The unexpected win: Surviving a year in new business

The Martin Agency's senior vice president, director of new business shares her tips from inside the pressure cooker of the "most dangerous job" in advertising

On my first day in new business, an article was published about the most dangerous job at an agency. Well lucky me, I had just signed up for it — and, according to the writer, my career in this position would be over in a year.

"Sh*t!" I thought. "What the hell have I done?!"

For years, I had been told I’d be great in business development. Although I had not proactively sought out a promotion, somewhere deep down inside, I knew I was destined for the role. In the fall of 2014, the stars aligned. Despite what the article had reported, the grimaces of peers who’d witnessed the toll new business takes on people, a time when a spotlight was smack center on my agency’s growth and, admittedly, a case of nerves, I told myself — it’s go time.

I was ready. I was confident. With excitement, momentum, and a focus on immediate wins and fame, I embarked on the next chapter of my career ready to set the world on fire. Eighteen months later, I am humbled by a different kind of success. Sure, there were wins. Enough for fame? Not yet. But there was learning — an abundance of eye-opening learning.

Here are six tips for winning in new business:

Don’t expect to be a rainmaker. A rainmaker, a person who brings in new business and wins account after account almost by magic, is a unicorn. This person either doesn’t really exist or is very, very rare. While it’s tempting to think you’ll be the one, it’s better to embrace reality quickly. So check yourself. The business of winning is more competitive than ever, with more and more agencies and fewer clients looking for one AOR. Ambition and confidence are must-haves in this role, but grounding yourself in reality and managing not only your own, but your agency’s expectations, is the key to success.

Trust your gut. Most agencies set criteria for gauging whether an opportunity is a fit. But when all else is equal, it comes down to the feeling in your gut. The one that after all the rational boxes are checked (e.g. will it yield award-winning creative, generate revenue, etc.) gives you goose bumps and has you screaming, "We have to have this account!" This is a feeling that more often than not comes from an immediate connection you make with a client’s CMO or senior marketer. Whether it’s over his or her background, team or work, your gut tells you that this partner shares your ambitions, sees eye-to-eye with you and that together you will do great things. Most of the best wins happen because of a feeling that falls outside the box.

Be a united front. Despite the title, responsibility and clout that comes with the role, pitching business involves a lot of players. This means you won’t always have the final say — and that’s OK. Surround yourself with smart people, work as a team, remain aligned and walk away from all decisions with a parting line that everyone feels good about. Krispy-Kreme-hot-off-the-belt good. So whether it be the answer to why you’ve decided to pitch a piece of business, chosen to cast a certain person on the team or killed a campaign direction, remember that team trust, collaboration and chemistry can make or break a review.

Control what you can. Have you ever been asked, "Are you going to marry him?" after a first date, only to reply, "Um, I don’t know, I hardly know him?" This is the same in new business, where you’ll get asked countless times, "Do you think you’ll win?" The fact is, there are too many variables in play to ever truly know which way a pitch will go. What you can control is all the little wins along the way. Sometimes that’s as simple as the way your RFI is packaged and sometimes it’s about getting a client excited about an unexpected issue you identify to be solved. Develop a pitch strategy checklist that maps out each milestone and opportunity to better your odds, and activate against it.  

Don’t be afraid to break the rules. This one may make you uncomfortable, but that’s what makes it important. Rules for reviews are in place as guidelines — it’s up to you to decide when it’s appropriate to bob and weave around them. Certainly if you act like a rebellious teenager on a bender, you’ll probably risk the business. But if you make smart, calculated decisions that ultimately position you better, you can put yourself ahead of the competition. The key is weighing the pros and cons and being accountable to your intentions. Only you and your agency will know what’s appropriate based on your culture, the consultant relationship, the particular client and the intended outcome. But as a wise agency CMO told me, no one will kick you out of a review when all you’ve done is sell yourself in the best way possible.

Have more fun. This is my favorite, and it all starts with you. You set the tone for every review. New business is a pressure cooker; it’s quite possibly the most intense and stressful part of advertising. But it’s also the best part — a rush, no a tidal wave, of adrenaline and passion from putting it all out there and pushing yourselves to go for gold. And while there’s plenty of time for being strategic and laser-focused, it’s equally important to know how to have fun and not take everything so seriously. In fact, sometimes fun is exactly the way to win. In line with our esteemed late CCO Mike Hughes’ mantra, "Do work you love with people you love," some of my most successful pitch meetings have been on the heels of gut-busting laughter and impromptu dance parties.

As it turns out, winning isn’t everything. Don't get me wrong: you’ll win business, but you’ll lose some too. Win or lose, you’ll always have an abundance of learning that will propel you forward. And maybe, just maybe, your career in new business will actually last more than a year.

Liz Toms is SVP, director of business development at The Martin Agency.

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