Last year, my young family and I relocated from Brighton to the Leicestershire countryside.

This was not a move long in the planning. In fact, from first floating the idea to opening the door to our new home was a little over three months. We didn’t mess about.

Often in life, we put these big decisions on the backburner. We wait for the ‘right time’ when in reality there is never a ‘right time’. So, we end up drifting.

It can often be the same for agencies. They drift. Of course, there are ups and downs, high and lows. But they’re kind of stuck. One step up and two steps back (Springsteen reference, tick).

The great balancing act

The biggest challenge in running an agency is to balance the work coming in with the resource to deliver it. To a high standard. Consistently.

Most agencies either have too much work and not enough resource OR not enough work and too many bums on seats. Very rarely are the two perfectly in sync.

This of course affects the business in all manner of ways, not least hiring and firing.

But this article is less about the impact, instead focusing on the cause.

We’re fine. For now.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I seek to connect with new agency contacts on a regular basis. Most are receptive, others not so much. And that’s fine.

What is fairly consistent is the reason why they don’t want to talk right now:

“Thanks for getting in touch. Looks interesting. However, we’ve just won a couple of big projects, so it’s heads down for the next few months. Let’s catch up later in the year.”

My first reaction is of course ‘congratulations’ – I love nothing more than hearing about agency wins.

But at the same time, I immediately worry on their behalf. There is a high chance they have fallen into the trap of ‘feast or famine’. The next few months will probably go something like this…

  • It’s all hands to the pump to service the new clients. Feast.
  • Business development goes on the back burner.
  • But then, out of the blue, the big paying client they thought would be around forever serves notice. Bugger.
  • And then a couple of big projects come to an end. Double bugger.
  • Someone takes a look at the pipeline report that’s been neglected in recent months. Famine.
  • With not much on the table, they reluctantly take on a client that’s not a great fit. And to boot, the guy is an arse. The team are going to hate this.
  • In response, they chuck some resource at business development.

And so, the cycle continues. Win a client here, lose a client there. Bring on a new hire in one department, let someone else go in another. Revenue (and probably morale) up and down like a yoyo.

Sound familiar?

The secret sauce

When you break it down, business development is very simple. It comes down to doing enough of the right things, consistently well. Always. Even when you’re busy doing other stuff.

If you’re looking for the ‘secret sauce’ when it comes to this new business lark, being consistently consistent is about as close as you’re going to get.

Because if you ignore other factors, such as seasonality, pricing pressures, bad financial decisions or operational issues, the peaks and troughs experienced by most agencies come down to lack of consistency in lead generation. The tap is on one minute and off the next.

Feast. Famine. Feast. Famine. Feast. Famine.

I don’t pretend that keeping the tap running is easy, especially in a small agency with limited or no dedicated resource. But that’s a conversation for another time. If you take anything away for now, keep the tap on. Even a slow drip is better than nothing at all.

There is never a good time. Or is there?

But of course, it’s much harder to keep the tap on if you don’t know who you are trying to talk to.

If you’re like most agencies, you’re probably trying to talk to everyone. Which ironically means you’re talking to no one in particular. This makes it nigh on impossible to be focused with your new business efforts. If consistency is the hero, a lack of clarity on what you do, for who, how and why, is the enemy.

It may sound counterintuitive but the best time to review your approach to new business, from positioning to pitching, is when things are going well.

When the opposite is true, when your pipeline is looking thin, for example, you lack the clarity to make the best, long term decisions. Your focus is inevitably on the next couple of months and paying for that bloody pool table you promised in Q3.

And that increases the likelihood of seeking out easy, short term ‘fixes’. You end up taking on that arse of a client. Or, you throw some money at the telemarketer promising you ten qualified appointments in four weeks. Whatever.

But none of these things address long standing issues. The big stuff – positioning, planning, process, people…and any other word you can think of beginning with ‘p’.

And, so the cycle continues.

The power of choice

Sound strategic decisions and a constantly running tap, will, in time, deliver a consistent pipeline of on-profile opportunities. And you know the best thing about that? Choice.

The choice to say ‘yes’ to the clients that you are best placed to help. But more importantly the choice to say ‘no’ to the prospects that don’t fit. The ones you know are going to be trouble.

When the pipeline isn’t looking so rosy, when there are mouths to feed, that choice might not be available.

So, next time you are thinking about how things are going on the new business front, the question is not ‘how are things looking now?‘ but ‘how are things likely to look in 6 – 12 months?

Because winning business is not necessarily a sign you have things licked. Winning the ‘right’ kind of business, on a consistent basis, and on your terms, is.

Related reading

Explore Econsultancy’s Top 100 Digital Agencies report