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By Tim Williams

By Tim Williams

“Does new business have to be this difficult?”  It’s a question Ignition increasingly hears fro
m agencies around the country and around the world.  Business development is in fact much harder than it used tobe.  And it’s not just the economic recession that’s causing the problem.

And why exactly is it so difficult?  An interesting piece in HBR “The New Psychology of Strategic Leadership” summarizes one of the key issues this way:  Because most business strategists (including agency professionals pursuing new business) have similar mental representations, we perceive and pursue the same opportunities.

In fact, not only do we pursue the same opportunities but we say the same thing, and most of the time, even sell the same product.  So let’s stop and ask, what’s the first and most important thing we preach to clients? Yes: differentiation.

Longtime Advertising Age reporter Matt Creamer observed in a recent piece in Advertising Age:

“Telling an effective agency brand story should be easy for companies that are in the business of telling brand stories, right?  I can tell you, after perusing many an agency website, that fewer than you’d think have figured it out.  Very few take stands. All this has made the agency landscape feel too flat and featureless, and that is exacerbating the commoditization of the business. If agencies don’t stand out, then what do prospective clients have to judge them on but for how much or little they’re willing to charge to handle an account?”

It’s a curious trait of human nature that our natural tendency is to mimic and imitate what others do – even, and especially in, business.  Actually, anthropologists tell us that “copying” is one of our oldest and most basic survival mechanisms.

10,000 years later, the way that translates to a business setting is that instead of staking out a completely unique position, we tend to look around at what others are doing and conclude that that’s what we should be doing as well. While this might have helped us adopt successful hunting techniques as early humans, this tendency doesn’t serve us well at all in the modern business world.

Instead of claiming unoccupied peaks, we climb the ones where someone is already there!  The HBR article previously referenced makes this point, observing that “Firms typically cluster around a few strategic positions, leaving others unoccupied.”

Actually, a mountain is a pretty good analogy for what we’re talking about, because it represents the shape of a bell curve.  Do you know what it means to be at the peak of the bell curve?  It means you are the most average.  In agencies, as in other businesses, the really interesting stuff is happening at the edges.

To improve your new business track record, spend more time and energy addressing the cause, not the symptoms.  Lack of new business success for most agencies is a direct result of an unfocused business strategy.

You can’t be good at everything, but you can be good at something. And that “something” forms the basis of a successful positioning and business development strategy.