Why are ad agencies so bad at new business?

ad agencies are bad at new business

Business development doesn’t have to be so hard for small to midsize agencies. 

I’ve spent almost my entire advertising  career in business development. I can tell you from my experience that agencies are historically bad when it comes to marketing themselves. It’s as if they lose their marketing minds. They tend to forget the very basics of marketing and become their own worst client. For example, I often ask this question when speaking at industry events, “Does your agency have a marketing plan?”. Incredibly the vast majority do not. How can agencies think they will have new business success without a plan? That is marketing 101 isn’t it?

You would be surprised at how many advertising agencies do not have a master business plan. They haven’t decided on what they are selling, who they are selling it to (most agencies have not defined the types of clients they want) and how they will accomplish their goals – Peter Levitan, global consultant to advertising and marketing agencies

This isn’t  to say that agency owners think new business not important. They understand it is the lifeblood of their business. But they have a tendency to focus on the newest tactical idea instead of taking the time to develop a new business strategy.

The Art of War, the definitive book on military strategy and tactics, states that “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat”.

Tactics must go hand-in-hand with an overall marketing strategy to be effective. And to be clear, to double the number of new clients next year is not a strategy, it is a goal. For you to state that you want to “take your agency to the next level” is not a strategy, it’s an objective. A strategy is not your agency’s mission statement. Your marketing strategy is simply the plan of execution.

Goals, objectives and mission statements are all fine but, you must have an executable plan for achieving them. This is the first step to make new business easier and more successful. Carve out a narrow market niche and dominate it.

When developing a marketing strategy for new business consider the following steps:

Decide Who

For your strategy and tactics to work they must appeal to a specific target audience. It is impossible to appeal to everyone. So, the first thing that must be decided is who.  If you try to be everything to everybody you won’t appeal to anyone.

Develop your agency’s marketing strategy around a narrowly defined prospective client audience. It should be a specific type of client or industry vertical. It can also be based upon having an expertise for a particular consumer such as the Barkley agency’s “Millennial Marketing”.”

Once you decide who is the best prospective client audience, you will then have focus and a much clearer direction to develop your marketing strategy.

Create Positioning

Positioning is the foundation of new business. It is also the area where agencies struggle the most. Solve your problem with positioning and new business becomes easier and much more effective.

Agency positioning is not:

  • “We have great creative” – Great creative is not a point of differentiation, it is an expectation.
  • “We’re strategic. Our creative concepts are based upon research that leads to a solid marketing strategy.” That’s what 99.9% of all agencies are saying.
  • “We have a proprietary process.” Most agencies make the same claim. But to a prospect, it’s just the same proprietary process under a different name.
  • “We have great chemistry. We’re fun to work with.” That isn’t a point of differentiation that will create new business beyond your local market.

By having a clearly defined target audience you can develop a positioning of expertise that will be appealing to your niche market. You will find it much easier to position and differentiate your agency that has greater appeal to your niche market. You will also lessen your agency’s competitors and you won’t be reliant upon location or pricing as differentiators. You can focus on knowing your niche, the industry, the challenges opportunities which allows your agency to be innovative.

Write the Strategy

If you don’t know what you want to achieve, you won’t achieve what you want – Todd Knutson CEO, The List

The final step is to turn your defined target audience and differentiation into an executable strategy. Create a strategy for marketing  your agency and then include the detailed tactics that will help support your strategies and reach your objectives.

When I started my consultancy in 2007,  it was on the verge of The Great Recession. I had three children in college at the time. Almost my entire advertising career had been spent in only to markets, Birmingham and Nashville. I had zero awareness beyond these two markets.

It was now my turn to put into practice what I had been telling agencies to do. I followed the same steps that I’m recommending to you.

My narrow focus was business development for advertising agencies. My specialty was helping them to create new business primarily through social media fueled by inbound and outbound marketing tactics fueled by content marketing. My personal marketing plan has kept me focused over the past six years. For instance, I know:

  • Who are my best clients
  • The kind of people to hire
  • What to read and write
  • What conferences, seminars and trade shows to attend
  • What associations and networks to join

Following a marketing plan provided me with a positioning of expertise that has resulted in building an international consultancy. I have clients in almost all fifty states here in the U.S., across Canada and Europe. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I had taken the route as a “generalist”,  just another marketing consultant. Obtaining new clients would have been much more difficult.

Having a plan makes new business easier and much more consistent. You have a program that only gets better with time because it is measurable which allows you to refine and improve it.

So, instead of trying to determine if cold calling is still effective or if Twitter is better than Facebook for generating leads, the first place to begin is with strategy. 

Additional articles that may be of interest:

photo credit: Alex E. Proimos via photopin cc

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. Louis Gudema says:

    Good piece, Michael. I’ve talked to consultants who say that small professional services firms in general (marketing and design, but also architecture, law, etc.) have disorganized marketing and sales. They make the point that the founder/CEO and senior management are usually practitioners but don’t have any particular training in management. And if I hear the phrase “The cobbler’s kids don’t have shoes” from an agency head one more time…

  2. Thanks for sharing your comments Louis. Very much appreciated.

%d bloggers like this: