Building a Winning Advertising Agency New Business Strategy: Insights and Approaches

The advertising industry, while certainly a creative industry, is just that: an industry. It’s the business of commercial creativity, and without clients to create for, there’s simply no creative work to be done.

This makes the ‘who you create for’, and ‘how you can connect with them’, just as important as the ‘what you create’. This is where an advertising agency’s new business team and strategy come into play. They’re the people charged with finding your potential projects and partners. While the creatives and strategists are selling sodas, soaps and sun lotion, the new business team is out there selling… well, the creatives and strategists! The whole agency and its work, in fact.

So, how are advertising agencies building a winning new business strategy? How are they differentiating themselves from the competition and securing new clients? These are the questions LBB posed to several business development and growth experts from different agencies: Lauren Tomlinson, head of business development at Droga5; Mona Munayyer Gonzalez, chief growth officer at Pereira O’Dell; and Lindsay Bennett, VP of communications at GALE (formerly global head of marketing at DDB).

Click here to read more on how to promote your advertising agency. If you’d like to learn more about LBB membership and how it can aid your new business strategy, email [email protected] or find out more here.

New Business Fundamentals

“New business strategy should be a natural extension of an agency’s raison d’être,” says Droga5’s Lauren Tomlinson. “Our mission is to create outsized impact through outsized ambition, so our new business team has an extremely clear and salient North Star to work towards. We’re always looking for clients who want to break the mould and think differently, and who get excited by our determination to find the biggest possible win in every brief.” 

She adds, “This filter also helps to streamline our internal conversations around which opportunities are right for us and which ones don’t fully align with our values and ambitions as an agency.”

This is a philosophy that Pereira O’Dell’s Mona Munayyer Gonzalez aligns with, saying, “so much of new business is filtering out the noise – and there is SO much noise.” For her, the most critical part of the role is to understand what you personally can and cannot control, so that the new business team can focus entirely on what they can influence. “Everyone has a theory, an opinion, an urge to find a trend to make logical sense of their new business reality,” she says. “A team is much better served by focusing on where you can truly add value.”

And where a team can usually add value is through the company’s unique selling points – the differentiators that signal you’re the right choice for a client, both during and long before a pitch. 

“One of the most important questions we ask brand marketers when we meet to discuss a potential project or pitch,” says Lauren, “is: ‘Why Droga5?’. Understanding what a potential client thinks about the agency and our work often gives us invaluable insight into the kind of work and relationship they’re looking for. The answer to this question will also give us confidence that there is positive energy around a potential partnership coming from both parties. Ultimately, it’s all the ways in which we market Droga5 and create heat around our own brand that gives potential clients the information they need to seek us out when the right opportunity for us arises.”

Above: Lauren Tomlinson, head of business development at Droga5

However, says GALE’s Lindsay Bennett, agencies ironically aren’t always the best at marketing themselves, despite how proficient they might be at marketing the brands they work with.

“New business and marketing should be considered one ecosystem. They are intrinsically linked and equally important, which is why at GALE, the communications, marketing, and new business functions all sit within one team. Without a healthy brand, you won’t have a healthy new business pipeline. Without a healthy new business pipeline, you won’t have growth – and it’s difficult to market a stagnant or shrinking agency.”

She adds, “A top priority for me is treating the agency brand with the same care, attention, and investment as our client brands. To execute agency marketing and new business well, there must be a financial investment from leadership and agency-wide buy-in to support how it all comes to life. That’s the foundation of a successful strategy.” 

And it evidently worked at GALE, where Lindsay reports they saw more than a 100% growth in new business leads last year, after increasing their investment in the agency’s brand through PR, content, events and social media in 2022.

Setting Up a New Business Team

For Lauren at Droga5, when looking to build a new business team, the most important quality to search for is entrepreneurship. Linking this to Droga5’s problem-solving culture, she says that when the team is empowered to shape incoming opportunities with prospective clients, this creates “the best conditions for success”, as the team feels greater accountability. “This is incredibly motivating on a personal level and leads to better outcomes for the business overall.”

