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7 ways to stop making awful new business calls

August 8, 2013

First, let’s get something clear: we do a lot more than make phone calls for our clients. Today we’re just addressing the fact that most new business calls are remarkably bad. We don’t claim to have a magic wand, nor do we promise ridiculous results from our work. We do however make sure we avoid wasted opportunities. The phone call is a prime example of where waste can occur over and over in a single day. In a single hour.

Research it

The first compliment you can pay your prospect is having taken the time to research them. Even a little bit. It’ll make all the difference to your confidence. It’ll make all the difference to how receptive they will be. You don’t need to know their dog’s name (though if you do, please find a way to mention it without sounding like a stalker (on second thoughts, you will sound like a stalker. Probably keep it to yourself)), but knowing where they have worked before (Linkedin will help with that) or which agencies they’ve hired before (trade press can yield that information) will show that they’re not just a name on a list.

Make it different

Most agencies’ new business calls open with something like “We’re Crunchy Frame Creative and we’re a creative agency and we’ve worked for Channel 6, Harbinsons’s Jam and Nevaslip Prophylactics. Can I have a minute to talk about your marketing?”. Other than the fact that you’ve already started talking to them without establishing that they are okay with having an agency badly described at them, it’s just dull. You’re an agency? With clients? Wow! When can we brief you? If you’ve done your research and you’re smart enough, you’ll be able to open with a question that prompts some conversation. Some of our team are sometimes guilty of not using their research to spark natural conversation – it makes the call far harder to get anything from. Nobody in any marketing department wants to know who you’ve worked for or what type of agency you are until you’ve created a compelling reason for them to desire that information. You might create that compulsion through your clever questions, your knowledge of their company or simply your genuine, carefully directed enthusiasm.

Stick to what you say you’ll do

If you tell someone you’ll send them information straight away. That means moments after the call. If you’re not going to send it immediately, then tell them when they’ll get it. If you tell them 3pm, make it arrive at 3pm and mention your promise.

Follow it up properly

Your prospects get a lot of calls. If you’re going to build any relationship with them then you will need to stay in touch. If you don’t then despite how amazing your agency’s work is, they won’t remember you. There’s a fine, nay (nay?) invisible line between “staying in touch” and “pestering the heck out of someone”. Stay on the right side, but don’t convince yourself that they’ll call when they need you. Too often they won’t. If polite contact from time to time is enough to annoy them then they weren’t going to hire you anyway.

Don’t offer outs

“Can we respond to your next advertising brief, or……..”. This “or”, hanging off the end of the sentence is like a comfort blanket to new business people. In fact I’ve heard it from salespeople of all types over the years. Listen to your new business calls. If you hear that, then stop doing it the way you’re doing it and hire us (quoting SNB_OURPREVIOUSNEWBUSINESSCALLSWEREAWFULSOPLEASEHELPUS for a 7% discount). Don’t offer exits along the way. If the prospect doesn’t like your approach, or if your questioning uncovers the fact that they don’t want you, then they’ll find their own exit. You ought to be looking for the next best thing, all the time. When are they reviewing? How long is the current agency contract? Are there ever projects that fall outside of their current agency’s remit? But don’t roll out the red carpet to the exit door, or why did you call in the first place?

Don’t rely on something you sent

You sent information and now you’re calling. You mention it, right? Let’s look at the possibilities:

1)      You call, saying that you sent the information about your amazing work on Harbinson’s Jam. The prospect remembers this information. But the prospect also remembers seeing it and not calling or emailing you. Otherwise you wouldn’t be calling them, eh?

2)      You call, saying that stuff about the PDF about the jam guys. The prospect doesn’t remember seeing it, or didn’t have time. Now you’re back at square one, but the prospect now views you as the guys who sent the information that he instantly forgot, or couldn’t be bothered to read.

3)      You call, use your research and intelligence to ask questions, building on the previous information that led you to send information. If the prospect doesn’t mention it, then you can send it as if they’ve never seen it. If they now remember it of their own volition, then their image of you is rather stronger – they remembered your jam work unprompted.

In case it’s not clear, number 3 is best. So if you sent info, don’t mention it. Sounds counter-intuitive, but it isn’t about your ego, it’s about creating a compelling reason for a prospect to hire you.

