Feature: Looking for new clients?

Research shows PR firms are less focused on new business than other types of agency. Mark Johnson assesses three approaches.

The new year is the natural time for fresh thinking about the 12 months ahead. So how are agencies rethinking their new-business strategies?

Research by agency-client matchmaker AAR – comparing PR agencies with their media planning, DM, sales promotion and digital rivals – reveals the industry actually devotes relatively little manpower to new business.

The study found 47 per cent of digital agencies and 27 per cent of media planning agencies have more than three people working on new business – a number matched by just 13 per cent of PR agencies.

The research also found PR agencies have the fewest new-business heads on the board – 38 per cent, compared with digital (76 per cent) and advertising agencies (40 per cent).

AAR head of PR Alex Young says: ‘Agencies want to be jacks of all trades but are not putting a stake in the ground to say “this is what we stand for”.’

So, how will agencies hunt for new business in 2007? PRWeek has identified three distinct approaches to the challenge, and examines the advantages of each (see below).

THE DEDICATED NEW-BUSINESS HEAD

Suresh RAJ, head of new business, Consolidated Communications

Consolidated created the head of new business role in 2003 when Raj took the job after five years working in a client servicing position. As a dedicated head, Raj says he is a relative rarity in the industry, but argues the role needs to be a full-time one because he divides his working day between attracting prospects and acting as the agency’s ambassador.

‘On one level the role involves being the eyes and ears of the firm; but on the other it also means scouring the market for opportunities by analysing media coverage of different sectors for ideas,’ he explains. Raj says he considers himself as a ‘gatekeeper’, developing agency credentials, responding to referrals and liaising with client-servicing teams to work on the immediate turnaround of pitches.

‘Agencies need an ambassador who knows the firm’s skills, experience, staff and the areas of growth the company is looking at,’ says Raj.

Opponents of the dedicated new-business head argue that the person can become removed from the day-to-day work of client servicing. But Raj counters this view: ‘I sit down with teams and discuss issues in the sector. This gives
me an intelligence of the issues when we communicate with prospects.’

With 70 staff, Consolidated will be considered a large PR agency, but Raj argues PR firms should not use size to dictate the scale of the resource devoted to new business. The decision, he believes, should be based upon the needs and focus of the firm.

In recent months, Raj has been working on expanding Consolidated’s presence by targeting new sectors. He has also spent time building a database to help teams respond swiftly to credentials presentations. ‘Speed of response is the essence of new business,’ he says. ‘My knowledge bank has allowed our teams to turn enquiries around quickly.’


SPREADING THE BURDEN

Mark MELLOR, managing director, Firefly

‘We haven’t tried other models,’ admits Firefly MD Mark Mellor as he explains his strategy of dividing new-business responsibility between three senior executives in his consultancy. He devotes up to a third of his time on new business, as does Firefly head of corporate and B2B Jon Holt and head of consumer Brandon Stockwell. And he gives strong reasons for this approach.

Mellor argues that the required level of in-depth knowledge of current market issues, across the variety of sectors covered by Firefly, would be almost impossible to find in a single person. For that reason, he believes new business should be the responsibility of executives with constant market exposure

‘It comes back to what the client is looking for,’ says Mellor. ‘If you’re dedi-cated solely to new business you wouldn’t know what the client needs.’

Mellor also believes there are more fundamental disadvantages with the ‘dedicated new-business head’ model. He points to the problems of when this person is unexpectedly absent, and the vacuum that is left if that person leaves. He also points out: ‘There is a danger that a sales person may overpromise what we can achieve for the client, causing disappointment – something endemic in the industry.’

The advantage of allocating part of the time of several senior executives to new business, he says, is specialisation. ‘Our closeness to the subject means we’re multi-specialist. You can’t find that in one person,’ he adds.

According to Mellor, Firefly deals with one new-business lead a day, and around 75 per cent of business pitches are reac-tions to client enquiries, while a quarter are the result of a proactive strategy.

Mellor says this new-business model suits Firefly. ‘If our model fails, we’ll be quick to change it,’ he says. ‘But we don’t lose a pitch because we don’t have a new-business head.’


THE BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT APPROACH

Aysen YILMAZ, director, business development, Manning Selvage & Lee

Three years ago, Manning Selvage & Lee created the split marketing/new-business role that Aysen Yilmaz now occupies. Yilmaz took the job in January 2006 and also sits on the MS&L London board.

She says the most important focus of the job – which differs from the pure new-business role – is that it also encompas-ses marketing and ‘fostering a spirit of entrepreneurship across the agency to encourage everyone to get involved in generating new business’.

In practice, this means involving all staff with some prospecting role and to build knowledge and self-confidence. Yilmaz also oversees the new-business process – ensuring its growth.

One example of how she ‘empowers’ staff in prospecting has been her focus on ‘pipeline building’ and establishing an online knowledge bank – a database that allows the agency to see the entire history of prospecting in the past year. This helps staff from junior to senior level work on prospecting in a systematic manner.

‘You shouldn’t be downhearted if an invitation doesn’t meet with success. It can often take years,’ she says.

The advantage of a split role between new business and marketing (Yilmaz also heads the marketing group) is that the two feed one another. She cites two examples of this, including an annual marketing event at the           National Portrait Gallery where the agency’s sector heads were involved in inviting prospects, and a recently produced piece of marketing literature which was sent to cold contacts.

The findings of the AAR research are of concern to Yilmaz, as they confirm her suspicions that new business is often sacrificed in PR consultancies, who are more occupied with servicing existing clients. ‘That might be due to the financial realities of the agency. In that case it should ring-fence time for new business and keep it for just that purpose.’

To hear Suresh Raj talk more about his new-business role in this week's PRWeek/CTN podcast, click here .

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