This sense of not just building a team, but empowering them, is a common trend, as Lindsay explores. “Again, investment here matters. I’ve seen too many agencies appoint a single new business lead, promising them a robust support team that never comes. More often than not, that individual burns out and moves on. Empowering your new business team means equipping them with the tools and scale they need.” 

Lindsay believes that new business is fueled by brand awareness, and so after six months of building your agency’s reputation, the new business team should be in place to “organise and optimise” the pitch opportunities generated by marketing. “At GALE, we call this balancing brand and demand, and it has been core to how we structure our team across communications, marketing, and new business.” 

Above: Lindsay Bennett, VP of communications at GALE

Combining these disciplines has been a “critical organisational move” for Pereira O’Dell too, as Mona explains the agency has brought together its marketing and PR teams alongside the business and talent experience teams. “An agency sells two things: the brilliance of their thinking and the character of their people,” she says. “This ensures that both are looked after thoughtfully without chasing revenue at the expense of the people.”

“Collaboration is critical,” adds Lindsay, who herself spent a year rotating through different teams—strategy, account management, creative, design—to get a true understanding of how they operate when she first jumped agency-side. “As a new business leader, you have to understand how the business works from ideation to production and delivery. A good agency is ripe with subject matter experts who can provide the detail and nuance needed to develop impactful responses and pitches that grab the attention of prospective clients – a good new business leader will take every opportunity to learn from those experts. The knowledge I gained still serves me today.”

What’s New in New Business?

Lauren reports that recent industry shifts have led to an increased amount of pitches each year, but for less revenue. This makes it more important than ever for agencies to be strategic about how they invest in pursuit of new projects, clients and opportunities. “It’s our responsibility to ensure that the required investment is commensurate with the potential of the opportunity,” she says. “It’s also incumbent upon agency leaders to challenge those situations where the balance isn’t right to ensure we can all maintain healthy agency businesses that allow our talent to thrive.”

Mona also highlights that agency turnover has generally increased, too. A previously natural part of the industry, she describes the recent “chaotic and disruptive” trend of increased turnover has made clients less understanding than before. This means clients are now not just taking note of the commercial impact of a win, but the cultural impact a relationship has on their business. Therefore, agencies are looking more keenly toward how they keep talent informed and motivated, and how they approach new business opportunities.

Above: Mona Munayyer Gonzalez, chief growth officer at Pereira O’Dell 

And of course, like in most industries and disciplines, new business teams are also feeling the impact of artificial intelligence. “Integrating AI into the new business process is one of the biggest changes I’ve experienced,” says Lindsay. This year, GALE launched a private enterprise AI cloud platform called Alchemy.Ai, which has dedicated tools for core capabilities including strategy, audience insights, media planning, and, of course, new business. 

“To develop the new business tool, which we call BRAD (named after our CEO Brad Simms, and an acronym for Business Resource Access Data-Bot), we gathered and trained it on decades of archival documents. BRAD now functions as an RFI response bot, allowing us to enter an RFI into the tool and get a response back within a matter of minutes.”

She shares that the tool has dramatically reduced the time and internal coordination necessary for GALE’s team to develop a new business response. And while this response isn’t 100% perfect and complete, it does give them a big head.

New Business Strategy Success Stories

“If there’s one thing we can rely on in this industry, it’s that there will be a new platform or partner each week, promising to be the holy grail for marketers and their agencies,” says Lindsay. “We try to look beyond the hype and instead focus on the fundamentals, which most recently has included investing in CRM, paid social and search.”

The GALE VP believes that successful agency marketing starts with a strong strategy and positioning, rather than relying on just one tactic or platform. GALE positions itself uniquely as a ‘business agency’, as opposed to a marketing or advertising agency, which Lindsay says has helped cut through the noise. “We are crystal clear on who we are, making it easy to identify the right way and places to show up across platforms. We have an always-on PR approach and invest heavily in LinkedIn. In 2023, we placed greater emphasis on CRM and search, and this year, we are investing more in sponsorships with partners that align with our overall positioning.” 