Close, boldly, openly and honestly.

There are loads of different types of closes – the assumptive close, the Ben Franklin, the negative close. Bin them – they’re too prescriptive. How about something like:

“I hope I haven’t interrupted your day too horribly, but if I did then here’s the short version: we’re a cracking new business agency and you’re an agency that could do with a long-term, coherent, effective new business campaign. How can we do some work for you?”. Too prescriptive? Of course it is. The conversation should guide the words you use to close. Do close though. It’s the bit that’ll start your stomach churning but when it works (and if you follow all of the above, it’ll work more often), it results in those lovely highs that make the new business slog worth every moment.

Being different vs. saying “We’re different”

February 18, 2013

First, be different

Someone said something very nice about my company the other day. I was meeting a marketing agency boss – someone I respect – who owns half of an agency I would love to have as a client. Always nice. Anyway, they’re reviewing their new business provisions and we’re up against a few of our competitors. He said:

“Your competitors all sent me documents that started out by telling me that they’re different, but didn’t go on to tell me how or why. What you sent me just laid out how you do things and the differences were clear”.

Now, a lot of positive things were said in the meeting. Obviously I claimed that we’re a fantastic new business agency and I asserted that we’d be perfectly suited to them. Both of those things are true, but the thing that stood out for me was the quote above. Literally all of our competitors had claimed to be different. And so they looked the same. This got me thinking.

Of course some people will say that their company is different and then explain how. If that’s the case then they need to make sure their differences are actually unique in some way. Every agency is unique, but summing up why often leads us into “so what?” territory. If you’re going to claim difference then test your claim. Look around at your competition. If you’re not as different as you thought then don’t panic – it’s not always about being different. As Seth Godin told us, using the metaphor of an oddly coloured bovine creature, it’s not even about being better.

Apologies to Seth for borrowing his mantra, but being remarkable is often more attractive than just being better, or arbitrarily being different. Tell people how and why you’re remarkable and let them decide if you’re different in any useful way.

Differences that aren’t different

A cursory look around online uncovers dozens of agencies across every discipline who claim some unique set of values. I’m going to pick on 3 Degrees Agency. I don’t know them personally but I know they’ve done some great work for companies like Cogenta, Taxishare and Endemol. Their reputation is good (speaking to client-side people all day, we hear some stories about agencies, but 3 Degrees isn’t one we’ve ever heard a bad word about) and their site is nice enough. They claim these three differences (I’ve paraphrased a little):

1: We care – With every project, we take the time to get to know you, your company and your customers. We like to form lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with all of our clients.
2: No fluff – We’re a small team, which means you get to work directly with those assigned to your project – never more than a phone call or email away.
3: Results led – It’s not all fun and games, at the end of the day we pride ourselves on providing you with great ROI. Our aim is always to make your competitors jealous and your customers (and accountant) smile.

All of these are nice, positive values to have, but they’re not unique. In fact, the opposite of each of them is essentially unthinkable to a small agency. There will certainly be genuine differences between this agency and their peers, but none of these three are any of them.

It’s not just agencies of course – Hackett Equity Solutions (again, sorry to pick on one company – I’m sure they’re brilliant) are apparently different because:

“Our difference is based on our authentic no nonsense approach which puts people at the heart of everything we do, we understand that no successful business can be built without the people at the centre possessing the passion, drive, ambition and desire to succeed. With this in mind our aim is always to help build the structures around those key people which allows them to focus on their strengths, whilst we provide solutions to areas which are identified as needing to be improved.”

I’m going to sound picky and a little glib, but nobody out there is claiming a “nonsense approach” which “puts people at the very margins of what they do”. Nobody claims to hire people with apathy, ambivalence and a desire to fail miserably. Furthermore, no company builds structures around people to nullify their strengths. In short, their apparent differences are just a paragraph of positive rhetoric. Again, I bet they have some really interesting unique values. They just haven’t told us what they are.

Differentiation is something that nearly everybody claims to have, so unless you’re going to back it up – unless you’re actually different then saying you’re different is the most samey thing you can do.

Three ways to get more from your new business agency

February 8, 2013

1)      Don’t make them describe you in a particular way.

