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Why Good, Young Companies Fail

I was recently asked by a former employee to audit the marketing and business development efforts of his 100-person, B2B company in Baltimore. While this story is about one mid-sized company, I've seen very similar issues occur at businesses, young and older, in many other categories.

This particular company is eight years old, has a solid reputation in its industry and a nice mix of regional clients. The issue is that, after getting off to a very fast start with some big wins early, they haven't been winning their share of business over the past two years. I was asked to oversee the process and offer my assessment on how it might be improved going forward.

I have participated in many new business pitches throughout the years so I was anxious to see their approach and if their strong creative was the result of some deep, strategic insight or if they simply retro-fitted strategies to their best executions.

When the rather large team assembled for the first time in the main conference room, I found it odd that the agency owner wasn't in the room. I was told he was unavailable but would "catch up" the next day.

The meeting started with the new business guy passing out the printed assignment from the client which included a presentation date two and a half weeks away. This was followed by their strategic planner sharing some initial findings. She impressed me with the quality of her thinking and while more digging would be needed, she exposed some real areas of opportunity. I thought they were off to a great start.

What I didn't expect was the new business person to stand immediately thereafter and present the laundry list of client-mandated requirements for the presentation. He dealt-out assignments to the department heads and established a development calendar with two scheduled rehearsals. In two minutes, he managed to suck every ounce of energy out of the room.

No one challenged the list of assignments. No one asked if those things would actually solve the client's business problem or if other options might make a bigger impact. They took the assignments and started to leave when the following exchange took place:

Account Guy:

"Well in the initial discussions with the client, they said they rely heavily on Direct Mail but we really don't do Direct so should we find a partner?"

Creative Director:

"What's the big deal? We take a print ad, fold it twice, put it in a window envelope and slap a stamp on it."

There were a few chuckles and the meeting ended.

Side note: Two weeks later the agency presented two, internally-developed options for DM as part of their integrated marketing presentation.

The next day, I stopped by the planner's office and asked her why no other options were discussed during the meeting. I told her I thought she had uncovered some interesting areas that might have warranted further exploration. Her response was troubling but not that surprising.

After losing the past few pitches, she told me, there was a lot of second-guessing going on and the new business guy was feeling the pressure. He determined that because they were up against two larger agencies, the client asked for specific creative solutions to gauge the full breadth of each agency's capabilities and they were going to deliver.

I left her office shaking my head having seen this way too many times. Why would an agency believe that checking off capabilities boxes is the right way to build its business and why would a 50-person shop try to match capabilities, head-to-head, with much larger shops? Why would an agency capable of delivering real, compelling creative solutions only present work in areas the client mandated? Equally as disturbing, why would a strong creative agency present marginal Direct Mail that exposed some serious short-comings and was later offered by the client as one reason they were not awarded the business?

Lot's of questions but rather than dissect the reasons for this last loss in a series of disappointments, I spent my time with the agency's senior team discussing important topics and offering advice that I hoped would impact the company's future.

Agency Reviews are a Losing Proposition so Stop!

Open shoot-outs like agency reviews force companies to play defense. And sure, companies can get hot and win a few pitches in a row but for the most part, pitches are like baseball; win three out of ten and you're heading to the Hall of Fame. That means even the best companies lose 70% of the time, spend thousands of unrewarded hours and grind up their people. So instead...

Remain True to Your Purpose

Most companies are started by people with a focused vision to solve client problems in a new but fairly specific way. Then, once in business, they panic and start back-peddling with arms opened wide trying to capture every assignment they can.

"We need to drive revenue to stay in business? Often followed by, "We'll get back to our intended mission right after we finish this assignment." But they rarely do.

Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do it; especially if it isn't in line with your vision. If a client is going to dictate how their problem is solved, the relationship is already headed for the rocks.

Be the leader! Good clients look for leadership.

Focus Only on Your Strengths

Focus where you excel; on your unique bundle of capabilities that will provide solutions for a certain type of client. Accept that you are not for everyone and stop checking off boxes and listing every possible capability on your website. You'll fight long and hard to win business you won't effectively service and kill your culture along the way.

Your work has to be great and it can't be if you're trying to execute in unfamiliar areas.

Bring in talent to help dissect a client problem and develop compelling solution. Then show the client how your talents can positively impact their business.

Proactively Reach Out to Best Prospects

Develop the profile of your perfect prospect using an agreed-upon set of criteria. Identify 25 companies that fit the profile and put together a disciplined but aggressive outreach program. Finally, demand of yourself that each communication will offer the prospect valuable insight and information they can immediately put to use.

Do this and they will anticipate your communications and your level of engagement will deepen. Keep it up and they will start calling, one after the next. I promise.

As you win assignments, do everything you can to exceed the client's expectations and when you're ready, add a couple of new prospects to your list.

If you stay disciplined and consistent and believe in yourselves, you will be well on your way to realizing your true potential.

Set One Solitary Goal for the Next Year

What one big thing would have the greatest impact on your business? Not three things; one. Make it attainable but a stretch. Maybe its winning three assignments from your list of 25 prospects or breaking into a new category.

Make sure every action taken during the year supports that goal or don't do it. Create and adhere to a calendar; working backwards from realizing your goal in those 12 months. "If we're going to succeed in 12 months, where do we need to be in 9 months, 6 months, this month, this week?

Reinvigorate Your People

It's time to remind them why you started the company in the first place. Explain the need to calibrate and set new expectations and a new, more powerful way of going to market.

Every employee must understand their role and the rewards that await your success. They will also be looking for real demonstrations of your commitment so no sliding back or grabbing an easy assignment if it doesn't support your goal. You can't send mixed signals and risk losing your best people.

Tell Me What You Think

Leave comments below or shoot me an email at I'd love to hear from you.


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