Changing pitch

Agencies are discovering innovative ways to acquire new clients

Agencies are discovering innovative ways to acquire new clients

Two years ago, with a new president of North America in Bob Winslow, Text 100 saw an opportunity to become much more strategic about how it wins business. The tech agency developed a "sales (or growth) culture," and made P&L a global, rather than office-wide, responsibility.

Developing contacts is a key part of the initiative. Senior executives - from account managers up to presidents - are asked to participate in at least one networking opportunity each month.

"Clients buy people," says Winslow. "A lot of it is word of mouth and awareness. We proactively invest in building relationships on a senior level."

The days of cold-calling potential clients in the hopes of winning business are all but over. Instead, firms are now much more innovative in identifying and cultivating business opportunities.

Text 100 also maintains a list of 20 "marquee" brands "we think would have an impact on our reputation," Winslow notes, adding that agency executives have personal responsibility for cultivating relationships with specific names on the list.

In addition, the agency maintains a list of 150 global brands broken into sectors - such as wireless, consumer technology, and gaming - where it has expertise, or wants to expand.

"This isn't growth for growth's sake," Winslow says. "The more we grow, the more opportunities we provide for our team."

And, so far, the strategy has worked. The year before Text 100 implemented the sales culture, Winslow notes, the agency won nine new pieces of business with a pitch-to-win ratio of 30%.

A year later, plan in place, it won 17 pitches, for a 40% ratio. For fiscal year 2005, it added another 20 new clients, with a 50% pitch-to-win ratio.

Among its new accounts is Lenovo, the Chinese PC maker that merged with IBM's personal computing division. "We won that business uncontested," Winslow says, adding that Text 100, one of IBM's global AORs, did not even have to pitch.

New marketing avenues

As companies increasingly award new business based on previous relationships and referrals, firms are getting savvier about how they market themselves to current and potential clients.

"I see agencies being much more aggressive in reaching out to influencers," says Jerry Swerling, a PR management consultant and director of PR studies at USC-Annenberg.

He cited Edelman's recent branding efforts, where president and CEO Richard Edelman blogs about timely news events.

Derek Creevey, Edelman's chief of staff, notes that the initiative has extended beyond the agency's CEO, and employees at all levels and in several countries are also blogging. He adds that the effort - like Edelman's Trust Barometer and other reports on key issues - is about thought leadership.

"We have to know [a trend] in order to counsel clients on it," Creevey says, adding that the firm is currently drafting a white paper on employee blogging. "We are ahead of trends, insights, and helping evolve communications."

Maloney & Fox (M&F) this month similarly launched a branding campaign to highlight its humorous, irreverent style - and to show clients that it isn't afraid to market itself the same way it advises them to do.

"Agencies and clients are pretty much coupled," says Margie Fox, partner and cofounder. But "sometimes relationships go south. ... We want to make sure we're on the shortlist."

The campaign consists of three animated spoof commercials for M&F's branded promotional material. One spot plays on ads for male sexual- enhancement products to showcase how it can add "vigor" to a campaign.

"It's a reason for people to remember that we're out there, we're funny, we don't take ourselves too seriously, but we take what we do seriously," Fox says.

She notes that a short film that the agency did four years ago with comedian Chip Chinery led to a project with Recognizing the signs of change

Although networking and branding efforts must be part of an ongoing process, there are often "clear, early signs that an agency change may be coming," says Stephen Boehler, founding partner of marketing management consulting firm the Mercer Island Group.

"Is the industry in trouble? Are the firm's business trends bad? Has the CMO just been sacked?" he says. "Are there major new growth initiatives coming up? All these situations force firms to look closely at the confidence they have in their existing PR partners."

Bill Margaritis, corporate VP of worldwide communications and IR for FedEx, notes that crises are often a "defining moment" in an agency-client relationship. And firms must be able to help companies plan their corporate strategies - not merely follow orders.

"It's finding new ways to add value," he says. "It really starts with a philosophy that [agencies] are partners."

Knowing how to grow a piece of business can be as important as cultivating relationships with a new client.

Swerling notes that companies now tend to handle more PR activities internally, but when they do outsource, they are spending more money and hiring multiple firms. Therefore, there is a "smaller universe of prospects," and they're more likely to award larger projects to agencies they already trust.

"You have to think about making yourself really essential to that client," Swerling says. "The best advice I can give is ... don't lose the business."

Margaritis notes that many agencies have introduced new tools and services to differentiate themselves - but cautions that these offerings must offer a significant value to clients. "It works in most cases, but sometimes I think there is more fluff than substance," he says.

Swerling also advises firms not to oversell their services. "A lot of clients resent that," he notes, adding that companies want to think that their agencies are focused on the business at hand.

"The best way to grow your business is to invest in being a great partner - help lead strategically, give surprising, value-added service, and execute flawlessly," Boehler says. "If you do this, your client will know where to look for help - you'll have earned their trust.

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