GALE was recently named the creative and social agency of record for Cotton, tasked with transforming the brand through social-first content. “This brief was right in GALE’s wheelhouse,” says Lindsay, “and it was incredible to see our social-first team in action—taking the time to understand the category of Cotton, developing a plan with original and relevant content, and identifying the perfect influencers for Cotton to partner with.”

She continues, “There was also a natural synergy between the GALE and Cotton teams so while the process was a lot of hard work, we managed to have some fun, too. I learned a lot about Cotton, but also how important the extra touches can be in the new business process. Pitches lost some of their showmanship during the pandemic years, but we’re bringing it back!” 

At Droga5, Lauren sees their most effective new business tool as the creative work they create for clients. “Laser-focused” on getting to the best possible creative output, this in turn attracts clients with a shared passion for bold ideas, and further brand growth.

“We’ll be announcing our latest AOR pitch win over the coming days and I’m incredibly proud of the team who made it happen. Obviously, the feedback on the strategic and creative work was great and we’re actually in the ideal position of getting into production on the pitch work.”

“But it was what the clients said about our team dynamic that stuck out for me,” she adds. “They could see we had constructed a team made up of the very best talent in every single discipline and that we all fed off of one another’s energy to create a chemistry that they, as the client team, wanted to be a part of. For me, this hammers home the importance of team chemistry. Clients can tell when an agency team doesn’t have a strong rapport with one another and the importance of this factor in their decision-making can’t be understated.” 

For Mona at Pereira O’Dell, the key lies within consistent industry presence—both digital and physical. That said, she identifies part of the “beauty and charm” of the agency as having the ability to engage with the industry authentically, and with humility. “Even in celebrating the wins, we never take the attitude of ‘we’ve figured it all out’. We haven’t. And second,” she adds, “the marketing must always be in service to the work and results we produce. Agency marketing and PR is an effective, necessary part of growth, but it gets cheapened when agencies are seen talking about everything but their work and results.”

A recent “dream RFI” that the Pereira O’Dell team won was SimpliSafe, as Mona explains. “[It was] written with brilliance, humanity and ambition for a modern product that understands how creative is the key at this point in their journey to take the brand to the next level. The team presented a strategic and creative POV that was provocative and honest. We showed up as we were and nothing else.” 

She continues, “I will never forget the words the client said to me when she let us know that we won: ‘We’d love to be your partner, if you’ll have us’… ‘If you’ll have us’. It speaks volumes to the respect between both teams and sets the tone for the relationship beautifully. It was a reminder of the respect that we (and all agencies) deserve in each moment of the pitch process.”

New Business: “Stewards of the Agency Brand”

Clients and consultants are confused. That’s the problem distilled. And agencies’ new business teams have to provide a solution. Clients observe all the industry movements—launches, rebrands, consolidations, merges, acquisitions and more—which have become especially abundant, and confusing, across the industry with recent large-scale consolidations, and the rise of independent agencies.

In this environment, if an agency doesn’t know what its own brand represents or projects out to the world, then how will a prospective client know whether the agency aligns with their vision and needs? 

As “stewards of the agency brand”, Mona says new business teams must have a pulse on the industry happenings to ensure the agency’s positioning and offering stays differentiated and competitive. A strong new business strategy then centres in on the agency’s own identity and goals, and shares this with all team members and partners as a North Star.

It all comes back to the fundamentals—empowering a collaborative new business team that can effectively market the agency brand as efficiently as a client brand. Cutting through the noise and aligning internally and externally around the agency’s reason for being and its differentiating factors, will reassure potential clients that an agency is the right choice for them amidst an ever-growing and evolving scene of creative options.

Click here to read more on how to promote your advertising agency. If you’d like to learn more about LBB membership and how it can aid your new business strategy, email [email protected] or find out more here.

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