Just because you’ve decided to call yourselves a Brand Empathy & Ideas Generation Agency doesn’t mean that your prospects or clients would ever think of you as that. Worse than not thinking of you in your chosen way, there’s the simple fact that if someone needs what they call a creative agency and goes looking for one, they’re not going to immediately see that you might be able to solve their problem. If you have your new business person calling or emailing people who control marketing budgets, then encourage them to find out what the person might be looking for. If it’s “creative” then you’re a creative agency. If it’s “ideas”, you’re an ideas agency. Many of our clients over the years have insisted on a specific description and we’ve learned to say “no” because it does no good.

2)      If they ask for a short credentials document, give them a short credentials document. Do it on time.

Agencies love to talk about themselves. Clients speak to lots of agencies over time. Do the sums. Do you imagine that they want long presentations from every new agency they encounter? The chances are that after a couple of conversations and the mention of an upcoming brief, your new business legend (for that’s what we are) will need to send over some sort of document to move things along a bit. Unless they’re asking for specific examples, send them a short (9 pages maximum) description of your agency. Make sure the majority of it tells the prospect what they will get (which is different from what you do). Leave the dull bits (where you are, how long you’ve been in business) until the end (if they’re not interested by then, who cares where you are?). Actually, just read my article on the excellent Econsultancy – it’s at and it’s marvellous.

3)      Support them from the start.

Look, I know that hiring a new business agency is scary stuff. We’ll ask for a level of trust that in the early months is fairly un-earned. While some new business agencies will abuse your trust and have you spending valuable studio time putting together documents that will be seen by a temporary receptionist at a company with fifty quid to spend, this is (or should be) rare. What is worse – far worse – is stifling their ability to win you new clients by slowing them down. We often have to promise a terrifyingly fast turnaround on some detailed credentials documents to squeeze a client into a pitch. When they trust our word and support us, it invariably leads to a far more productive project. Our most successful client of 2012 obviously trusts us implicitly, but the key thing they did from the start was trust us, sight unseen. We’re good at this and I hope our competitors are too. Don’t get in the way.

This might all seem like common sense, but often the temptation is to take far too long to create a 28-page PDF which spends an age describing your agency as an Integrated Product-Oriented Brand Development and Advancement Consultancy. And then you’ve gone and broken all three rules.

Online content and its effect on business development – by Nick Baggott

November 28, 2012

This is a guest blog by Nick Baggott, MD of Navigate Consulting. A leader in the CRM and Digital Marketing fields, Nick has worked with brands including Microsoft, Google, Cisco, Pfizer and O2. Nick also a Fellow of the IDM and the CIM. For clarity, Navigate Consulting isn’t a client of Sponge NB, but Nick is someone whose opinions we respect.

The pitch process has changed out of all recognition. The days of agencies pitching for each project and clients constantly searching for new agencies are (thankfully) a thing of the past.

Clients are looking for longer term partnerships with fewer agencies. That is a great thing for client retention and agency financial planning. But, it is potentially bad news for the new business development team. With fewer pitches, the game has changed. The role of business development is to build long term relationships with the Marketing Directors and Procurement teams who manage the tenders, so that they are on the next long list to be considered for the pitch. These relationships are ideally built on personal interactions, but inevitably they will start with virtual interactions of some type.

So, if your task is to get onto the consideration list of agencies for the pitch, it means a change of focus. You need to be found when clients are searching and you need to represent an agency brand that is respected and trusted, ideally with a reputation for thought leadership and expertise. Online content plays a vital role in building your reputation. It also covers a huge range of channels and tools.

Your most important asset is your web site. Every client will review it and scrutinise it before they contact you. Consider not only how you are positioning yourself and the case studies and services you choose to promote, but also what the site says about your understanding of the digital world. Is it optimised for search? Is it optimised for mobile? Does it contain thought leading content? Does it enable readers to share your content in social media? Does it capture data in an effective and legally correct way?

Then consider which social channels you can use to host and share content. The options are plentiful. For every channel you utilise, you need a content manager who is updating and publishing new content, as well as responding to questions and comments swiftly.

I am a huge advocate of blogging as a way of sharing your expertise and knowledge. Here are some tips.

