Business Leader at a variety of small and mid-size agencies responsible for business development and agency marketing. Before that, he worked on the client side managing advertising and agencies for big global brands like Sony, Phillips, and Uniden.
He has created and managed successful business development programs for small, medium, and large agencies generating millions of dollars in agency revenue. He has managed multi-million-dollar ad budgets as a client, hired talent, built competitive advantage, and inspired great outcomes in support of business objectives.
John has also worked with some of the top innovative brands and aggressive advertising agencies in the world in both traditional and digital channels. Having been on both sides of the client-agency relationship, he has a unique understanding of what clients want and what agencies deliver. Today he is putting that experience to work for a small group of agencies who are wondering “how do advertising agencies get new business?”.
To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site (https://agencymanagementinstitute.com/john-heenan/) 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:
Table of Contents (Jump Straight to It!)
- What Sparked John’s Interest in Agency New Business
- Mistakes John Made Early On in His Career
- Why it’s Important to Over-Prepare for a Pitch
- The Biggest Issues that Exist in All Agencies
- Why Finding Your Niche is So Important as an Agency
- Why Agencies Need to Stop Being So Diverse
- How Agencies Can Get Better at Following Through with their Plans
- Agency New Business Tricks and Tips
- How John is Different from Other New Business Consultants
- Immediate Action Steps to Improve Your Agency New Business Program Today
Drew: Hey everybody. Drew McLellan here. Thank you for joining us for another episode of Build A Better Agency.
As you know, my goal is to bring you information and guests who are all dedicated to helping you make your agency stronger, more financially viable, able to weather the ups and downs of agency life and most importantly for me, a place that you love to go to work every day and that serves your family, and your financial needs and makes you happy to go to work.
That’s what we’re all about and today you’re going to love my guest. John Heenan is a former chief marketing officer and agency new business leader at several small and mid-sized agencies. He was often responsible for new business development and agency marketing.
Before that, John worked on the client side managing advertising and agencies for big global brands like Sony, and Philips and Uniden. He brings both sides of the equation to our conversation today.
But, what John is doing now is he is working with agencies to help them build out their agency new business programs, has managed multi-million-dollar ad budgets as a client, hired talent, built competitive advantage and inspired great outcomes in supportive business objectives and he’s bringing all of that to his agency clients. That is what we’re going to dig into today.
So, John, welcome to the podcast.
John: Hey, thanks Drew. I appreciate being on the show and sharing my experience.
What Sparked John’s Interest in How Advertising Agencies Get New Business
Drew: It sounds like you have spent a lot of your career in the new business side of marketing, whether it was on the client side or the agency side. What made you head in that direction to begin with?
John: Yeah, that’s a question my wife asks me every day. I started my career out working on the client side, helping hire, manage, and fire agencies for the brands that you had mentioned. In that process, I really got intimate with some of the best agencies in the world and came to know how they go about servicing their clients, the kind of work that they do, the relationships that they have.
Through that process, I really was underwhelmed. I thought, “We’re paying these agencies a lot of money and they have top reputations and yet, they’re not really treating the client as well as they should.” I thought, “There’s got to be a better way to match up a great agency with a very deserving client.”
So, after about 15 years on the client side, I decided maybe I can find a better way to match up agencies and clients. So, I jumped over to the agency side and as you mentioned, been working inside of a variety of agencies, small and mid-sized agencies, doing just that. Finding great clients for those agencies and making that process work much more efficiently and effectively for those agencies.
I spent the last 15 or so years on the agency side and really enjoy the hunt for new clients and the process for matching them up. Most importantly, really the joy of a great agency client relationship and the success that comes from that.
Some of the Mistakes John Made Early On in His Career
Drew: When you jumped on the agency side, I suspect perfection was not present on day one, so what are some of the mistakes that you made early on that you now can kind of fold into the teaching that you do when you work with agencies?
John: Mistakes? I never made any mistakes! What are you talking about?
Drew: Let’s … All right, let’s call them experiments that might have gone wrong.
