Inside the agency new-business dating game

You’re all dressed up. Maybe you wore your uncomfortable-but-beautiful shoes. Maybe you never wear a tie, but you did today. After all, it’s a special occasion: It’s the first time you’re meeting a client.

New-business execs often lambast the scary, uncertain and sometimes-satisfying process that is bringing home a new client — and then hanging on to it. The complaints are many: Search consultants focus too much on an even playing field, clients just don’t understand what the agency is all about, and, of course, flawed compensation models.

But what helps the more seasoned execs navigate the sordid agency nightlife is a solid set of dating skills. “It’s totally like dating. That’s by far the best analogy,” said Lauren Crampsie, worldwide CMO at Ogilvy & Mather. “Statistically speaking, clients don’t use the work that was presented in the pitch. So they’re buying the team and the people. It’s like dating someone.”

Below, just in time for Valentine’s Day, a typical tale of love and courtship in the cut-throat new-business dating scene.

The Tinder profile
People lie online. But where they really get creative is when the prospect of romance hangs in the balance. (A study by the Times found 81 percent of people misrepresented basic facts in their online dating profiles.) In this case, the online dating profile is the client brief, the initial request sent out to agencies before the pitch process officially begins, said Crampsie. “That’s where [the client] will put the stuff they think the agency wants to hear to make themselves look more attractive, like, ‘We’re open to risk-taking. We love living on the edge.'”

Another agency CMO said that the process is rarely reflective of how an agency and a client will actually work together. “The pitch process is your online profile and your first date,” he said.

Deciding whether or not to take on the brief is the fundamental “swipe left or right” of the new business process. Because after that is where the clock starts and money starts being spent. “Either we’re all in, or we’re not. Just like in relationships,” said Crampsie.

The first date
“There has to be natural chemistry,” said one agency CMO. “Sometimes, everyone sits across a table and you get a vibe.”

“Chemistry sessions,” pre-pitch face-to-face meetings are pretty common in the U.K. but are increasingly gaining steam across the pond as well, said Sarah Aitken, Americas CMO at Iris. Despite the nomenclature, the sessions are actually on the wishlist of most new business execs, who complain about not having a lot of interaction with the client before the pitch begins.

“It’s an arranged marriage except even your families haven’t met each other,” said Crampsie. “The absolute biggest flaw is when it’s a procurement-led pitch or one run by a consultant and we’re led in blind. The first conversation pre-RFP is so important.” Not having any client contact pre-pitch is like not having your date’s phone number, said Crampsie.

Aitken added, “The most successful long-term client relationships we have are where the key people running the account really, really like each other.”

Sometimes, right after that chemistry meeting, you know it’s not going to work out. An agency CMO said the biggest dealbreaker is often compatibility. “I’m a funny guy. My group is light-hearted but business-minded,” he said. “Healthy relationships are suited well together. And just like when finding a mate, goals are important. If they want risky work, we should too.”

Going steady
“Definitely don’t go from a couple dates to moving in together,” said the agency CMO. “Maybe they seemed awesome, but they actually leave the cap off the toothpaste in the morning.” Like with deciding to get serious, there is a feeling of missing out on all the other fish in the sea, too. “There is sometimes the feeling that, ‘OMG, I want to date everyone,’ but you have to curb that,” said Aitken.

One thing to watch out for is how many agencies the client has gone through recently. “We call it promiscuity,” said the agency CMO. “Look, I fully understand the pressure marketers are under to have the best ideas. Marketers are pretty people and are always getting approached.” Be sure to look into CMO tenure and the number of agency partners before consummating the relationship.

Keeping the magic alive
The thing about promiscuity in a client-agency relationship is that it often motivates the agency to be their best selves, said the agency CMO. “If you’re in love with someone and you think they might be going on a date with someone else, you’re going to show up with flowers,” he said. “Keep the magic alive. Bring them ideas they didn’t ask for. Push them when you think you’re wrong. Accept when you are.”

He/she cheated. What do I do?
It’s not unheard of. Often an agency of record starts seeing bits of its business float away to new partners, without anybody knowing that it’s happening. “When clients start shopping around, you shouldn’t be surprised,” said Aitken. “That’s why we do a survey that goes out to key clients so we know what’s going on.”

It’s not you, it’s me
Breakups happen. With the average CMO tenure only about 45 months, according to a study by executive recruiting firm Spencer Stuart, agencies know that a long-lasting relationship is rare, since new CMOs most often call reviews very quickly. That’s where past relationships come into play — often, a client who loved you when he worked somewhere else may love you again. So burning bridges isn’t a good thing. “If you have worked with the CMO in the past, you could put yourself at a disadvantage if the end wasn’t pleasant,” said Crampsie.

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