  1. Consider who the best person is to write it. Who has the expert knowledge? Who has the time? Who has the enthusiasm to do it and stick to it?
  2. Your blog is there to demonstrate your expertise, not to sell (that is what the web site does). So, talk about wider industry issues, share best practice, share research, share your opinion. Don’t just write up case studies.
  3. Be provocative. That doesn’t mean being deliberately confrontational or controversial. It means, give an opinion and ask for your readers’ opinions too.
  4. Write in plain, conversational English. Don’t get it copy written. It must be authentic. The odd typing mistake or grammatical error is not a disaster.
  5. Write as often as you can, but only say something when you have something interesting to say. It doesn’t have to be every week as long as you don’t leave it too long between posts.
  6. Integrate it with the other social channels – host video content on YouTube, tweet a link when you update your blog, have the latest blog posts feed onto the web site home page, feed blog titles and links onto your Linked In profile.

That leads me neatly onto the sharing element of content. You can write the content into a blog, you can post videos onto YouTube, you can write white papers and host them on your web site or you could commission some research and host that on your web site too. That is all great, but no use, if no-one knows it is there!

Search engine optimisation is key and the good news is that all of the social sharing that you do will help SEO by building links from other sites to yours. Make sure all content is tagged for search too, so that Google can find it. Your social media strategy should be to share and amplify your content programmes. All of your content should be sharable, opinion forming, provocative and original. That is a great start. Then you need to proactively spread the coverage of your content into digital channels.

Media can be owned (that is your web site, blog and social channels), paid (do you have budget to test paid search ads for example to promote this thought leadership content?) or earned (that is the free, PR type coverage). Earned media is the most powerful. Use your PR skills to make sure that all of your content, be it digital, video or printed is made available to thought leaders such as trade journalists, key industry analysts, respected bloggers and social media influencers (such as people with plenty of Twitter followers). Then use your own social media channels to promote the content. Top B2B channels are Twitter, YouTube, Google Plus and Linked In. Google Plus is probably most useful as a way of improving search performance for your content.

I hope this helps. It is a start to a very complex and ever evolving topic. If you want to find out more, please feel free to follow me on Twitter (@njbaggott) or of course read my blog

Good luck

Don’t use scripts

November 27, 2012

Sometimes when we meet agencies, they ask to see our script. We don’t use one apart from in one circumstance, which I’ll come to in a minute. Scripts can be useful for some types of sales. If somebody is selling something to a huge number of people about whom the salesperson knows little or nothing, then a script can work. You’ll still miss the chance to grab opportunities from some interested parties if their answers or questions don’t fit your script, but you’ll also be able to measure the effectiveness of the script and use the best scripts the most. It also decreases reliance on getting good staff. Yes, if you’re selling windows, loft insulation, gas/electric contracts, cable TV or commercial phone contracts, then write some scripts, fill a room with numpties and make the phones ring. Actually, for the sake of all our sanities, don’t do any of that.

Finding new business opportunities for agencies is horribly difficult. The prospects we contact, whether it’s by email or phone, are contacted many times a day by a wide selection of people who are either terrible, or egotistical. We have to be the only call that didn’t piss them off just to hit the worst possible standard we’ll accept. In fact, we take a lot of time and put in a lot of work to make sure we’re one of the calls that makes them happy.

We find new clients for marketing companies of all different types and we do it the same way for all of them. We research our prospects properly. We make sure we understand their companies and we try to find common ground with the people we are speaking to. Paying them the compliment of knowing a little about them pays dividends, every time. If nothing else it reassures them that we’re not just another call they should dodge.

When you use a script, you sound like you’re using a script. Think about it. How could you not? Just by using the script, you’re defining what it sounds like to use it. Similarly, when you call from an informed point of view, you sound informed. You can’t not. Which would you prefer?

New Business Agency - we don't use scripts

If you use a script, you might sound like you’re in the bath. Or something.

There’s a time to use a script and that’s when you’re leaving a voicemail. Trust me on this. If you’re winging it, you’ll sound like you’re winging it (are you spotting a pattern here?).

If you hire us, you’ll get informed, curious, interested people who will know your agency inside out. But far, far more importantly, they’ll make sure they know your prospects inside out. They’ll ask questions that will get to the crux of what is important to the prospect. They’ll identify whether your agency can help them, then they’ll make it possible for you to do so. There isn’t a script for that.