John: Yeah, you’re so right. After any kind of agency pitch, or client engagement, I always try to do a post mortem with the client to understand really what that experience was like from their perspective. I tell them, the number one objective is to gain your trust and win your business but, second to that is to learn why we didn’t and what factors went into the decision that my agency can learn from, and grow, and be better.
With the average agency win rate being around 25%, there’s a lot of opportunity to learn what your mistakes were and how you can do better next time.
Drew: That’s for sure. Yeah.
John: The experience has really spanned the gamut. In one case, we had a client, a national restaurant chain who wanted to come do a chemistry visit and we had brought leadership in from two different offices and they thought the conversation went great. We talked about their needs and their challenges and the experiences we have and concluded with firm handshakes.
Couple days later, the search consultant calls and said, “Your conversation was really good but the client could really tell the difference in cultures between your two offices.” That really worried them about the working experience.
So, I’ve heard a number of people talk about whether culture in an agency client relationship matters and certainly in this case, with millions of dollars at stake, all the other factors being good, that cultural problem not having great synergy between the people in the offices was really what happened.
That was a great learning experience to be able to make sure that the people that are in the room are in sync with each other, that it reflects and really expresses the culture of the agency so that marketers don’t have to be worried about that.
Drew: One of the things I’m always harping on is that agencies are often under prepared when they go into pitches. Their idea of rehearsal is practicing in the car on the way over.
Why it’s Important to Over-Prepare for a Pitch
Drew: I think sometimes it translates to the awkwardness that feels like chemistry is off amongst a team even when the chemistry is great, and we all know the importance of chemistry in business.
But, when you’re in a situation where you’re uncomfortable or feel under prepared, you can really come off overwhelmed and kind of awkward. I think sometimes that’s misinterpreted as bad chemistry.
John: No, absolutely. I had an agency whose president didn’t want to rehearse ever. Didn’t think she needed to rehearse. Felt that as leader of this agency, she knew what she had to say and basically take it or leave it. While the rest of the team was very serious about getting the story straight, making the right points, and so, it was always a very frustrating experience to prepare, as you said, leading up to the meeting.
To her credit, sometimes she was awesome but, other times, you just stand there listening and thinking, “What is she talking about?” You see that same kind of expression on the face of client and you go, “Oh no! Here we go again.” But, that preparation piece is so critically important. Especially because you put so much time and effort into being successful with this particular pitch.
Many people work long hours to make sure that it’s the best it can be and then, one link in the chain doesn’t perform and that’s it.
Drew: Well, and often times I think it is the agency leader who gets in the way of rehearsing. I think usually the staff wants to rehearse.
John: That’s right.
Drew: It is the, “I’m too busy.” It’s a combination, I think, of, “I’m too busy,” and a little bit of arrogance on the leader’s part. They know that they’re a great presenter but what they forget about is that it really is an orchestra that’s playing this music and if everybody’s not playing it well together, it’s very noticeable.
John: No, you’re so right. I’ve seen it time and time again where people will say, “Oh, well the president isn’t that important. It’s really the creative director or the strategist or whatever the service offering is.” But, in fact, a client wants to see, in that president, a leader. Somebody who knows their business, knows their market, and has the wherewithal, the focus to steward this team.
Whoever is configured for that client to be able to make sure that the business runs properly for them to do the things that they have to do for the client. When they don’t get that sense of confidence or trust at the level of the president, then the rest doesn’t even matter.
Drew: Yeah, right. I agree. I don’t want to miss out on another one of your experiments gone bad so, give us one more where early in your new business career you stub your toe and learn something valuable that you now bring to your agency clients.
John: Well, I had an agency who happened to get a piece of pharma business because of a relationship that the account director had with a brand director within that pharma brand. Pitch process took place but we knew, I don’t know if the other agencies knew, but we knew that that was wired for us. We went to that process, won the business, and started the relationship off really very successful, doing very well.
So, because of that one single instance, the leadership of the agency decided, “We’re going all out on pharma.” I mean, this is a category that’s big and rich and lots of money to be made. We had this one success and so, we’d probably be able to …
Drew: Surely that makes us an expert.
