Is Cold Calling an Effective Ad Agency New Business Tactic?

The second most read FUEL LINES article in 2008 and the one that generated the most debate:  Is it the end for cold calling as an agency new business tactic?  

I thought I would follow keep the conversation flowing by taking my own poll with a new Twitter tool, twtpoll. So far there have been 119 responses to the question, “How receptive are YOU to cold calls?”  An overwhelming majority of respondents, 69%, provided a negative response when it came to cold calls. 29% said they were sometime receptive and only 3% said they were often receptive to a cold call.



Tim Williams, founder of Ignition Consulting Group , and author of the book, Take a Stand for Your Brand, states in ar recent article, The End of Cold Calling,

“Ask any agency principal what he or she dislikes and avoids the most and the answer will almost always be the same: cold calling new business prospects. Not only is this the most dreaded activity among C-level agency executives, it’s also among the least effective.” 

Is Cold Calling Ever Necessary?

Cold calling, as a new business tool, is only necessary if your agency principal(s) do not have a clearly defined focus and differentiating business strategy that will give them a competitive advantage for new business, a higher-profile reputation, and an improved ability to attract and win the clients they really want.

Without a point of differentiation your agency will have no appeal. Trying to appeal to everyone appeals to no one.

Today’s CMO lives in a world where traditional marketing practices are no longer acceptable. 

“80% of decision makers say they found the vendor, not the other way around.”


Prospective clients:

  • Don’t want to be interrupted
  • Have found ways to screen out, throw out and tune out unwanted marketing messages
  • Use online tools and techniques to seize control of their buying and vendor selection process
  • Seek out the information they want how they want it and when they want it

How does this impact ad agency new business?

The growth of Social Media will dramatically impact how agencies promote themselves in the future. Agencies that must rely on cold calling as a new business tactic will find it even less effective in 2009. 

Research: Ad Agency Survey Finds Traditional New Business Methods Aren’t Working


Quick Poll Is Cold Calling an Effective Ad Agency New Business Tactic?


About Michael Gass

Consultant | Trainer | Author | Speaker

Since 2007, he has been pioneering the use of social media, inbound and content marketing strategies specifically for agency new business.

He is the founder of Fuel Lines Business Development, LLC, a firm which provides business development training and consulting services to advertising, digital, media and PR agencies.


  1. Great post. The ad agency I work with has been in the midst of new business development, and this gives us a lot to chew on – who are our targets? how can we get in the door? Is our business list complete and relevant?

    A revamped Web site was part of the work, so that’s great. But in terms of more direct biz development, there are still a lot of questions to be answered for everyone. Your post provides great direction.

  2. In combination with lead generation and inbound marketing it paves the way for follow up calls (note i did not say “cold calls”) I have found agencies limited in their eating their own dog food to market their own business. having several speakers and thought leaders also is effective. supporting the new biz efforts with success results and focus on a niche(s) adds creditability and value.

  3. Good points Jim, thanks for sharing.

  4. Is avoiding the “cold call” just another way to avoid introducing yourself. Yes – “clearly defined focus and differentiating business strategy that will give them a competitive advantage for new business, a higher-profile reputation, and an improved ability to attract…”, blah, blah,blah…

    …however, if your potential clients are not calling you, you need to get your name and message in front of them somehow.

    As a professional with a long background in Sales and Telesales I can truly tell you that new sales people can easily get caught up in thinking that technology or the marketing department should be doing more. If a sales person wants to Win in their field they will need to reach out to new people.

    Maybe we should re-coin the term “Cold Calls” – nothing to be afraid of in these calls – truly an opportunity to Shine. Ignore the stats and pick up the phone!

    Thanks for listening.
    Larry McLeod

  5. Larry,

    I don’t avoid cold calls, not afraid of making them and have made them for years. But new business for small-to midsize ad agencies has dramatically changed in just the past couple of years with the popularity of social media plus the downturn in the economy. Cold calls were not an efficient way to generate new business then and especially isn’t now.

    Agencies that refuse to differentiate themselves from the competitors, have no appealing position to a specific target audience may be forced to rely on inefficient means like cold calls. But there is a better way and you can generate calls” from” your prospects.

    My advice is specifically for the small-to midsize ad agencies. The primary audience for this blog.

  6. Thanks Michael – you write well, I enjoyed reading.

  7. Thank you as well Larry for being part of this discussion. It’s important for all of us. I appreciate you contributing.