Pitching to the many

November 8, 2012

No matter how much new business activity you manage to undertake, there will always be wins cropping up in the trade press that will have you scratching your head, wondering “why didn’t we know about that?”. We know about a lot of the reviews that happen and even we sometimes glare at The Drum, wondering how such a stonking piece of business slipped under our military-grade radar.

This can lead to a scary outcome. You start making too many calls and sending out too many emails. It can also lead to you dropping your standards; your criteria of what constitutes a great opportunity.

Agencies are very similar to one another. In almost all areas of the marketing industry, they’re clumped together geographically and in terms of their offerings. PR Agencies are all too often sat in an office less than a mile from competitors who have a few of their ex-staff and a few of their ex-clients. Before agency heads start emailing me protestations that their agency is unique and that their staff stay as infinitely long as their clients do, let me urge you to spend the time looking at clips of people hurting themselves on YouTube. It will be just as productive. Agencies aren’t unique (or nobody would use them) – they’re similar. Choosing one is about as much fun as plucking nose-hairs while watching Vanilla Sky. Your prospects would much prefer to stay as they are, but alas, their agency is comfortable and it’s time to usher in a new era of creativity and strategy. They Google “I need a marketing agency in Bristol” and a list of 2,480,000 results appears on their screen. Suddenly you’re part of the biggest pitch list in history.

So, now your prospect is scanning the first page and sees some descriptions. They tell him (our pretend Marketing Director is a he and, as it turns out, a Marketing Director) that some agencies are “new”, some are “integrated” and some are “full service”. One listing informs you that you’re going to need to upgrade your flash player.

So, in this case they start whittling down and looking at a few web sites. Over the next week they call a bunch of them. 15 agencies look pretty cool and have nice clients. In that week, 4 other agencies call and pitch their wares on the phone. Getting their timing right, 1 of those is added to the 15. Our Marketing Director (who by now has watched the clip of people hurting themselves and empathises with them each time he looks at the list of oddly-names agencies decides that they all look pretty good and that he needs a better way of telling the difference.

Whatever happens next barely matters. But for the sake of this blog, we’re going to assume that our hero emails the 16 agencies asking for credentials and rough costs. He sends them a very rough marketing plan that no agency could properly quote for (but they do). 2 of the agencies bother to ask the critical question: “How many agencies are you talking to about this?”. They pull out. If the other agencies are equal (and in the main, they will be (yes, I know, you’re unique, marvellous, fast, cheap or some other descriptive word that none of the other 13 agencies could possibly claim…)) then they have a 1 in 14 chance of winning out. With plenty more hoops to jump through, they’ll have spent thousands on this pitch, grimly unaware that they have a 7.1% chance of winning. If they’re twice as good as anyone else then let’s be generous and give them a quadrupled chance of winning. That’s about 28%. A bit over 1 in 4. And the chances of them actually being (or at least appearing to be) twice as good as every other agency? Be honest. Slim.

Knowing the size of a pitch list is hugely important. Ask the question and you can save a lot of time and money. In the case above, most of our clients would prefer to be one of the two that stepped aside (and if they listened to us, re-approached the prospect with something far wide of the parameters of the pitch). The real problem that arises is that our jaded hero can’t really choose effectively from 14 agencies and ends up with one chosen not because they showed that they understand how to drive business, but one that put on a show. Sometimes that show will illustrate exactly why the agency is great, but most often they’ll become the agency that gets comfortable a year later. Our “zag while you zig” duo of smart, targeted agencies? Well what do you think?

There are pitches worth being part of, but choosing when to step aside is a powerful, important decision.

Which brand defined your childhood?

October 19, 2012

Some products stick with you for life. Sometimes it’s because of a memorable advert, “family” behaviours or just something about an era. Now, most blog posts here (and elsewhere in our industry) have a point. This doesn’t have a deliberate one, but it might say something about branding I suppose.

A few of our team, with ages spread across 20 years, chose the brands that helped define stages of their lives. There wasn’t always a clear reason, but it seems that we could all find something – a product, a service or sometimes (as you’ll read) a type of communication that was somehow part of our lives.

Some of these brands are no longer in business, but the brand itself has stood the test of time. Please add a comment if there are brands that are associated with a stage in your life.