John: That’s right. We ought to be able to parlay that into big global pharma agency. Optimism reigns and the agency, despite my best advice, decided to focus entirely on pharma. They had other good verticals with great successes, even better successes but they ignored those and really wanted to leverage that pharma experience.
I mean, hired people and consultants and others to really make a go at this and went out into the marketplace and we talked to pharma companies and presented our capabilities and then, every single case we were dismissed for really not having the creds, not having the expertise. It was just a very frustrating experience.
Drew: That sounds expensive.
John: Well, absolutely. I mean, it was not only expensive for that effort but then the other clients of the agency began to wonder, “Well, what is this agency that I’m working with? I didn’t hire a pharma expert agency. So, what are they doing and how do I fit into this?” In fact, a number of them ultimately ended up leaving. Not only was it expensive to go all in but the collateral damage was even greater.
The Biggest Issues that Exist in All Agencies
Drew: Yeah, yikes. Well, that certainly sets the tone for … This is tricky stuff and you need to do it well I think.
When you are working with your agency clients now, in your consulting business, what are some of the immediate things that you look for and identify as trouble spots?
John: Agencies have just a terrible time really treating themselves like a client, like they treat their clients and they should be their number one client because the success of their business depends on it and in the same way that they know the success of their client, the marketer, depends upon how well the agency performs. They just don’t get the fact that they too need to do those fundamental things of marketing that ensure their success.
The first thing I do is really try and look at what the marketplace impression is of that agency. How do they represent themselves on their website, in any of their communications? What does their client list look like? What are the people that they hold up? What categories are they experts in? What services do they offer?
Just getting an overall sense, like a marketer would, upon first visiting an agency, because Drew, I’m sure you know that 100% of marketers check you out before you even know it.
John: If that first impression isn’t the right impression, it’s just baffling to think about how much business you’re losing then and there. And so, even down to a little thing like a contact form on your website. I just rail on this subject because, if I were marketer, why would I want to put my information into a generic contact form?
If I’m interested in checking out your agency, I want to talk to you. I want to connect with your top person and not throw my details into something that I have no idea where it goes and who can see it because again, if I’m looking for a new agency, I probably don’t want other people knowing that, particularly my current agency.
That first impression is a job one for any agency but, what often … Where the conversation often goes is that the agency isn’t really clear on what that first impression should be.
Drew: No, they look like everybody else, right?
John: Well, they look like everybody else or they look like somebody they’re not or they just look like a mess. They have this capability and that focus and this and that. The takeaway … I mean, if you think about it, and I do a lot, I have used web tools that tell me who’s visiting the website, how much time they’re spending, what pages they go to.
In addition to Google Analytics and other things, there are other software available that can give you greater insights. You can see when marketers come to visit your page, if they’re three seconds and out, there’s a big fail there. But, if they’re a minute and a half or two minutes of looking at pages, then something is working right.
The first thing for an agency to really come to terms with is, what is their product? What are they selling as an agency? Is it an AOR? Is it a digital specialty? Is it experiential? Whatever the case may be, decide what that is. Really sharpen and focus what it is you are selling. What is your product? What is the marketer buying from you?
Once you clearly articulate that, decide it amongst your leadership not your agency, and say it in ways that people understand, then, all the rest of the things that you do really line up very nicely with that. But, if you don’t do that hard work at the start, then, you’re going to be flip flopping around in many different ways.
So, always the first thing I do, before talking to an agency, is getting that kind of understanding and do it with as fresh an objective and approach so that I have a good point of discussion with them. I also-
Why Finding Your Niche is So Important as an Agency
Drew: Hang on a second. I want to stay there for a second. I find that agency owners either A, really can’t see themselves accurately at all, or B, are really, really hesitant to identify categories or niches or areas of specialty because it feels like they’re leaving money on the table. As a result, they end up looking like everybody else and very generic.
How do you help an agency owner or a leadership team see themselves the way the market place sees them and then, tweak that position and perception by being willing to be about something, which by default means you’re not everything for everybody?
