The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: One Agency's New-Business Process

Putting Our Mistakes on Parade for the Education of Others

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Phil Johnson Phil Johnson
One thing I've learned about advertising agencies is that they know how to spin, and they love the hype. When you get a bunch of agencies in one room, it's not unheard of for some of us to exaggerate wild stories of success, even in a recession.

These thoughts were on my mind when PJA was invited to talk about new business at the Mirren New Business Conference in New York earlier this month. I liked the idea of sharing our experiences, but the last thing in the world I wanted to do was stand up in front of a couple hundred agency peers and act like PJA had all the answers, especially in this environment.

To set the record straight, I was the third wheel at this event. The audience actually signed up to hear Mike O'Toole, our president, and Greg Straface, our VP-business development. I went along for the ride. The three of us caught the shuttle to New York and repeatedly said a prayer of thanks that we weren't the poor agency that had to present opposite John Winsor from Crispin Porter.

We titled our speech "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: How PJA Built a Three-Year Winning Streak (in Good Times and Bad)." Before you accuse me of boasting, let me assure you that we mostly focused on the bad and the ugly. Mike, Greg and I decided that mistakes are a lot more instructive than successes and delivered an unvarnished look inside our new-business efforts, including the pitch disasters that most of us want to forget.

To structure the presentation we shared an agency scorecard that we developed to compare where we were three years ago and where we are today. You can download a copy if you want to check it out. It has five sections -- The Plan, Positioning, The Pipeline, The Pitch, Perception -- and each one forms an essential link in our new-business cycle.

Until about three years ago, I would have rated us pretty poorly on most categories. What changed? Well, like a lot of stories, it starts in a bar. A group of us went to Daedalus, our neighborhood pub. Over beers we agreed that by 2010 we wanted to be a $100 million agency. We were less than 30 people at the time and that would mean tripling in size. More importantly, we wanted to be a certain kind of agency. We didn't want to be just bigger. We wanted to be an elite national agency recognized for leadership in our categories. That goal has shaped the agency plan and helped focus everything we have done in recent years.

Having a plan doesn't guarantee results. Mike O'Toole, who talked about our pitch process, described how one early success led to a series of disasters where we found ourselves woefully unprepared for a new level of competition. I started sinking deeper in my chair when Mike recounted how we discovered we were up against Strawberry Frog, Saatchi, and three other hot boutiques just before we were shown into the conference room to present for an agency of record account. Five minutes in, the CMO and VP of Marketing politely excused themselves to "take a call." Ouch.

On another occasion, we let a search consultant talk us into a pitch where we had virtually no category experience. We lost. Somehow, from those painful experiences we figured out how to up our game. I credit our three most recent wins to the lessons we learned from that string of losses.

Greg Straface, who runs new business, pulled off a small feat of magic. He got the audience to put down their computers and stop Twittering when he outlined his social-media strategy for business development. One of my favorite stories is how Greg answered a marketing question on a LinkedIn group. A Director of Marketing followed up with a request for some information about the agency. Several months later we were working together. Greg also talked about how he uses Twitter to engage with CMOs in some of our categories. This is infinitely more civilized than sending out direct mail and making cold calls.

Following the presentation, I had the pleasure of watching small crowds flock around my two colleagues. To be fair, I had a couple of fans as well. They mostly wanted to ask where I found Mike and Greg.

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You can follow Phil Johnson on Twitter: @philjohnson

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