How did YOU get into ad agency business development?

John Sharpe and his dad mowing the lawn

Ad agency new business hunters are a unique group who share some common traits even though their personal stories of how they got into this business are usually very different.

John Sharpe a partner and the Chief Marketing Office for the BOHAN advertising agency, Nashville, TN. He heads up the marketing and PR efforts for the agency itself.

John is a long tenured new business executive with a sampling of wins such as Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, the Grand Ole Opry, the Peabody Hotel Group, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Brunswick Outdoor Products, Red Lobster, Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, The Greenbrier, Citicorp Diners Club, Clarks of England and Shoney’s just to name a few.

In his own words, John shares his personal story, how be got his start and ended up spending the majority of his advertising career focused on new business. 

“Hey Mister, can I cut your yard?” 

Over the years I’ve often wondered how other agency new business people got their starts in this crazy profession. Seems like most everyone finds their way to it by means of a slightly different path. My path just happened to be an 18” swath, cut clean across a hundred neighborhood back yards.  

It was the last day of school and I was about to put the fifth grade behind me. The entire summer lay ahead but at my house, the tantalizing combination of summer and no school only meant that real work was about to begin. I was ten years old facing three months of hard labor. Drat.

My dad was what you might call a stern taskmaster, preparing a weekly list of chores as long as my arm. He was old school and just couldn’t stand the thought of me goofing-off all summer, riding bikes and playing basketball with my pals, so he made lists of things to keep me busy. Cut the yard, trim the hedge, paint the doghouse, hoe the garden and then start the next week with a fresh assignment. If and when he ran out of ideas, he would just repeat a previous list.

Remember that classic movie scene in Cool Hand Luke where the sadistic prison guards made recaptured chain-gang escapee Paul Newman dig a hole out under the blistering Florida sun, only to order him fill it up and start all over again? Well, it wasn’t exactly that bad at my house, but after cleaning the garage top to bottom for the third time since school got out, it sure felt that way. Of course there is always the slim chance that the recollections of a fifth grader, some fifty years hence, might possibly be time-enhanced…but nah, I don’t think so.

But then one mid-summer day it came to me like a bolt out of the blue. There was only one possible way to escape my fate of indentured summer servitude. I was a ten-year old who needed a legitimate paying job!

An old man who lived in a duplex down the street always had grass knee-high in his yard, and I am sure the neighbors all grumbled about it. He kept a lawnmower sitting right out by his front porch but I guess he just didn’t have a ten-year old on his staff. Maybe he didn’t even know how to use that old push mower, but I sure did.

I saw him sitting on his porch one day, staring across the sea of Johnson grass before him and without a moment’s thought I hollered from the street: “Hey mister, can I cut your yard?”

He stared at me for what seemed like forever and finally squinted and said, “how much?”

“If I can use your mower, one dollar.”   

By the end of that summer I was cutting most of the small yards at the duplexes nearby, and some of the bigger yards too.  After that first job I convinced my dad to let me use his old push lawnmower, if I paid for the gas out of my earnings—and I spent the next four summers going from house to house all over the neighborhood, fearlessly knocking on doors and making my pitch.

My pitch? Did I say my pitch? Yes, I now realize that’s where it all began. Mowing lawns was a means to earn some cash and escape my dad’s list of stay at home chores, but it was actually closing the deal with a neighbor–negotiating cash for services that really gave me a buzz.

Soon I expanded my product line to include trimming and weeding with my dad’s hedge clippers and swing blade. I was still working all summer while the other kids were playing but at least…I was an earner. And as I had hoped, my dad stopped making lists of chores for me to do. He knew I was working hard and he saw it was paying off. He never said so but I could tell that he was secretly proud. Summer was suddenly looking good for a change and I was emboldened by my ability to close a deal.

Did I mention that my dad was an ad man? I’m a second-generation new business guy. I guess even third generation, if you count my grandfather who worked at a Buick dealership long before I was even born. We were all closers.

My dad had been an ad agency art director back when I was ten and soon after, he struck out on his own and started a little ad agency design shop where he would pitch an account, play the AE role after he got the business and then run back to his cramped little office to crank out the layouts and mechanical art.

It was only recently, after nearly forty years in the ad agency business myself and the last twenty pretty much in business development exclusively, that I realized I had truly been pitching one thing or another my whole life. It just took a while to realize I was born to be a hunter/gatherer.

I was born to be a hunter/gatherer.

If you’re a new business professional, whether a beginner or a veteran of decades of pitches like myself, I am really curious to know your story. What path did you take and how did you get into the business development end of the ad agency business? Were you born to close, or did you learn by watching someone else, or do you just practice trial and error?

Shoot me an email and let me hear from you. We may soon have the beginnings of a new business online support group!

Have a great summer, and happy hunting.

John Sharpe

Email address:
Follow John on Facebook and LinkedIn


We’d like to hear your story. How did you get into ad agency new business? Feel free to email John or add it in the comment section below.

Additional articles that may be of interest:

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. Hello John,

    I just read your article and couldn’t help but smile ear to ear.

    I am fairly new the the “new business game” in the agency world. You asked for our stories, so here is mine:

    My path to get here?


    Let’s see, we’ll summarize a bit . . .

    I had a similar story to you from childhood, that I was very entrepreneurial. I started working at the age of 10 working for professional dog handlers, there was always a level of pride in “making my own money.” Dog showing was a hobby turned profession. I loved it, I loved the competition and I loved the dogs.

    And I was good. Starting as such a young age, I quickly climbed the ranks and was working for the most well respected handlers in the industry at age 14 or so.

    And I got better. We won, and won, and won. I was in hog heaven.

    And then it hit me . . . I didn’t have much else to do in the world of dog showing, this wasn’t going to be my career, I had to find something else.

    I did a 180, quit dog showing, went to college. I had my own business out of college doing videography work, I also ended up taking a series of classes at the local advertising school in design so that I could basically create all my own marketing materials.

    My videography partner quit on me, I went through a few jobs in PR and marketing for midsize businesses and about five years ago, I was hired as a “marketing manager” for a digital agency.

    I loved my job. My first six months were fairly simplistic. Then, an Account Director asked me to come help with a pitch . . . From that day on my career has been pretty much entirely focused in new business. I had a lot of ups and downs at my first agency, it was a wonderful place to grow and learn new things. I’ve recently started at Wong, Doody, Crandall, Wiener in exclusively a business development role. This agency is so bursting with talent, I’m so excited and proud to be here.

    With that, the more I dig in, the more I realize how the new business paradigm is fundamentally changing from “the old days.” Being in my late twenties, I wasn’t here for the “old days” and I find chartering this new territory shamelessly exciting. I’m also thrilled to help mold and shape the “new way of doing things” to improve our industry and our offerings to clients.

    I’m just hoping for some big wins along the way.

    Thank you for your article, I look forward to what you publish next, and feel free to call/e-mail whenever you’d like.

    Warm Regards,

    Kristyn Maddox

    Client Engagement Manager

    Wong, Doody, Crandall, Wiener

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