John: Yeah, that’s the million dollar question certainly. The real struggle for agencies because the agency owners, the leaders, they have so much invested, so many emotions in what that agency is and does and its success. It’s very, very hard to take that objective view.
I think that my experience in working with a wide range of agencies on this very subject combined with my experience prior of looking at these agencies and who to hire and how they’re communicating to me, give me somewhat of a unique perspective in this regard but, I also don’t trust myself.
What I also do is get colleagues, marketers, people that I really trust their opinion and ask them to go look at this agency, tell me what you think. Tell me what you get from your experience here. The good, the bad and the ugly.
I find that my colleagues often enjoy doing that. Take five minutes of their time but, really get insightful feedback about the problem areas or the interpretation. The agency lingo that makes no sense to the marketer, or missing important things that they’re looking for.
So, that’s really the way that I approach it and am able to give good feedback to those agencies. It’s often a very hard conversation because they’ll say, “No, we are this. We need to say that and this is really important to us. We’re very proud of that.” But, who cares if it doesn’t matter to the prospect that you’re trying to win.
Drew: Yeah, I think that’s part of the challenge is helping agency owners see it from the buyer’s perspective and that, I get that you love this or I get that this makes you proud or whatever, but if nobody wants to buy it, it’s not relevant in the market place. That’s a tough conversation.
John: That’s right. To your other point, you’re absolutely right, that people in general are worried about focusing to risk losing out on other opportunities. We’re kind of our own worst enemy in that, some piece of business will come our way, like for example, the pharma case. That comes our way for all the wrong reasons.
I mean, it’s great but it’s just a coincidence or serendipity or whatever. That trains us to think, “Oh, well I can get business here or I can go after that.” But, really, your chances are better at winning the lottery.
But yet, still, it happens. So, getting agency leaders to really say, “No, I’m going to forgo any wild chance of winning that to focus on these areas that I really do well with, that can really help clients with and that they can appreciate the things I’ve done.” That always makes for a much better conversation, a much greater clarity in the process.
In truth, if you think about it from an agency standpoint, you want to be focused and your time and attention and your resources to be focused because there are only so many hours in the day. If you’re off chasing things that aren’t going to end up making you money, then, you’re losing out on those things that can. That kind of discipline and focus is just critical right from the start.
Drew: Well, and I think the other thing agency owners forget is it’s not like they need 25 new clients to have a great year. In fact, most small to mid-sized agencies would choke if they had to on board-
John: That’s right.
Drew: Even double digits of new clients. It really is about being very specific and hunting down the two or three, at the most, sweet spot clients that are going to be so aligned with what you do well, that they’re not only walk in the door and be happy to hand you money but, B, they’re going to stick around for a long time so you don’t have to replace them in 12 months.
John: That’s right. That’s right. I just got back yesterday from a meeting with an agency in Pennsylvania and they were a classic case of being all things to all people. The leadership of the agency, while they knew they had some specific areas of expertise, they were really trying to grow, diligently trying to do things to grow and thinking that they had to be in these other categories and these other verticals and they know about these other opportunities. Their limited staff was just spread so thin and really, demoralized on a miserable pitch rate. The idea of focus was so appropriate to them and really the topic for our discussion.
Why Agencies Need to Stop Being So Diverse
Drew: How do you get somebody over the hump and sort of recognize that, excuse me, they literally are choking themselves and their team by trying to be so diverse that they are a mile wide and an inch deep?
John: It’s funny. In this conversation yesterday, the head of delivery was just giving me this most sour look the whole time I was talking about focus. You could just read it on their face, not another effort to go after everything, please. Don’t do that to us.
By the end of that conversation, I think the frown turned to a smile when you’re talking about nope, but let’s really figure out what stories you have that are most compelling to a marketer. What are those categories? What are those kinds of business? What are those services that go into that?
So that you can say to that marketer, “We know this category because we work with this client and achieved these results. We work with that client, we achieve these results. We marketed to this consumer group and we got these kinds of excellent results. And that’s why we can do the same for you.”
