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10 Agency Biz Dev Tips

10 Agency Biz Dev Tips

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For several years the team at Mercer Island Group has been contributing to an annual “One Piece of Advice” publication on the topic of business development. Here are 10 of our best tips collected in one place:

Don’t Be Generic

“Teaching new business development folks in agencies to sound just like everyone else in the industry is the quickest way to commoditize your agency’s value proposition and forfeit any competitive advantage you might otherwise enjoy. In an increasingly competitive agency environment, clients and prospective clients are looking for something different – to energize their business and increase the return on their marketing dollars. Learning how to identify the triggers that cause prospects to want to engage in more in-depth conversations about their needs and your value is the place to spend your efforts.”

-Robin Boehler, Partner, Mercer Island Group

Prospects Don’t Want to Buy Agency Services – They Have Business Issues

“Something the consultants understand better than most agencies is that you can’t offer a prospect relevant value until you have identified the prospect’s true business needs. The basic idea of the elevator speech is inherently flawed – as are most agency pitches; if you’re talking about things the prospect has no interest in, they will stop listening. Prospects don’t want to buy marketing – they have business problems they need solved.”

-Steve Boehler, Partner, Mercer Island Group

Make Sure Your Website Is Prospect Friendly

“Many agencies realize that a finely tuned new business development program is key to new business efforts. However, agencies often forget to factor their online presence into their new business development program. Key information for prospects is often difficult to find. A simple list of capabilities, case studies, awards, experience, creative examples, and leadership bios should be available and easy to find, not to mention key contact information. If I don’t have an address, phone number, and email, I won’t be reaching out.”

-Lindsay O’Neil, Consultant, Mercer Island Group

Listen Before Your React

“The best interactions are always the most conversational. We’ve worked with many agencies on making their pitches more engaging and interactive, but even in something as simple as a phone call, a surprising number of agencies merely roll out experience and accolades, rather than listen and react. The most impressive agencies show they can think on their feet by playing off the other party – any call should be a microcosm of how you’ll work together.”

-Barry O’Neil, Senior Consultant, Mercer Island Group

Bond with Prospects on Their Business Challenge, Not Your Solution

“When pitching, the most successful agencies are the ones that find ways to bond over a prospect’s business, not their own services or experience. Every part of your response, written and verbal, should tie directly back to a prospect’s business. The easiest way to do this is to always ask yourself, “Is each section of our response clearly linked to their business issues?” For example, do you provide standard bios, or do you take the time to highlight how each person’s experience makes them the best fit? A response needs to do more than communicate who you are and what you do, it needs to demonstrate how you are best positioned to advance their business.”

-Matt Driscoll, Senior Consultant, Mercer Island Group

Never Forget – This is a People Business

“It is important to remember this is a people-oriented industry and old-fashioned etiquette goes a long way in your RFI/RFP submissions. Be engaged with the prospective client throughout the process. Don’t just try to sell them your company and services during the conversations you have with the prospective client. You can learn a lot more by actively listening to the prospective client and asking thoughtful questions. Make sure your response appropriately and fully addresses their concerns and needs mentioned in the RFI/ RFP. At the conclusion of the process, send a thank you note to show your sincere appreciation for being considered and to keep your agency top-of-mind for decision makers moving forward. This sounds like common sense, but we often see the little details and a personal touch being missed in responses.”

-Ellen Bonvillain, Mercer Island Group 

Agencies Need to Understand the Agency Buyer’s Journey

“The best agency new business advice I can give in 2020 is to be sure you understand your prospect’s customer journey and how well your agency’s efforts are impacting each key stage. If you’re getting enough at bats but not winning at least 50% of your pitches, then reengineer your pitch process. On the other hand, if you’re winning pitches but not getting enough at bats, your agency likely needs to build awareness and relationships. Focus your efforts where you know you are weak.”

-Stephen Boehler, Mercer Island Group

The Written Response is a Critical Filter Your Agency Must Pass

“The written RFI response is often your opportunity to make a great first impression. Agencies tell us all the time, “If we could just get in the room, they’d love us.” That’s probably true, but it’s also true for all the other finalist agencies, and it’s not practical to get every shop in a search in front of the client. You must make the most of what the process allows. Submitting a written response that shows a thoughtful approach, answers our questions (all of them), and shows that you’re laser focused on the client and their challenges will get you in the room, and from there you can continue, not start, to make a great first impression.”

-Barry O’Neil, Mercer Island Group 

Ask Questions About the Prospect’s Business

“Ask questions. It’s amazing how many agencies will agree to participate in a review and never ask a single question prior to submitting their response. Just think of all the background and key information they never get access to because they didn’t even try. Asking doesn’t ensure you’ll get an answer, but you never know unless you ask.”

-Lindsay O’Neil, Mercer Island Group

Differentiate Your Agency by How You Talk About the Prospect’s Business

“Agencies need to focus on the client’s business issues, not on themselves. Clients want to see how an agency will help them think about their business to achieve their goals and objectives. Without this focus agencies all sound the same. Focusing on the business and how you think is the way to differentiation.”

-Matt Driscoll, Mercer Island Group


Recapping, here are 10 tips that will help you implement a more effective business development program:

  1. Don’t be generic
  2. Prospects don’t want to buy agency services – they have business challenges to address
  3. Make sure your website is prospect friendly
  4. Listen before you react
  5. Bond with prospects on their business challenge, not your solution
  6. Never forget, this is a people business
  7. Agencies need to understand the agency buyer’s journey
  8. The written response is a critical filter your agency must pass
  9. Ask questions about the prospect’s business
  10. Differentiate your agency by how you talk about the prospect’s business

And one more – a bonus tip that is evergreen:

Love the One You’re With

“One piece of advice I would give to all agencies as they begin their new business planning is to invest heavily in their current client base. Keeping current clients is much less risky and expensive than pitching new business. 

The advertising business is a people business. Partnership and respect between a client and its advertising agency is at the crux of that highly volatile and emotionally charged relationship. Smart clients and agencies keep communication lines open and clear while working constantly and consistently to keep the relationship on track. Strong partnerships between clients and their agencies will produce the best work and lead to better business results. Longevity in client/agency relationships is also a key to solid advertising results and is key to agency health and success.”

-Robin Boehler, Mercer Island Group 

Steve Boehler, founder and partner at Mercer Island Group, has led consulting teams on behalf of clients as diverse as Nokia, HP, Microsoft, Sprint, Nintendo, Abbott Laboratories and numerous others. He founded MIG after serving as a division president in a Fortune 100 when he was only 32. Earlier in his career, Steve Boehler cut his teeth with a decade in Brand Management at Procter & Gamble, leading brands like Tide, Pringles and Jif.