Wanted: Business development execs in demand as firms revamp role

Business development officer is the new hot job in the PR agency world as firms reevaluate what they want from the position.

Several agencies are revamping their business-development functions to pull away from the pack and differentiate their services and expertise from competitors.

Some, such as Burson-Marsteller and FleishmanHillard, have recently reorganized their bizdev functions, and others have turned to executive search firms to recruit talent.

Seema Kathuria, a consultant in the corporate affairs practice at Russell Reynolds Associates, says she is noticing an uptick in firms looking to fill both newly created and expanded business development roles.

"I’ve seen [an increase] in how agencies have engaged Russell Reynolds looking for talent that can increase their ability to be more competitive and differentiate themselves, Kathuria says, estimating that bizdev roles make up about 15% of her assignments. "They’re looking for talent that comes with the ability to build market credibility and increase the ability to get to high-level relationships, and individuals who have strong influencing skills."

Agencies such as Citizen Relations and maslansky + partners, both of which have actively recruited for business development roles, are doubling down on their attempts to rise above the fray.

"You need someone that is totally focused on the story of the agency and bringing the team together, so its story is consistent and highlights the agency’s unique qualities when presented in the marketplace," says Mimi Fernandez, who was recently hired by maslansky + partners as VP of marketing and business development.

FleishmanHillard consolidated its regional business development functions last month under the leadership of Della Sweetman as chief business development officer, a newly created role. She is overseeing a staff of 20 and reporting to CEO John Saunders. She said last month that her role represents a "commitment of resources" put together over the course of the past year.

"We have the opportunity to pitch new business every day, and those potential clients expect and deserve our most considered response," Saunders says, via email. "While each individual in the agency is responsible for new business, they’re also out serving our existing clients. We needed to have a specialist group dedicated to preparing and putting our best people and ideas forward at every pitch, irrespective of geography."

Citizen Relations was hiring for a VP or SVP of U.S. business development, a role which combines traditional business development duties and marketing. It recently filled the position, but is not ready to announce the hire, U.S. GM Nathan Friedman says. Friedman explains the agency is expanding its business development team and that this is a new senior role focused on agency marketing, content creation, and client acquisition.

A job description states the role involves managing the marketing team, elevating the agency’s reputation through marketing activities, thought leadership, events, owned social channels, business prospect searches, and third-party perspectives for pitch teams.

"The original intent of business development is to field RFPs and submit for them," Friedman explains. "It’s evolved to more of a marketer and driver of reputation. The crux of the position is how do we go to the market? And how do they view us when we do?"

Alan Sexton, U.S. corporate and financial practice chair at Burson-Marsteller, created a position dedicated entirely to business development for MD James Atkins last year.

"[There is] a huge demand that new business places on agency teams, combined with an even more complex comms environment and even more competitive market, that’s why we’re seeing a move to professionalize business development and invest in it," Sexton says.

He says the function is breaking into different camps in the U.S. Atkins is driving new business strategy and serving as an internal expert, while EVP Erica Swerdlow and Catherine Sullivan, MD of worldwide comms, are managing strategy and ensuring the internal organization is effective. They also handle brand-building work for the agency.

"As people that are in the business of stewarding brands and building reputation, we need to do the same for our own agency," Sexton says. "If you do great work that’s hidden from view, people don’t know about it. We can’t expect them to spend time digging it up. It’s two sides of one coin."

Dena Gellmann was Burson’s U.S. recruitment director when Atkins moved from the London office to New York for the position. She’s currently PR lead for recruitment firm Melinda Holm & Associates.

She notes that senior people "tend to get bogged down with regular client work" and organic growth, and are unable to search for new business as a result. Gellman adds that firms used to view business development as a risky overhead expense.

"[An increased focus on business development] says they are dedicated to this function; it’s an ever-changing industry, and the competition is so tight that they’re now looking at it as a good investment instead of an overhead," she explains.

Agencies are also seeking out talent with complementary skill sets. Barry Shulmanp, MD of enterprise search at Schaffer&Comb, has noticed a synergy between marketing and business development.

"The PR industry continues to morph and become more exacting and precision-focused — that means targeting prospects in a sophisticated way," Shulman says. "Agencies want a concerted effort, so their business development and marketing energies have to embrace each other. They can no longer do that in a vacuum. It’s a two-way conversation between client and agency, and agencies by din of what they do are expert marketers."

Kathuria is noticing that when agencies recruit externally for business development roles, they are more often farming talent without a "true traditional agency background." They are likely considering candidates for either their industry expertise or advice on how to approach certain clients, she posits. Similarly, Fernandez says she was hired for her combination of corporate and agency experience, which cut down on training time.

"These individuals had more of a focus on creating growth and vision within the business," Kathuria adds. "They have great experience in how to build and run an operation, but the tradeoff may be that they may not know how to convert that into the business development or market-making side. When I see that, you have to look inside the organization and see if they have a strong partner to help them understand the nuances and processes."

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