When you have a very simple conversation like that, and set the stage of credibility, confidence, and success like that, then you can really get into the details of those discussions and the great work you did and how great the agency was or is. That’s really where that conversation should flow so the marketer can say, “Yep, I get that. Yep, that makes sense. That’s my problem. Yep, you accomplished that. Yeah, let’s talk about how you can do that for me.”
Drew: Yeah, I just have to ask, this is a great example of agencies making up words that the clients don’t understand. What is a director of delivery?
John: Director of delivery is somebody that makes sure the agency delivers. What they promise to the client for the budget that they have been given, on the schedule that they had been given and that the work is perfect when it goes out the door.
So, it’s particularly important role in today’s world of fragmented media and so many different channels and, so many different ways of engaging with the customer. To keep all of those things working together and getting out the door in the right way is becoming more and more complicated and so, the director of delivery role is really becoming more important for an agency to be successful. Especially those that are delivering-
Drew: I have never, in all my work with agencies, heard that term. Normally that would be an account manager’s job to make sure they’re overseeing their client work. So, does that person sit in the account service department or in the production department or where?
John: It’s typically over the production department and in the operations that really they connect up into the operations and maybe into the CFO kind of range. Being able to schedule and do the work for the money that’s being paid is important. The utilization of staff time so that you don’t miss deadlines. You make sure you have the resources. All those kind of internal things that the client could care less about because all they’re expecting is great work done on time and on budget and out in the market place. But, internally, really managing all of those different resources becomes pretty complicated.
How Agencies Can Get Better at Following Through with their Plans
Drew: Right. It absolutely does.
Okay, so I think the other thing that agencies struggle with, and I’m curious if this is your experience as well as, it’s sort of like a new year’s resolution. They get off the gun and they’re all excited and they got this elaborate agency new business plan with all of these moving parts and all this other stuff. But by February the gym is empty and so by then, the agency efforts are quiet because I got busy with client work or whatever.
Do you see that with your clients as well? That they have great intentions but horrible follow through?
John: That is one of the most frustrating things from my perspective and so absolutely true. On one hand, you can certainly understand the very busy nature of running an agency and especially with the leadership being pulled in so many different directions. But, I had an agency who was determined on January 1 to make this year the best year ever.
So, we did the hard work of really defining the agency and getting a crystallized point of view and understanding what the verticals were and who … Putting the prospect list for those verticals. Doing all the right things to make for a very successful program. Then, put it out into the market, got connections going. Set up phone calls and meetings with the president and other leadership. In almost every case, the president would blow off the meeting, would get too busy.
John: Client emergency. “No, but I’ve got Mr. CMO here waiting to talk to you.” “I’m sorry, I can’t make it.” Or, they’d say, “Oh, well have this junior person fill in for me.” So, all of that effort just totally went down the drain and one reason for that was some client crisis that really … You don’t want to lose your current clients while you’re trying to get new ones so, of course you’ve got to put your effort and energy into that but, the result was a completely failed effort after the first couple months. So, your analogy about the gym is spot on.
Drew: Yeah, and part of that is too, agency owners … This is another discipline issue. They have got to get out of the day to day business of being the client contact. You can’t be in the agency and work on the agency at the same time.
John: That’s a good point.
Drew: Agency owners absolutely need to be focused on new business. They have … No one is more committed to growing the agency than the owner. No one has more skin in the game and no one is more credible to a client.
So, the example you just gave is the perfect example of why you cannot straddle that fence, that you really do have to have good people in the agency taking care of your current clients. It’s not that you take your eye off the ball and you don’t have any contact with the clients but you cannot be the person that you call in an emergency.
John: Yeah, I imagine you find it a lot where a senior level, personal agency owner, that they just don’t have the confidence in their bench or the next level of people. Just like new business, they don’t have the time to properly train or mentor those people to make sure that they can take on those roles and be a part of that process and free up their time.
So, that issue of not enough bandwidth in the day has implications across so many aspects of the agency.
