Landing The Big One! What Every Smaller Ad Agency Needs to Know

Winning a really big account can either float a smaller ad agency’s boat, feeding new growth for the agency and employees… or sink it under the weight of client demands and heavy workload. Many of us try to land that big account over the course of our careers, and some of us will have the thrill of successfully hauling in a big money/big name client. Then reality sets in. Here’s an overview of what to anticipate as your agency reels in that big account. First, the upside…

Benefits of Landing The Big One

Landing the Big One is just like landing a big fish—all of a sudden there is enough “food” to go around. Some of the ways the Big One will feed your agency include:

  • Huge gains in agency profile/reputation
  • Bigger budgets offering greater creative opportunity
  • Bigger accounts help attract/recruit higher-level creative talent
  • Bigger accounts attract other big accounts

Stay Thirsty, My Friend…

Landing the Big One definitely attracts other Big Ones, so this is a great opportunity to grow your agency. As soon as you “onboard” any big account, it’s important to move quickly to bring on another… and another. This helps to balance the impact of that first big account in a number of ways… especially in terms of agency finance and management.

The Cost of the Big Account (or Why You Need Money to Earn Money)

In the excitement over your shiny new client, be very careful! Whatever you do, don’t drop the ball on your bread and butter accounts while you spend inordinate amounts of time servicing your big new account. It may be some time before you can recoup the costs in money and time spent to win that new account, so you need to hang on to every old friend and every dollar that comes your way.

Of course, one of the big drivers for landing a big account is to make money for your agency. But big money accounts cost you money before you make money. Beyond the pitch process, there are many up-front costs in gearing up to service a big account. Be aware and be prepared. Make sure you have access to some capital, allowing you to leverage your agency to the next level.

Also be aware that big account service costs can sneak up on you. You may find yourself, and your people spending a little bit more time getting things “just right” each time you work on this account. All of those little bits of time add up quickly. Closely monitor the time spent on the Big One to prevent overages and profit loss.

On average, any new account takes from six months to a year to really settle into the agency relationship. You need to learn their practices and build the relationship; they must adjust to how you work and iron out billing, estimating, approvals, etc. Assuming the all-important chemistry is good, your break-in period should wind down by the end of the relationship’s first year. Until then, you’ll be paying off the pitch costs and amortizing overhead for new staff and equipment needed to service the Big One. So don’t expect to actually start turning a profit until well into your second year.

Do You Need More People?

Years ago, agencies had no choice. You had to hire a few new people just to gear up for that big new account. Concerns over whether or not to hire, and which agency departments or areas needed to “power up” first, gave agency managers more than a few sleepless nights and grey hairs. Fortunately, a more flexible workforce makes staffing a little easier to deal with today. Independent contractors and strategic partnerships may help keep overhead costs under control as you staff up for the new account.

OnBoarding Is a Process in Itself

Many agencies trip up with a big account right at the start. They fail to orient and train the client in agency processes, procedures and practices, and the resulting friction quickly ends the honeymoon. That’s why agencies need to have a set onboarding or orientation process for all new clients, but especially for the Big Ones.

We recommend you create a template-based client training manual in hard copy or e-book format.. Call it “Here’s How to Work with Our Agency.” This standard operating procedures (SOP) guide should include all relevant materials to explain to clients your processes, procedures, forms, contact information, key relationships and preferred billing methods. Also, include survey forms for collecting important information from clients regarding client contacts, their procedures and practices, product and brand information, and anything else that might be useful at the start of the agency-client relationship, and ongoing. Setting the stage for how your relationship will unfold is essential to building a solid and stable relationship with a new client.

Present the “Here’s How” book in a face-to-face meeting to review agency and client SOPs in detail. Make adjustments where necessary; clients may have specific requirements for billing and approvals; your agency must bend where it can to fit with client needs. Finalize the guide based on your discussions and deliver the updated version for client sign-off. This becomes your relationship bible.

Finally, bring together key personnel from agency and client, so each may meet their daily contacts. Ideally, they should attend the SOP meeting; if that is not possible, set a second meeting, perhaps at the agency, to have account service team members get to know their client opposite numbers. Again, chemistry is key to getting off on, and staying on the right foot.

And now, the Downside of The Big One…

As great as those big accounts may seem, they come with certain issues smaller agencies may be ill-equipped to deal with. Here are four to think about.

Your Agency, “A Wholly-Owned Subsidiary”?

The bigger the account is, the greater the chance that client-side folks may be slightly dictatorial. Okay, perhaps more than slightly. The reality is, if you are a smaller shop, the Big One may treat your agency like one of their own departments. Here are a few indicators to watch for:

  • They take an inordinate interest in the specifics of all job billings;
  • They attempt to dictate compensation, payment terms, even hourly rates;
  • They make up more than 30 percent of your overall AGI (read additional considerations [link]);
  • They are jealous if agency time is spent on any clients—i.e., they think they own you (and figuratively, they may).

Guard against becoming their whipping boy, slave labor or pandering personal assistant. Onboarding is about setting boundaries as well as establishing best practices and procedures.

Conflict of Interest

Big Ones often demand that their agency not work with other businesses they deem competitive. Big agencies deal with this by creating “Chinese walls” within their agencies, separating account teams and respecting client confidentiality. Smaller agencies typically don’t have the staff for that kind of walled-off account service. Respectfully address possible service conflicts by working out a process where, if an opportunity arises where a client conflict may occur, you and your large client can meet to discuss it. Don’t cede the right to take an account, nor allow clients to dictate whether you may keep an existing account. Weigh the financial benefits for yourself and decide based on what is in the agency’s best interests, and within the terms of your already-signed client contracts. But be aware that client conflict could cause you to lose the big fish. Read about Client Exclusivity.

Corporate Politics

Oh yes, you will encounter hyper-competitive client personnel who think sabotaging your agency will make your direct contact look bad, and help position someone else to move up the ladder. Your contact may have internal enemies, or not be in good stead with the CEO. You may even find your agency booted because client-side management changed and the new person wants to bring in his own agency. Did we mention the C-suite egos you may have to work with (or around)? This is another reason why you must look for more big accounts when you win your first Big One. Your agency-client relationship is only as stable as the client’s internal corporate politics.

More Bureaucracy

With big clients comes the curse of the corporate world—bureaucracy and all its related paperwork, red tape and mills-of-God processes. If you are not working with upper-level management, you can expect delays in approvals, and way too much committee-driven decision-making. To serve great white client whales, you must be prepared to deal with delays, foot-dragging, procurement departments, and bet-hedging over creative risk-taking. This is either your cup of tea, or the worst drink you’ll ever down. Only you may choose the road you want to follow.

Landing The Big One is a wonderful thing. But you need to keep your feet firmly on the ground, and treat your great white whale like any other new business prospect, assessing its value to your agency beyond profit and reputation. If The Big One looks like a big, exciting opportunity that the entire agency wants and is delighted about, go for it. Just know what you’re getting into, and keep your eyes firmly on the horizon. You don’t want to bring The Big One onboard only to sink your agency fortunes.

See also: Additional Considerations in Pursuing (and Winning) a Big Account