  8. What is the differeniating factor between ‘seldom’ and ‘sometimes’ in your poll? If you were to add them together as they seem undiffereniated to me you get 61%. I still think that is high to be honest.

    However, lets assume you are right 61% of people sometimes reckon cold calls are helpful, that’s more often than not.

    Why not run a poll – How receptive are you to Social Media Campaigns run by agencies?

    The problem is, as you state, that most agencies do not differentiate themselves on a sales call and IMO talk far too much about themselves rather than the problems that the prospect has. Because of the poor standard of cold callers and the rejection that cold callers get it leads to what Tim states –

    ” Ask any agency principal what he or she dislikes and avoids the most and the answer will almost always be the same: cold calling new business prospects. Not only is this the most dreaded activity among C-level agency executives, it’s also among the least effective.”

    You don’t have to like cold calling you just have to do it.

    The same messaging problem exsists for social media campaigns too. Many agencies that adopt SM for their new business, still talk more about themselves than what problems they can fix for the prospect.

    I don’t have issues with agencies adopting SM over cold calling to generate leads. I own a lead gen agency in the UK as well as a share in a social media agency. Most people advocating SM over cold calling have an agenda they either advise on SM, write a book about why cold calling is dead, or are die hard cold callers, you know the type.

    We generate our social media agency leads via cold calling more effectively than they do by running their own social media campaigns, at a ratio of 10:1 on business wins. If that wasn’t the case we’d stop doing it and save the money on sales training.

    I am pleased that agencies employ both methods, sometimes replacing traditional PR for on-line PR, but in our experience there’s nothing like using a phone call to search for and qualify new business prospects.

    I am sure new business is different in the States to the UK – but I expect the same issues are at the heart of the matter – people dislike making cold calls and get rejected because some people don’t like receiving them. But sometimes 61% of people do and that leads to new business wins when the calls are done well.

    Also at this stage I am not convinced that decison makers of the larger brands £10M + spend in the UK are in the same space as the SM messages. I’d love it if they were though, hopefully they will be, at the moment though at least I do know their telephone numbers.

  9. My favorite statistic is from the University of North Carolina’s business school, whose study a few years ago concluded that less than 20% of executives will even accept a cold call to begin with, let alone buy from one. It is certainly a huge waste of time today.

    The bigger problem with cold calling, though, is the fact that it is a poor and non-leveraged use of your time. Even those who insist that “cold calling works” fail to see that it is taking up valuable time that could be better spent closing sales. Automated and outsourced lead-generation strategies are far, far superior.

  10. Thanks for sharing good info..

  11. First and foremost, great article. I lead new business at a mid sized agency, and we struggle with figuring out the right mix of inbound marketing and cold calling.

    I think the real key in this situation (assuming you don’t have people knocking on your door), is to never actually “cold call” a prospect, but rather do your research and attempt to only call on the prospects that fit a certain segment and persona. Genuinely attempting to solve problems for a prospect (regardless if it’s with your agency) is a very powerful perspective given the right segment and persona.

    The reality is that if you don’t have new business finding you, agency principles need to find new business. Solving the first problem of not being found or recognized is a monster problem as well!

    Thank you.

  12. Respectfully, what a load of ?!* put in place a proper strategy and the traction from cold calling can be very successful. I am currently making some successful calls, partly because the prospect feels they know me as I link into them using social media, either through LinkedIn or by following their comments on Twitter prior to making the calls. More importantly however, our message is concise and dynamic and immediately shows our prospects how we can improve on their current system.

  13. I truly think that before you pick up the phone, you must do your homework. Answer the question: “WHY” are you calling this particular person/company? Is it your personal favorite brand? Do you love their past marketing tactics? Do you have a fantastic idea or extensive experience with a tactic that would fit perfectly with their brand image? If you can back up your “cold call” with sound, logical reasoning, then your chances of success go up exponentially. But if you’re just making a call to meet your daily quota, well, chances are very good you’re not going to get past the front desk.

