Before running business development teams at large agencies like R/GA, OMD and Havas, I spent over a decade in sales for a range of creative services firms, from branding design to digital advertising. I was on the front lines, generating leads and building relationships that led to new revenue.
I know what a challenge it can be to get the attention of new prospects and win the right kind of business for your agency. It takes hard work, creativity and discipline. But it can also take an outsider’s perspective to help you understand your greatest strengths and how to position them.
You’ll have the benefit of my years of experience in ad agency new business and marketing. Equal parts storyteller and problem-solver, I know how to prescribe the right tools and techniques that will work for your agency and get your prospects to say “yes.”
An Interview with Jody Sutter
Ashley Milne-Tyte, journalist and host of The Broad Experience, a podcast on women, the workplace, and success, recently sat down with Jody Sutter, owner of The Sutter Company, to ask her about why she started her company and how she makes a positive impact on her ad agency clients.
How long have you been doing what you do and how did you get to be a business development expert?
For most of my career I’ve been doing business development and marketing for creative services firms.
I started as a sales rep for a production company. I would literally “dial for dollars,” calling up broadcast producers and creative directors at ad agencies all over the country and persuade them to hire one of our directors to shoot their next commercial (this was when broadcast TV was the most elite, broad-reaching medium your advertising money could buy).
It was super-competitive and my job could be grueling. But in hindsight, it taught me how to be resilient and persistent. And it taught me not to be afraid of selling. This made me extremely valuable years later when I started doing business development for ad agencies. More on that later...
When digital media became a thing, I wisely recognized the business potential and got hired by an early media start-up. It was incredible. We were literally writing the rules of online advertising. Advertisers were desperate to understand anything they could about these new media. It gave us access to the decision makers responsible for marketing at the world’s biggest brands. I discovered a whole new aspect of advertising. Plus, I learned a lot more about pitching. Since we were pioneers in this new medium, we had few direct competitors, but we were selling against fear of the unknown! I learned how to educate my prospects and handle their objections, plus I developed a sense of showmanship.
This led to a stint working for several different digital firms, including what is now one of the biggest, R/GA. At the time, where I was part of a small core team that took the company from an unknown to an elite, sought-after agency.
By this time, I was a well-rounded sales executive, which afforded me an opportunity to work for a range of different creative firms – boutique graphic design firms, global ad agencies, media planning and buying agencies.
Having worked only for small firms at this point, I wanted to find out what it was like to work for a large ad agency. It was a whole new thing for me. I’d been used to doing everything myself at the start-ups and boutique firms I’d worked for in the past. Now, I was managing large pitch teams, sometimes spanning multiple countries. I became skilled at organizing and operations. I developed systems and tools to make our new business discipline efficient. Essentially, my job was to eliminate as much friction and chaos as possible to focus the team on winning.
To these big agencies, I was a rare find—thanks to all those early years dialing for dollars. It’s ironic to me that many ad agency business development people have little to no sales experience—even though they’re responsible for bringing in revenue.
When I started my own firm, my wide-ranging experience was really the thing that makes me valuable to my clients—I could help many kinds of agencies overcome their struggles with business development.
It also coincided with a lifestyle change. I’d decided to move from New York City, where I’d lived and worked for two decades, to East Hampton, one of the villages that comprise The Hamptons, the famous summer destination.
Thanks to technology and a growing acceptance for working with the best despite their location, I spend a lot of time serving my clients from my home office overlooking the harbor. But I also spend a lot of time on the road. There’s still nothing like the productivity you get meeting with someone in-person, and I try to spend as much time visiting with my clients across the country.
Who are your clients exactly?
I’ve specialized to work mainly with small agency CEOs who are underperforming when it comes to winning new business and would like to win consistently but also make the process less chaotic and exhausting for their teams.
Why the focus on CEOs?
Because, whether they know it or not, they are usually the best salespeople their agency has. I’ve developed programs that are easy for busy CEOs and their teams to embrace because they take both the CEO’s strengths and the agency’s available resources into consideration.
The agency business is so fragmented these days. What happens if you haven't yet worked with an agency in a specific advertising discipline?
First, before I work with any new client, I give both of us a chance to assess whether it’s going to be a productive relationship. If it’s not a match, whether because I don’t have experience in their field or for another reason, usually we both know after an initial “get acquainted” call. I’d rather refer a prospect to someone else than take on a project I’m not suited for.
