Winning Clients: Steps to Building Your Client List

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Ogilvy On Advertising" by David Ogilvy. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How can you go about winning clients for your ad agency? What’s the best way to get clients?

There are a few key strategies to start winning clients over to your agency. Whether clients come to you or you seek them out, you need to have a way to win them over to your agency.

Read more about winning clients and the best strategies.

Finding and Winning Clients

In the previous chapter, we looked at some basics of how to manage an agency. Now, we’ll look at how to make the agency successful by finding new clients. You used to be able to get clients by bringing them along when you left your job to start a new agency. At the time of writing, however, this was no longer possible because you would get sued. 

Now, to get clients, you have to find new ones. Here’s how to get clients for advertising agencies.

How Clients Look for Agencies

The first step to winning clients is finding them. At the time of publishing, companies were starting to change how they looked for agencies. This was their process:

  • Send a long questionnaire to the agencies they’re interested in.
  • Short-list agencies based on the questionnaire.
  • Visit the agencies and ask about the commission.
  • Invite the agencies to make a commercial for them.
  • Compare the commercials and choose the agency that makes the best one.

This process is flawed for several reasons:

  • The questionnaires ask irrelevant questions. For example, one asked how many people worked in the print production department.
  • Commission shouldn’t be given so much weight—an agency’s competence is more important.
  • The process doesn’t consider past work or track record.
  • Skilled agencies that don’t have the time and money to jump through hoops don’t win accounts, which is bad for both the agency and the client.
  • It doesn’t consider the leader. There aren’t that many differences between agencies—most of them successfully increase their clients’ sales and have competent staff—so the leader is often the major factor. For example, many accounts chose Foote, Cone & Belding because they liked Fax Cone. 

Winning Clients

The best and easiest way to get new clients is to produce good advertising for the clients you already have. Then, you can show your successful work to other potential clients, which helps with winning clients.

  • For example, during a seven-year period, Ogilvy got every single account he competed for just by showing them the campaigns he’d done for his other clients. In fact, clients even came to him—one day, a man came into the office and offered him the IBM account.

There are three other ways to attract new clients:

Option #1: Presentations

Winning clients means having great presentations. When a client is interested in your agency, give them a presentation to convince them they want to hire you.

Here are some tips for a successful presentation:

  • Keep the presentation budget reasonable. Some agencies spend up to half a million dollars presenting to clients, and they’d need to keep the account for 20 years to recover this.
  • Mix up the seating so that your team and the client’s team are integrated.
  • Practice your presentation.
  • Don’t read off your notes.
  • Listen to the client. You’re evaluating the client as much as they’re evaluating you—you don’t want to take on someone who will be difficult.
    • For example, Ogilvy was lectured for two hours by a Magnavox head and decided he didn’t want to work with him.
  • Admit your weaknesses before the client notices them. This will make it seem like you’re being honest about your strengths.
  • Don’t talk too much about stats—they won’t interest your client.
  • The day after the presentation, send a three-page letter that summarizes why the client should choose your agency.

Option #2: Advertising Your Agency

Interestingly, few advertising agencies actually advertise their own services. (Ogilvy thought that this might be because the partners have conflicting ideas of what to emphasize.)

The most effective way to advertise an agency is by mailing ads directly to clients. Space advertising can work too, but it needs to be done consistently to have any effect. (For example, Young & Rubicam advertised in Fortune for four decades.)

Remember that your existing clients will see these ads, and if your house ads are better than what you produce for them, you’ll hear about it. This is one way to learn how to get clients for advertising agencies.

Option #3: Multinational Accounts

If you can get an account that also advertises in foreign countries, you might be able to get it worldwide. 

  • For example, when Ogilvy got the Shell account, the president of Shell asked if he wanted the Canadian account. Ogilvy didn’t have an office in Canada but started one.

However, some countries don’t allow foreign agencies to operate in order to protect their culture from foreign influence. (For example, Nigeria once expelled all foreign agencies.) This logic is unsound, according to Ogilvy, because many of the people who work for foreign agencies are locals, not Americans, so there’s no chance of them projecting American culture.

If All Else Fails

If you struggle at winning clients, you can try buying accounts by buying agencies, but this doesn’t always lead to results. For example, Lennan & Newell bought enough agencies to increase its billings by 500%, but the company became so unwieldy and combative that it went bankrupt.

No matter how many difficulties you have attracting clients, don’t give outsiders commissions for getting you clients—you’ll lose too much money. For example, when Ogilvy’s agency was just starting out and he was desperate, he offered a man 10% of the company’s stock if he could get a vacuum-cleaner account to sign with his company. The man didn’t accept the offer, which was fortunate for Ogilvy, because by the time of writing, 10% of his stock was worth $19 million.

Now that you know how to get clients for advertising agencies, you can begin building your client list.

Winning Clients: Steps to Building Your Client List

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Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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