  14. Thanks for keeping this topic alive Michael, as I think it deserves ongoing debate. Do I cold call? Yes, but infrequently, and only to those prospects with whom I know I have a lot in common or enough information to share to make it worth their while. Otherwise, I rely on our formal inbound marketing program, personal contact at industry shows and outbound direct marketing to open doors and begin relationships.
    Another thought to consider is that cold calling goes both ways. As we’re fond of saying here, we like to choose our clients the same way they choose us. We are an highly experienced and fun team to work with, and we want to work with clients who value our recommendations, creative ideas, time and ongoing input. So, I will cold call a prospect to make a connection, and also to see if they’ll call back. Those that do return my calls, demonstrate they’re more professional and possess the integrity needed to make them a good client. After all, who wants to work with someone who doesn’t possess the common courtesy to return a well-placed and -intentioned business call?

  15. Scott Cunningham says:

    Usually I agree and enjoy your posts. However, on the “cold calling” topic, I highly disagree and have been and continue to be incredibly successful at cold calling on the phone. It’s a numbers game that no one in our industry wants to do. So I do it and I do it with GREAT success!! 8)

  16. Thanks for sharing your feelings Scott. I haven’t had to make a cold call in the 6 years since I started my consultancy. I was also very good at it. But the reason that I don’t do them and don’t advocate agencies using this tactic is because Inbound Marketing is much more efficient. The fuel for my new business machine has so many benefits comparative to the interruptive type tactics of cold calling that it doesn’t warrant my time and effort any longer. Prospective client engagements are usually highly qualified and move much quicker to close than those gained by cold calling.

  17. Plus, the way this works, it allows the agency to control the client | ageny relationship from the beginning when you aren’t having to chase after business. Instead of an initial dating relationship you move right to the alter because you’ve already established a positioning of expertise.

  18. Scott Cunningham says:

    I guess everyone has their own way of doing things. I closed 3 new prospects last week the old fashioned way. Cold calling on ye olde telephone. (sorry, smart phone) 8)

  19. Dudley Arbaugh says:

    I gotta say I’m with Scott. For a variety of reasons:

    1) It works
    2) Inbound marketing is great for (potential): awareness, acquisition, engagement, etc. However, when you take into account the volume of e-mails business pro’s receive a day, you’re also one of many also going that route AND can also be the next candidate to the junk folder
    3) Zig instead of Zag mentality. If advertising has taught us anything, its that when your competition is doing one thing, you differentiate. To me, if everyone is touting the death of cold calling, blah blah blah, that means more have jumped on that bandwagon which means, potentially, I’m a leg up on my competition if they’re not doing it.
    4) No matter how good a sales person you are, it’s all a numbers game anyway. Might as well be firing on all cylinders.
    5) How else can you IMMEDIATELY start a 1-1 conversation? The best part is you might found out quickly how bad a prospect they might be, which saves you time, and your on to the next.

  20. Craig Lindberg says:

    Cold calling
    A few considerations that I feel should be brought up; cold-calling is different from a warm or hot call. By that I mean has the prospect never expressed interest in a company or product, or is there some evidence (email open, site visit, form completion) showing they are aware of us. If the latter then a call is not only appropriate but a courtesy. The manner in which any of these is conducted is paramount; professional, scripted and noted to the CRM system.
    That segues well to the next thought; since 2008, B2B professionals have been inundated with a digital flood of messages, media, CTAs, apps and the like to the point there is growing talk of a fatigue tipping point and Content Shock.  Meantime the basic sociology and anthropology of humans remains the same. We still crave attention and done well,  WOM and direct marketing press that hot button faster and better than any digital barrage, lead nurturing, MAS devised scheme. Before I conjur any Rabbit vs Hare metaphors either I’ll point to the greatest marketing success practice is a personalized program and the ultimate goal of almost every MAS is a one on one relation. While I understand that economics drives digital adoption in large enterprises with massive prospect audiences, I think it’s wisdom becomes more questionable as the scale shrinks. My point; content and inbound marketing are not a panacea.
    The other consideration is I’d venture to say your survey pie chart stats also roughly correspond to the percentage of employees actually doing a thorough job, skewed toward the low end. How’s that? Of course few people like being interrupted but workplaces aren’t monasteries. Thinking, open-minded professionals keep the radar up for newer/better/cheaper ways of getting things done. Taking a couple of minutes with a professional caller is a quick way to get a bead on one. No I didn’t always feel this way and I’ll still hang up on those boiler room investment shysters but dismissing all callers is like covering your ears; it stops noise but also the learning. One of the best cold calls I ever took was from a fellow about new business practices. He was intelligent, respectful and knew agency pain points. You know him. Blair Enns.

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