Having said that, I’ve worked in or with so many different types of agencies and creative services firms that there are very few advertising disciplines that are unfamiliar to me.
Besides, the same good business development practices apply to any agency—and most agencies tend to make the same mistakes and struggle with the same challenges.
How are you different from other "business coaches?"
I don’t advocate for just one solution. Some new business consultants take more of a “my way or the highway” approach—to work with them, you must buy into their solution, whether it’s outbound prospecting or content marketing. In contrast, I believe the culture of the agency dictates the best approach.
This can be very reassuring to smaller agencies. Their resources are usually limited and the leaders, especially the CEO, have no choice but to wear different hats. It’s going to require less of an investment and they are going to be more successful if I help them capitalize on their strengths instead of making up for their weaknesses. To take the hat metaphor one step further, I help them figure out which hats fit best and how to wear them.
In other words, if you’ve got a sales culture, then I’ll work with you to develop a great outbound prospecting program. If you’re driven by big ideas, then you’re probably going to be more successful generating leads through a thought leadership campaign.
What type of personality do you work best with and what’s expected of them?
It’s less about personality and more about mindset. The most important thing is their commitment to making a change and doing the work that’s necessary. I’m not a silver bullet! I make it easier by giving you structure and guidance, but you must be willing to do the work too.
However, I also recognize that every situation is different. Sometimes you’re in a good position to dive in and devote a lot of energy to making positive changes. When time is not on your side, you don’t want it to prevent you from seeking the help you need.
My programs were designed with that in mind. They range from coaching sessions, where we can zero-in on an immediate problem, discuss options for a solution, and decide on specific steps to address it, to a year-long New Business Masters program that addresses all components of a healthy new business practice.
For what type of agency is this program NOT going to work?
My approach is not going to work for the small agency CEO who contacts me saying, “I just need more leads” or “I just need to get more meetings with prospects.”
First, more meetings aren’t necessarily better if they’re not with the right kinds of clients. Also, in my experience, a lack of new business meetings is usually a symptom of an underlying disease.
Once I probe a bit, I find that there are often a bunch of other problems that need to be addressed before the agency can easily get those desired meetings.
What do those problems tend to be?
Undifferentiated positioning, poorly defined target prospects, inconsistent and counterproductive marketing materials, and an inadequate approach to nurturing prospects, to name a few.
If I can’t get them to see that these problems need to be solved before any kind of lead generation can be successful, I’m not the consultant for them.
Also, in the rare cases that they do just need to generate more leads, then there are other firms that are much better suited to help them. I’m always happy to refer them to lead gen firms I like and trust and sometimes I’ll even partner with those firms to offer a client a more complete solution.
What results do the agencies you work with typically see?
If they do the work, they close more business with the right kinds of clients. They can attract more inbound leads rather than enduring competitive pitches. And, when they do decide to take part in a competitive pitch, the process to be smoother and less chaotic because they’ll have good tools and systems in place.
I got a call the other day from a client who told me that, because of the path I set him on, his agency grew revenue by 119% and saw a huge increase in profit from the same point last year.
Our work together got him to focus on pursuing the kinds of projects that would have the biggest impact on revenue and that strategy paid off.
When an agency is ready to work with you, what does that look like?
I offer four different programs:
- New Business Masters – a year-long program that systematically improves all aspects of business development
- Fast-track Audit – a one-day workshop that results in a plan an agency can implement itself
- Pitch Fix – when an expert is needed to give an agency a competitive edge in a pitch situation
- Individualized coaching – one-on-one sessions that address specific issues and get that get my clients focused on the right solution
I also work on a custom basis. Sometimes an agency is facing challenges that may not be completely addressed by the programs above. In that case, I can design a custom program for them.
So, for agencies that are ready to get started with you, I imagine the first step is the get-acquainted call you mentioned, right?
It sounds like you offer some pretty transformational stuff. I imagine there are a lot of agencies that would love to work with you. But, if they’re not ready for the commitment, how can they get to know you and even sample your work to see if it's the right solution?
Anyone is welcome to sign up for my monthly newsletter, which offers free tips on how to make new business efforts more successful. They can also visit my blog where I have a useful archive of posts from the last few years. And you can also visit my YouTube channel to watch videos and webinars on a range of new business topics, from writing more persuasively to creating an annual plan for business development.