Understanding the business of a prospect’s business

A survey of 209 business-to-business marketers by BtoB Magazine confirmed what most of us already knew anyway: when it comes to selecting a new agency, nearly two-thirds said demonstrating an understanding of the business/sector was their number one criterion. That was followed by chemistry (a surprisingly low 17.9 percent), creative and pricing.

The big ‘ah ha’ for the BtoB editorial staff was the relative unimportance of creative in a prospect’s decision-making process. They quoted several client-side spokespeople who said creative is important, but not the be-all and end-all of a pitch.

Having led and been involved in countless pitches over the years, I’ve seen different takes on creative’s role in decision-making. Several Fortune 500 companies have hired us simply for our creative ideas and, in fact, went out of their way to say that industry experience and knowledge of their business was not only unimportant, but a detriment since they were tired of the "same old, same old."

On the other hand, we’ve lost pitches because we presented too many, pie-in-the-sky ideas that didn’t tie together or resonant with the prospect’s short-term needs.

The big survey surprise for me was the low ranking of chemistry. In my opinion, chemistry shares equal billing with "understanding a prospect’s business." And, it definitely trumps every other consideration. Sure, industry expertise, creative and other factors are key, but clients want to work with a team they like, respect and sense will be "fun" to work with. At least, I know I would if I were in the prospect’s shoes.

New business presentations are like first dates. You certainly want to look and sound your best, but you also want to listen and empathize. In fact, we believe the more a prospect talks in a new business presentation, the better chance we’ll have (we call it the 51 percent solution). That said, once the relationship begins, results (or lack thereof) will trump chemistry every time.

So, for what it’s worth, I’d counsel agencies to study the BtoB survey, but not overreact to it. You might win the "understanding" battle, but end up losing the "chemistry" war.

One thought on “Understanding the business of a prospect’s business

  1. I am not surprised by the survey results at all. Having spent a good deal of time on both sides of the fence, the real value always came from being/having a business partner first and a creative resource second.
    No matter how over-the-top creative the ideas are, if you constantly find yourself explaining your business, and hence, your objectives, to your counsel, the relationship becomes stressful, confidence sinks and the business partnership breaks down.
    I agree with you on the chemistry part. But again, a big component of chemistry is confidence and trust – both of which fail if the business understanding isn’t there.
    I’ve been in many situations where a “big gun” was hired to come in to the Board with big ideas, but they inevitably ended up with the Big Gun storming out because she couldn’t understand that her ideas just weren’t compatible with the business.
    The best creative is always built on deep understanding of the business.