Organic growth, or expansion of existing accounts, is the lifeblood of agencies, but it's the chase of new business that builds momentum, riles up account teams with creative purpose, and allows for bragging.
PR firm executives will tell you that new business wins are vital to their future. Yet, industry consultants say there is more talk than substance behind new business development.
“What holds back agencies is a lack of commitment to sales and marketing as a discipline,” says Brent Hodgins, managing partner of Mirren Business Development, which runs a business development conference for firms. “Every other industry believes sustained growth is not possible without a dedicated sales and marketing function – except for agencies. They have a billable-hour mindset where new business is seen as a cost and not an investment in growth.”
Dan Orsborn, a search and business development consultant, agrees. “It's an afterthought, but it's arguably one of the most important things an agency does,” he says.
Orsborn, who has also worked at PR firms, recommends creating a central hub for new business development where resources and learnings from past pitches are stored. He also suggests a more strategic approach by developing a cohesive plan to evaluate whether or not to respond to an RFP.
Dave Currie, CEO of Catapult New Business, advises firms to create a “hot list” of the top 20 companies for which they'd like to work – presumably industries and sizes that match agency objectives in that road map.
In some ways, PR firms have an edge over other marketing disciplines when it comes to the pitch because they're natural storytellers and networkers. Compared to ad agencies, Hodgins notes, PR firms are also better at creating the steady “flow of content” needed on social media networks.
Before you chase that RFP
Walk away. You won't win. If you were invited, you are filler
Go for it. Show off your rich insights
- Be sure to loop in your star proposal writer
- Assign a “pitch champion” to lead the process
- Get your creative in order. Fill your slides with more than words
- Ensure chemistry by getting to know the prospect's priorities
- Assemble a multidisciplinary team – even if they didn't ask for it
- Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Yes, before you get in the cab.
Currie and Hodgins, who both work across the marketing disciplines, say PR does not lead the pack in terms of disciplined, proactive new business. Orsborn adds, “Ad firms are better at sales. It's what they've always done.”
Murphy, whose name tends to pop into conversations when discussing new business in PR, says Weber is “committed to having a business development function,” even if other firms are not. It should be noted that Weber is among the top three largest PR firms. “It's been ingrained in our culture for as long as we've operated,” she says.
Murphy's team of several – many firms employ one, two, or zero dedicated business development staff – “play a collaborative role,” supporting office leaders or practice leaders in new business pitches, she explains.
Cohn & Wolfe, a firm with $100 million-plus in revenues, has no dedicated new business development manager. Instead, it runs centrally through North America president Jim Joseph, along with practice leads and office heads.
“We spearhead and marshal the process,” he says. “It's centralizing it at the senior level and then identifying the core team that has the right knowledge.”
The firm is considering bringing on one or two dedicated new business managers this year, Joseph adds.
At APCO Worldwide, new business leads Jennifer Swint and Mara Hedgecoth describe a culture where everyone is expected to develop business on their own, while they provide best practices, training, and resources to pitch teams.
Swint, an SVP who leads North America business development efforts, admits that it can be a challenge for account teams to “balance client time with new business” development. To remedy this, APCO measures staffers' performance equally across a number of key attributes, such as collaboration, managing accounts, and new business, she says.
All consultants interviewed say the overlying need –across marketing disciplines – is to bring more focus to the function. “Way too many agencies are shooting at everything that moves, which just dissipates your resources,” surmises Orsborn.