Treat Your Clients Like Prospects and Vice Versa

Viewpoint: Most Important, Be Honest About Your Level of Commitment

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Lisa Colantuono
Lisa Colantuono
Leslie Winthrop
Leslie Winthrop
When the Advertising Agency Register, originally a British import, opened its doors in 1980 to help marketers with the process of agency search and selection, there was an unspoken gentleman's rule: mega-agencies threw back the smallest fish -- at that time it was usually accounts less than $5 million in billings.

Some time in the past three decades, the "gentleman's rule" has vanished into thin air. Agencies have evolved to pitch everything and anything that presents itself as an opportunity, with the biggest shops sometimes pitching accounts and projects for far less money than they ever have.

It's a phenomenon no doubt fueled in part that last year marked the sharpest percentage decline in ad spending since the Great Depression, with the nation's top 100 advertisers cutting spending almost 8%, according to Kantar Media.

An environment with more shops willing to throw their hats in the ring can complicate marketers' search for the best new agency partner, often sucking up more time and expense for the client and, perhaps more problematically, for the agency.

The two primary avenues agencies use in the pursuit of new business are prospecting potential accounts and participation in agency reviews. But in both cases, clients are becoming frustrated with those who aren't doing sufficient homework or who aren't honest about the commitment their agency can make to the business.

In the case of prospecting, how should agencies go about finding qualitative leads? It's definitely not by "dialing for dollars." Agencies must evolve from the cold-calling mentality. A marketing executive at one of the most recognized brands in the world recently expressed to us his frustration on cold calling. "Don't waste your time calling me unless you do homework first," he said. "Understand my business, my industry, my consumer before you pick up the phone and explain how you can help me with my marketing issues and add value to my day."

There are four quadrants to think about when prospecting for new business, in the following order:

Referrals. We are in the business of relationships, and the people who trust you are the people who will offer positive word of mouth. Trust is the greatest competitive advantage.

Agency capabilities. If you're lacking in a particular area, strategically align your agency with one where you can complement each other.

Buzz. Be an expert in a particular area and let everyone know about the value of your expertise.

Don't bombard. Don't drop the mailings and the follow-up calls, but be smart and selective when doing them.

Many of the same rules for prospecting apply to participating in a client-led or search-consultant-led review. Agencies need to consider whether committing to responding to a request for proposal is something they really want or need to do. After all, to serve a client's business best, agencies have to blur the lines between their own business and that of the marketer's.

In a recent conversation, a hospitality-industry marketer summed up the rationale for considering a review in these words: "The agency is creatively strong but doesn't worry about my business the way I do!"

It brings to mind an old cliche that bears repeating: Treat your prospects like clients and your clients like prospects. If you don't, rest assured there is a long line of agencies showing your client how they can add value to the marketing-communications plans that your agency is neglecting. And it's your current clients, when serviced properly, who will become your best advocates and resource for organic growth.

The agency-client dynamic has changed during the past three decades, for better and worse. But some best practices should remain the same: Agencies must be honest with themselves about the level of commitment they can offer a new client; offer value-based solutions when reaching out to prospects; and focus on giving current clients the same attention they demonstrate to potential new partners.

Lisa Colantuono and Leslie Winthrop are managing partners at AAR Partners in New York.
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