0-10 years old

Ready Brek & Frosties – The TV ads for these were iconic. Two of us clearly remember hoping for a real orange glow around us after eating Ready Brek. The TV ad looks hugely dated now, moreso than its age suggests.

Party Ring Biscuits – Jo, our data expert, remembers eating a whole packet of these after school on a Friday…. The icing would melt on your tongue (while the sugar went to work on your teeth!

Party rings, sugar and cocaine on a biscuit. The squiggles were made of cocaine. Or more sugar. Can’t remember.

Barbie and Ken – Barbie spans the age-range. Tara’s guilty memories of Barbie toys lasting into her teens seem to be the norm.

ET Cola-flavoured biscuits – These were not very well known it seems. When I mention them to people I get blank looks…. I found a picture online which brought back memories. They might not have been available for long, but I recall eating a lot of them.

A rare picture of ET biscuits. I’d pay, ooooh, £10 for one if it was safe to eat after 30 years.

Knight Rider – Okay, it’s not a product, but as a brand it was massive. Everyone, yes everyone knows who Michael Knight was, along with Devon and the Knight  Industries Two-Thousand (KITT). And that red swooshing light. That’s it, I’m ordering the DVDs.

I was going to use a picture of the car, but somehow this is better.

HotWheels – Perhaps a bit of a curve ball, but look at them! Cool! I’m 36 and I want some now!

I want some.

Tetley Tea people – One of our team is addicted to tea. Don’t imagine “Oooh, I really like tea”, imagine someone fuelled on tea. Someone who, without tea, becomes (how can I put this….) ratty. She would go to her Nan’s and get the Tetley Tea people toys as little presents. What tea collectables would kids remember from this era?

11-19 years old

Barbie – She’s ageless, timeless and it seems she manages to span the eras.

Pantene – The person here who remembered this was quite adamant that it was Pantene (apparently it was used to control some very curly hair) and no other brand of hair care products.

Pepsi – Oddly, nobody said Coke. Perhaps it’s eponymous and anonymous. Pepsi though seems to have some resonance with our team when  reflecting on their teen years.

Hi-Tec – If I still had a pair of my old Hi-Tecs, I’d wear them today. Comfy and cool. Okay, maybe not cool.

If you didn’t have a pair, you don’t deserve shoes now.

Adidas – As we became a little more fashion and brand-conscious, clothing and lifestyle brands came to the fore.

MTV – Remember how cool this was? We all cared about new music videos.

HMV – While most of my music is now in mp3 format, is there a more cathartic shopping experience than flicking through CDs, judging them on the cover?

20-30 years old

Jane Norman – Some other retail clothing stores came up, but this one stuck out a bit.

Bacardi – Social experiences crept in more and more as our respective ages increased. Alcohol made its first appearance, Bacardi being a good example of something that perhaps didn’t feature in our teen years. I imagine Bacardi Breezers would change that if we asked today’s teenagers in a few years, but the alcopops of our teens included Two Dogs alcoholic lemonade, Thunderbird and K Cider.


BBC – Now we’ve all seen a little of the world and become aware of our surroundings, the importance of an objective news service and broadcaster saw the BBC become an important brand to many.

Government Information films – AIDS, Heroin – Mentioned by a team member who would have turned 20 in the 80s, these films were often harrowing and quite affecting. Short films about crossing the road and not talking to strangers cropped up too. Watch this AIDS public information film – it seems incredible now just how doom-laden and dramatic it is. The level of fear at the time is hard to contextualise now.


The OXO Family – Possibly the first advert that was serialised in a way that anyone gave a hoot about. Whether anyone chose their gravy based on the ads is hard to gauge but the family members were instantly recognisable to pretty much anyone.

Abbey National – A few of us had mortgages in our 20s and suddenly financial brands loomed large. Not sexy, not fun but important and life-changing.

DKNY – As incomes creep up, so do aspirations. DKNY is a good example of a brand that gives people a way to say something about their beliefs and lifestyle.

Spectacular branding, fantastic products.

Ford (Puma) – Jo bought a brand new Ford Puma when she was 23 and so it gets an honorable mention!

This could be Jo’s one. We’re not sure.


If there’s a brand that was part of your life at a particular age, tell us in the comments section below please!


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