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The Name of The Game

The Name of The Game
The name of the game is not volume but control.

Most of us see new business development as a volume game: enter as many competitions as we can, put our best foot forward (effort, creativity, strategy) and win our share. We might ride a hot streak for a while, perhaps based on our famous creative director, the success of a newsworthy campaign or our own brilliance in tapping the client’s unspoken needs, but deep down we understand the only thing keeping our results from reverting to the mean is time.

Of course there’s always a hot shop winning more than their fair share (and we strive to be that shop) but they never last. We don’t need to name names, we know the history of those that have sprinted ahead for periods only to be reeled in by the pack and replaced by another, with results ultimately averaging out again over enough time.

Like a gambler looking for an edge over the house, we search for ways to codify success and turn a hot streak into an ongoing advantage that transcends the impermanence and transience of star talent, but let’s be honest, it never happens. Few agencies keep their winning streak going beyond a generation of talent. Time always wins.

The Only New Business Development Indicator That Matters

There is an advantage to be had however, and while most intuit it, few understand how significant this advantage is. If they did, they would build their entire new business development strategy around it.

To go back to our gambling metaphor, the advantage is like a tell – gambler speak for a sign or a give-away. In this case it’s a sign that you’re likely to win, and therefore this game is one worth playing. If you knew what the tell was, you would look for it early, and play only the games where you spotted it.

The tell is any meaningful behavioural concession from the client – the agreement to make a change at your request. The change can be a concession in the buying process, such as access to senior decision makers when you were told access was not allowed, a change in time or location, or it can be an acknowledgment that you have caused the client to rethink their problem, effectively agreeing that the brief as written is no longer valid. The more significant the concession, the more likely you are to win.

In the IPA’s 2016 survey on Pricing, Selling and Negotiation, almost 75% of firms say they push back on the client’s buying process and gain concessions granted to them at least sometimes, with just under ten percent claiming they always gain concessions.

While this study doesn’t correlate concessions to winning, a study I contributed to in the US last year showed that when a firm does not gain a concession in the buying process their odds of winning are about one in eight, on average. When a firm does claim to have affected the buying process their odds increase dramatically. Those that claim to have moderately affected the buying process win more often than not, and those that claim to have significantly affected the buying process win almost 90% of the time.

The Real Name of The Game

Agency new business development is indeed a game. The name of the game however is not volume but control. The objective of the game is to politely but firmly gain some control in the buying cycle and get concessions granted to you, effectively changing the rules and garnering a tacit acknowledgment from the client that the odds of winning are in your favour.


Blair Enns will be speaking at the forthcoming IPA Commercial Conference. The IPA will be unveiling survey results on commercial and pricing strategies at the conference and this article is based on a preview shared with the author. 

Last updated 21/06/2016

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