On Kissing Frogs

Some Clients Will Never Be Prince Charming

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Eric Webber Eric Webber
The good news for small agencies is that there are a lot of new-business prospects out there. The bad news is there are a lot of new-business prospects out there.

Pursuing new business is both exhilarating and frustrating no matter what size the agency, but at a small agency you have to be particularly mindful of the amount of time and energy (read that: money) you have to spend kissing frogs.

It takes a great deal of discipline; maybe more discipline than I currently posses. Careless errors in terms of new business have been made, and I'm sure we're bound to make more. And, like just about everyone in this business, I should know better.

Here's an example. In the early days of the agency (a distant ten months ago), I took on a client because I liked him and he really wanted me to work for him. I was flattered by the attention and, while not desperate, I was certainly anxious about adding new clients. So I convinced myself we could make it work. That's a short-sighted way to grow an agency.

No surprise how that ended. We'd picked up other clients who were paying our full rate and they required attention. So this guy didn't get the service he thought he was going to get, and I thought he expected too much for what he was going to pay. I did both of us a disservice by agreeing to the deal.

Actually, I came out worse because I felt bad and didn't even charge him, which may top the list of mistakes I made on this one. (Rule #1: Guilt does not pay the light bill).

It's not like I didn't have plenty of people warning me. The ad agency run by my partners is known and respected for the number of potential clients they turn down. They decline cattle calls and drawn-out competitive pitches. They don't do spec creative. The result is they're very successful.

And I have plenty of colleagues who've either learned similar lessons before me or avoided them entirely and shared their experiences with me. And yet I've still chased prospects too far or too long or just where I shouldn't have.

But I'm getting better. Not long ago I was approached by the owner of a small restaurant chain who was looking for an agency. On his own he had narrowed his list to three, and asked each for a detailed plan. He wanted to see strategy and tactics -- the PR equivalent of doing spec creative.

I suggested that he invite people who had never been to his restaurants to come in and eat for free, and if they liked it they might come back and pay for a meal later on. He said that was a crazy idea. I said I thought it was, too. He hired someone else. It's just as well; I can't work for anyone who lacks a sense of irony.

And besides, turning down business can feel very good.

Here are some thoughts on a couple of other important lessons. And I hope many of you will weigh in with your own.
  1. Many people have told me to trust my gut. They obviously hadn't seen some of the clothing choices I've made, but for the most part that's good advice. Your intuition may let you down a time or two, but the downside of that is rarely bad. It will protect you far more often and there's a serious upside to that.

    There's a caveat though: That doesn't mean you should make snap judgments. Take the time thoroughly vet prospects, particularly in terms of personality match and expectations.

  2. Don't second guess what you're worth. If you discount your price, clients might assume they're getting discount effort. And clients paying the full ride might feel like they're being overcharged.

    That doesn't mean you can't be creative with compensation. I'll consider barter, deferred payment, a cut of the action, performance incentives or pretty much anything else a client suggests, as long as I feel we're fairly compensated when the smoke clears.

  3. Finally (for now) be honest with yourself about what you can and can't do. I have a hard time saying that I'm not good at certain parts of the business. I feel like I can do just about anything. But there is a big difference in being able to do something, and being able to do it well. Don't take on work that you don't really want to do. It's a quick way to earn a reputation for doing mediocre work.
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