Play new business like poker, tight, aggressive.

Claire Beale’s article in Campaign asks how does an agency grow in time of gloom?  And I agree with the answer which is, to do award-winning work as suggested by Dave Trott.

Because award-winning agencies attract ambitious people, who will be upping the agency’s game even further. Although the current state of awards have taken some kickings  here and here (by Dave Trott). Awards aren’t what they were.

But I am not so sure about the dilemma of whether to go for new clients or growing current ones and whether an agency cannot do both?  It made me think about bad beats in poker, no really it did.

I have had some real bad beats in business  but as the video notes, you don’t care, nobody does, so I won’t be telling you about those. Boring!

I have however made so many huge mistakes when it comes to qualifying prospects that is makes me shiver just thinking about it.  That is how I learned about bad beats and how to handle them and the difference between plain old beats and bad beats.

My ‘real’ problem was like agencies that I have worked with (I have never worked in one be warned) was that they were playing hands they should have folded and NOT bad beats at all. Just plain old beats.

I was playing bad hands, doh!. I should have mucked my cards. Thrown ’em away. Chucked out…Instead I was saying it was a bad beat when really it wasn’t. So, no more!

A bad beat in poker is a hand you played which you should have won but didn’t.  ANNOYING! When you lose such a hand it is very easy to go on what is called ‘Tilt’.  So what can we learn about bad beats and going on Tilt and apply it to new business programmes today?

Let me tell you why I think agencies could use a lot of thinking from poker and maybe the opposite of what you are expecting or different at least.  Poker players are not the big risk takers you may think and neither do good agencies need to be. Poker players calculate odds of winning, are level-headed, play fewer hands than most and win in the long run by making good decisions. Like good agencies?

Let me just cover bad beats quickly in poker so we are crystal clear where I am coming from.

A bad beat is a hand in poker you should have won. Should have won because of odds.  Probability and odds are very important in poker. Far more important than the psychology that is played up in films or T.V..  Being able to calculate odds quickly is a key part of the game. And there are different odds you need to be able to work out the key ones being, pot odds, implied odds and outs.

So the most common bad beats poker players bang on about is having your aces cracked.  You are dealt two aces (AA), the best starting hand in texas hold-em.  You play them slow because you think you are some kind of stud like a James Bond villain and another player starting with a lesser hand say a Queen and a 7 (Q7) beats you.  The lesser hand hits two more sevens on the flop and now has three of a kind and you only have a pair even if they are aces and then he goes onto win the pot.  Unlikely as it seems this happened and you get all ‘Tilty’.   Now what is important here is what happened was unlikely. And that is a fact.

The odds on AA winning was 85% ish (to be exact you need to know the suits of the aces) and only 15% ish of losing or Q7 winning, same difference (Poker calculator here for those that are interested). That is why you would feel gutted. It hurts. Why me… etc.

The important point to realise is that the player with the Aces played it properly yet lost but over time he we will win, win , win..  Over time AA will beat Q7  about 6 to 1 times.  This is important in poker as in agency life.  The important thing is to make good decisions based on all the info you can gather. And if they don’t work out realise you made a good decision and move on. Poker is about making the right decisions, call, raise or fold.

A quick aside too many agencies ‘call’ metaphorically speaking, when they should be ‘folding’ or ‘raising’ when talking with a prospect. Call is passive.

Going on tilt or steaming in the poker world means you lose your cool. You feel cheated by the poker Gods, agitated, aggressive and are likely to start making even dumber decisions to get revenge or make yourself feel better. You want to stick all your chips in the next hand for the hell of it or leave the table.

We have all been like this when a business win slips away, right, it can’t just be me can it?.  Quick hide the cat!  When you are steaming leave the agency for a walk, go to the pub (my fav), scream, go to the gym, do what you have to do to calm down.  Most importantly don’t take it personally (easier said than done) and don’t make any decisions about important matters while tilting.

So how do we know when we are ahead when meeting a prospective client.  When are odds good.  Well firstly we can’t be as exact as in poker.  But here are some tell tell signs and they may help you avoid going on tilt.

Here are some ways to tell that you are ahead. Good starting hands.

  • The prospect came to your agency via a referral who is already a client of yours. (85% of marketing directors when appointing an agency choose one that has been referred, this was a figure from a Marketing Society report which I have now lost – if anyone can find it, I’d love a copy, I have loads of other that quote this figure between 65% and 90%)
  • A marketing director who worked with you before comes to you in his new role because you did good work in the past for her, maybe award-winning!
  • A prospect comes to you because of something they read you had written and is on the same wave length as you strategically.  A book would be a golden referral.
  • The prospect has been referred to you by someone who used to be a client of yours and you did good work for them.
  • You are approached by an experienced buyer who has commissioned well-known great work and is re-known for hiring great agencies.
  • The CEO has requested to meet you and will attend meeting 1.
  • You are approached by a prospect that saw you speak at an event / conference and agrees with your thinking.

There are others but these are good places to start. And they are starts only. You may find half way through the process more information which means you should fold or that your position improves.

Way to tell you are not ahead. Bad starting hands.

  • A junior person at the brand approaches you with a RFI.
  • The prospect says they found you on google and would like to know a price.
  • The prospect found you on google and say something like, I liked your site or your case study and would like you to come in and meet a junior person first and see how it goes.
  • The prospect sends overs the brief and asks for it back in 3-5 days without ever meeting you. If they wont meet, consider a fold.
  • They will cram you on to the 5 agency pitch to make it 6 without meeting you or only meeting you once because of <insert reason>. Or you bully your way on.
  • An e-mail from out of the blue comes with a brief , RFI, RFP, etc and a deadline to respond and nobody at the brand knows why you were selected.
  • You approached the prospect via a cold call DM or e-mail and they agreed to give you the brief too.  Or that you can pitch at the last-minute. You may be cannon fodder.
  • You don’t know what is wrong with the incumbents work. Exactly what is wrong.
  • You meet an in-experiences buyer, who bangs on about price all the time.

Like poker you are more likely to have a losing hand than a winning one, when there is more than two players in the game.

Be tight aggressive

There is a type of player in poker called tight aggressive.  What this mean is that they only play a low range of hands.  They play high pairs (AA, KK, QQ), high connectors ((AK, KQ, QJ, J10) and the occasional low suited connectors (67 hearts etc) and when they play them they bet big they stick all their effort in to them.

These players look after their chips and play when they have good odds of winning and have a tradition of doing very well in poker. Poker is complicated so you can’t be tight all the time but business isn’t poker.  You can ask questions of your prospects.  Poker players do this by looking for tells but that is another story.

My advice in the current climate is to look after your pot and play tight aggressive.  Look after your clients by implementing measurable client servicing programmes devised in collaboration with your clients.  You both need to know what success looks like. There is never a good excuse for losing a client out of the blue.

Consider going for new business depending on a) how the prospect approaches you or b) knowing your odds on winning are low and are willing to risk that cost and going on tilt when you lose, when you really should have folded.

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