Paul Simons: Why doesn’t any decent London agency want my £5m account?

Last week I saw an economic forecast from Citibank which was quite depressing. The gloom and doom in the general business press strongly suggests 2012 is going to be challenging. Therefore in the current climate I have assumed every business in the wider advertising world would be on red alert for any new business opportunity. However I’m helping one client at the moment search for appropriate agency partners and it has been, at times, jaw dropping in terms of response and reaction.

Before moving on to the clangers, I have to say, for the record, that some agencies were excellent and handled the process with a professional and positive approach. However for the benefit of CEOs of agencies here are some remarkable experiences – and I target CEOs because they need to be fully in the loop about how their agency handles initial new business enquiries.

Getting past the front desk

In some instances I called the main number of the agency and asked the receptionist for someone who could talk to me about a new business enquiry. Several times nothing happened because the person who answered the call didn’t know what to do – amazing. These agencies were not included in the long list.

Keep the website up to date

In two cases I found the new business name on the agency website. In one case I was told the person no longer worked there and at another the person was on holiday. In neither case was anyone else offered up. How about the boss? Bad feeling that they couldn’t keep their website up to date.

Don’t talk about yourself

I found people fell into two broad camps; those that wanted to talk about the client and those that wanted to talk about themselves. In one case we were told the agency was very busy on a major pitch (one we must have read about in the trade press, which of course we hadn’t). This was of absolutely no relevance to us. In the main the big networks want to talk about scale, this is only relevant if the client wants it which was not a priority for us.

A bit of homework

I positioned our first meetings as just a chat over a coffee, which some people thought just wasn’t serious. It would have been the easist task to check out my client and their business – their website is the major source of transactions – but several people we met had not even looked, let alone drawn any conclusions. I found this staggering – downright laziness or maybe arrogance.

How about a bit of follow up?

During the course of our sessions the agencies we met were given quite of lot of insight in to the plans and issues relating to the client. I would have thought this was quite thought provoking and genuinely interesting. But over half of the people we met did not follow up; even with a ‘good to meet you’ note. How about ‘what more can we provide you with?’ or ‘our CEO would love to meet you’ or ‘we don’t have a client in your sector and we would love to continue the conversation’. Zilch, radio silence.

I have been tempted to drop a note to the CEOs of the poor performers but decided against it. In the end I felt it isn’t my job to tell them how to run their business.

First impressions are vital because they do influence final decisions. Only one agency had briefed reception we were arriving; in their case they were on the ball from the moment we walked in. They continued to impress all the way through to leaving and it all felt genuine, not a show. They stood out head and shoulders above the others, they were the most memorable and the most ‘liked’

I have been in literally hundreds of stage one meetings with prospective clients and I’ve always asked myself ‘what will they remember the next day?’ We forget that a client on a search might see three to four agencies in a day and by the next day it is all a blur. The team will recall simple points.

When it gets to pitches the same question is even more important. There are some great stories of how agencies have achieved the memorable moment. One story has the old British Rail client going to the final agency pitch where the senior client team were left waiting in a scruffy reception, ignored, given bad coffee from chipped cups. When they were almost ready to walk out they were asked in to the board room and the opening line from the agency was ‘you have just experienced what British Rail customers experience every day!’. Magic. And Allen Brady & Marsh won the account.

We pitched for the European launch of PlayStation in the mid 90s and we came to the conclusion none of us could do justice to the creative proposals as they required performing. Days before the pitch we asked that fine actor and comedian Hugh Dennis (pictured) into the agency and explained what we were trying to do. He played the part of the main protaganist in the campaign idea on the day. When he appeared the client team were open-mouthed and were entertained for an hour as he delivered the scripts in character. It was one of those moments people never forget and we won the account.

M&C Saatchi have a reputation of taking no prisoners, in particular with new business. I know some of the key players quite well and it is clear they throw everything at the whole process; pitches are often won before the pitch itself.

In yesterday’s Evening Standard there is an article about called ‘How ad land got its mojo back in Soho’ and features six newish agencies doing well in a tough world. The point being made is that new is good and attractive but also that their future is about taking share from other players. There isn’t any growth in 2012, according to the economic forecasts, so share is the only path to growth. The commonality is freshness and energy and of course talent. Tough times require fresh thinking and energy – and I bet these agencies have it in truck loads.

Returning to my recent experiences, I have been really surprised at some of the sloppy, uninterested reaction to a £5m carrot. Interestingly the one that stood out, mentioned above, was independent, young and so energetic I was exhausted after the meeting. Other agency CEOs please take note!

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About Paul Simons

Paul joined Cadbury-Schweppes in brand management and then moved to United Biscuits. He switched to advertising in his late 20s, at Cogent Elliott and then Gold Greenlees Trott. He founded Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in the late 80s, one of the leading creative agencies of the 90s. Simons Palmer then merged with TBWA to create a top ten agency. Paul then joined O&M as chairman & CEO of the UK group. After three years he left to create a new AIM-quoted advertising group Cagney Plc. He is now a consultant to a number of client companies. Paul also shares his thoughts on his blog. Visit Paul Simons Blog.