Treat and Court Your Current Clients As If They're Potential New Business

A Devastating Loss for an AOR Pitch Gives a Team Fresh Insights

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At the end of 2011, our agency was one of two finalists in an AOR pitch for a consumer retail brand. The competition was fierce, with several rounds of elimination and two rounds of creative and strategic assignments.

There were lots of trips to the client headquarters and them to our offices and intense internal brainstorming and creative sessions. We achieved consensus around the strategic business approach we were recommending -- smart and beautiful work that we thought would change the trajectory of our agency forevermore. After many late nights, early mornings and no time with our families came an amazing final presentation.

And then we lost.

It was astonishing to everyone in the agency, not just the pitch team involved. As the agency's leader, I had to question whether I was making the right business decisions and doing the right things for the team. I found it impossible to think about anything else for several weeks, and even several months later the loss still would come back to haunt me.

We went through a lot of soul searching about what we did and didn't do and how we could have changed the outcome. So much about new business is arbitrary and capricious that it's wasteful to speculate too much on why the client made one decision over another. At VJ, we always ask for a follow-up conversation with the lost client, so that we can learn how to improve. Sometimes, these conversations are helpful, other times frustrating. In the case of this loss, and in the team's discussions afterward, we took away valuable lessons to apply to the work we create for our current clients -- what we call "now business."

Rather than focus on the negative, we have taken what is best about the new-business process and applied it to our everyday client work. And, miracles of miracles, we are now seeing the same expansive thinking and creative ambitions we saw in that "big" pitch come to life in our agency's product. Here's what we learned and are now applying:

Treat all client work as if you are creating a new-business pitch. We know too much about our clients to suspend disbelief about what we might be able to do. One of the most amazing things about new business is how exciting it is to think about what's possible, not just about what's realistic. Applying this philosophy to our now business has opened doors that we never anticipated and given us opportunities to grow our portfolio of work in unexpected and exciting ways.

Work fast. In new business, we work fast and on the fly. We don't wait for a meeting or a set time to think creatively. Applying this mentality to now business has been a boon to creative thinking. Add value to the relationship by behaving in unexpected ways. All relationships are fun and exciting at the beginning. Treat and court your clients as you treat new-business prospects -- promote the agency and the work you are most proud of ; be engaged and excited in all interactions; send the client unexpected information that 's relevant but may not be related directly to its business.

Really listen. New business is often one of the only times that we are excited to actually engage in active listening. Applying that to our current clients, and recognizing that 90% of the answers lie in the questions being asked, will make us all better at our jobs.

Stand behind your pricing structure. You know what it takes to run your agency and make a fair profit. Don't back down. When you blue-light-special your fees, the entire agency business suffers. Stick to your guns and don't try to buy any clients, new or now. Clients who don't want to pay you what you are worth aren't clients you want to work with.

The takeaway is everything. Failure hurts. It can be demoralizing. But only if you let it. By taking inventory of what we could learn from the loss of a huge, valuable potential client, we've come away from that loss a more nimble, creative and ambitious agency than we'd dreamed possible.

Meredith Vaughan is president of Vladimir Jones, Colorado Springs, Colo.
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