Drew: Yeah, I think it’s two things. I think one, it’s I don’t have confidence in my bench and two, I’m so good at it, whether it’s art direction or copywriting or account service that it feels, it’s gratifying to be that good and that smart and to be able to just breeze through the day with having great answers for clients and kind of being the hero. I think it’s intoxicating to a lot of agency owners and it’s hard to give up.
John: Yeah. I just saw great … Somebody posted one of those great adages that the CFO asked the agency owner, “What if we invest all this time and effort in training our people and they leave the agency?” The owner turns it around and says, “Well, what if we don’t train our people and they stay?”
Agency New Business Tricks and Tips
Drew: Right, amen to that. Amen to that. Okay, so again, you’re bumping into clients again with sort of the new year’s resolution problem all the time. How do you get them to stay the course?
What are some tricks or tips that you use to get your clients not to abandon the agency new business program or effort as it’s heading out the door?
John: Yeah, and again, one of the big challenges … Part of the solution to that is to make sure that the process of inbound and outbound marketing for the agency is set up and automated in a way that it can easily be handled by other people in the agency or through some outsource through a consultant or some other means.
Once the program is set up and it’s all agreed to, to make sure that it doesn’t tap much resource within the agency, in particular the senior level people. The second piece is to make sure that any opportunities are well vetted so that you’re not talking to people or chasing things that are just going to be a waste of time.
Again, time is the most precious resource. When you get to those opportunities and on one hand you want them to be few and far between because to your point, the agencies, particularly small to mid-size, should only and can only take on a few good new clients. When those really good opportunities come up, you want to make sure that the agency is well prepared for them and that they are really rich conversations and hopefully lead to either a short term or a long term relationship that is profitable for the agency.
By doing so, it doesn’t become just a big burden to the senior leaders of the agency and they don’t go running, screaming whenever you call because they know what’s in store but, they have the confidence that that conversation is going to be important, so they need to carve out a little bit of time to handle that.
Then, the second piece as we talked about earlier is to make sure that there’s backups in the agency who are going to represent the agency well. So, to spend the time to make sure those people are confident and articulate about what they’re going to be talking about so that that first conversation can go well.
Then, to be a big cheerleader of the process. It’s always funny, not funny, but interesting that agency owners, they want results right away. They think that you should turn the spigot on and the business should flow, or you have a golden Rolodex and you can just pull out the next person in line. In truth, it takes time. I mean, any industry or any business is the same way. It takes time.
John: When you think about … When you think about the average client agency relationship is about three years. I mean, that’s a long sales cycle to be into consideration as that happens. You have to make sure that you get the president committed and that you set their expectations right, that it’s a process and it takes time, and that as the momentum builds things get better and better. But, you got to get through the start to enjoy the fruits of that effort.
Drew: So, and I’m going to take a hiring John out of the equation but, if … Every agency owner is looking for the silver bullet for new business. Do you have a silver bullet? Is there a magic trick, other than hiring you, to agencies being more successful? This is not my first podcast.
Drew: To being successful at new businesses? Are there some absolutes or some things that you sort of say, “Look, if you follow these three rules,” or whatever it is. I don’t know what it will be but, is there something that makes this better and easier?
John: And now, we’ll pause for a commercial break.
Drew: That’s right.
John: No, there’s absolutely no magic bullet. There’s a variety of different ways to be successful but, so many people think that there is a magic bullet and I’ve seen agency owners fall for that again and again. I had one agency owner who hired a new business consultant on a six-month contract, the result of which was no new business. Fired the consultant, kind of walked away, tail between his legs. Couple months later, hired another consultant to go about it in a different way. Eight months later, no new business. Hired a third consultant, a very highly paid consultant, did an extraordinary job of preparing the agency. No new business.
I mean, they keep bumping their head against the wall expecting different results and really, that silver bullet that you mention, it goes right back to the start of what we were talking about in the beginning, is to focus the product you’re selling, to really sharpen and shape it in a way that was going to be most appealing to the market you are going after. Then, playing