OP-ED: Proactive plan key to gaining clients

Few PR firms have a proactive new business program. Think about it - don't all your clients focus daily on sales and marketing? (Isn't that why your firm exists?) If you are going to win business before a review, you need to act proactively.

Few PR firms have a proactive new business program. Think about it - don't all your clients focus daily on sales and marketing? (Isn't that why your firm exists?) If you are going to win business before a review, you need to act proactively.

We regularly study the new business systems employed by marketing communications firms. The most common systems are outlined below.
  • Sell and do. This is the antithesis of an organized, strategic, proactive new business plan - and vast numbers of PR firms and ad agencies operate this way. In this scenario, the firm stays busy until projects are coming to an end. Then, someone dusts off the credentials package, makes appointments, and drums up some new clients. When the work dries up, the cycle begins again. Advantages: Low cost; easy to operate. Disadvantages: You will see extreme highs and lows and have little ability to be strategic about new accounts.
  • Principal as prospector. The principal of the firm dedicates a portion of his time to new business. He develops call lists, researches companies - often with the help of an assistant - and begins cold calling. Advantages: Easy to operate; no added cost; clients love hearing from the CEO. Disadvantages: CEO has limited time and often isn't good at sales, so efforts are sporadic.
  • Referral marketing. This is best for those who like to press the flesh at meetings, trade shows, networking groups, etc. They're great at making contacts and getting appointments. Advantages: Moderate cost; high success if you're good at it. Disadvantages: Time away from the office, and it's hard to acquire strategic prospects, as the person on the golf course might not be the best potential client.
  • The committee. The firm forms a new business committee to ensure that everyone "owns" new business. Each committee member is supposed to generate prospect lists, network, and chase leads from news articles. Advantages: Everyone has input and shares responsibility; low cost. Disadvantages: No one is accountable. Committee members are rarely trained salespeople, and, as there's rarely consensus, nothing really gets done - except lots of meetings.
  • Hired gun. The firm hires a full-time, seasoned, new-business pro. This person understands how to work a list, make calls, send letters, and close. Success depends on his skill level. Advantage: One person is accountable. Disadvantages: If he walks, so do all the warm leads. Firms who hire a less experienced person put less money at risk, but might not see the return on their investment.
  • Consultant or outside firm. The firm hires an outside firm to help. Services may range from presentation skills to pitch coaching, telemarketing, and new business research. The consultant might help with strategy or to train your personnel. Some firms will make calls and set appointments. Advantage: Someone is responsible and accountable. Disadvantages: Expensive; success depends on the expertise of the firm and on how well the parties work together.
  • Public relations. The firm hires a full-time PR pro whose sole job is to create visibility for the firm on a regional or national basis. Advantages: Great for internal and client morale; the firm's newfound reputation will last for years. Disadvantages: Very time-intensive; success fully depends on the proactive diligence and skill of the PR person, and the long-term support of the firm's principals - regardless of client crises, new business pitches, etc.
  • The target system. This is the only truly integrated plan and the one we recommend for agencies dedicated to achieving long-term, proactive new business success. In this system, the agency treats itself as a client. It writes a marketing plan designed to build its brand. The plan includes a competitive analysis, long- and short-term goals, PR, "branding" mail (testimonials, case studies, letters), networking and referral activities (among current clients, vendors, consultants, friends of the firm, networks, associations), and a sales effort targeting a small group of suitable prospects. Advantage: Builds long-term brand equity with prospects, clients, and influencers. Disadvantages: Requires the unwavering dedication of the firms' principals; many that start never complete the process. So, how do you get proactive about new business? First, decide which system best fits your firm. Second, pick one person to drive the process. Third, write your marketing plan. Lastly, work your plan. As most marketing communications firms quickly lose new business focus, if you can maintain it, you'll quickly differentiate yourself from the competition.
  • Todd Knutson is CEO of The List, a consulting and new-business intelligence firm based in Atlanta.

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