If you’re like most ad agencies, new business is always top-of-mind. Perhaps you’ve heard that some agencies’ new business systems have achieved a stunning 20 percent annual growth rate. And we all know some agencies that have closed shop. The herd is thinner these days, but for some reason new business isn’t any easier. Some things are easier said than done. Setting up a new business development program is one of those things.

Agency leaders are challenged with a host of issues: indecisive clients, grumpy staff, tardy vendors, and more. Somehow these always seem to fill your day, and your new business development gets pushed to the back burner. Again. The last thing you should worry about is working on new business. So follow these steps and get your program up and running, once and for all. There are eight steps to setting up an effective new business development program.

Build brand congruence

Know who you are and what your firm stands for. Have a point of view, and express it clearly. It’s a given that most agencies have the “look” down pat, but in today’s world you need to go the extra mile. Develop great content — something your prospects are interested in, something that will connect them with your brand. Provide value — something that helps prospects define a problem and something perhaps your firm understands better than others. It really helps if your brand can identify needs within a targeted group of prospects in order to educate them, separating you from the hundreds of generic “highly creative integrated” marketing firms.

Identify your prospects

In order to grow, you must have a strong database filled with potential new clients (i.e., prospects). It’s always shocking to learn just how many agencies rely on a handful of contacts in the president’s Outlook or a few entries in an Excel spreadsheet. It really helps new business development to focus on who you want to work with. I suggest for most agencies a working list of around 400 to 600 contacts in various stages of relationships, from cold to hot. Have a robust customer relationship management (CRM) program to monitor and track each prospect: where they came from, what you’ve sent, cold, warm, or hot, etc.

Build an outreach system

Develop an awareness-building system aimed at prospects using all the available tools: email, Twitter, LinkedIn, direct mail, phone, etc. Follow up on all contact with personal touches, telephone calls, letters, and emails, focused on creating relationships with prospects. In other words, don’t badger or stalk. Stay in contact with prospects throughout the year with gentle nudging using articles, white papers, activities, and categorical information of interest. Don’t push, don’t sell, and never pre-visit when there is no need. The ultimate goal is to find an opportunity to visit the prospect when there is a need. Nothing good happens in new business until you sit across the desk from a prospect with a need.

Track progress

New business development is all about generating leads. And you need data to monitor your progress. CRM tools help track and measure all your new business efforts, touchpoints, and progress, but the key metric is how many leads are generated. Use weekly reports to track progress and identify where and how leads are generated. If you have an effective outreach program running, you should see an uptick in what we call “blue birds,” or leads that just drop in your lap. You should also see an increase in the number of RFPs or formal reviews you’re invited to respond to (not that you should respond to each one) and perhaps some prospects who just want to stop in for a quick tour. These are all metrics you should track as a way to measure your progress and are a byproduct of effective awareness building.

Handle leads the right way

It’s one thing to generate leads; it’s something else altogether to close them. You’ve put so much effort into creating this opportunity, so it must be handled properly. Understand how to build trust so the prospect will discuss his or her situation with candor and openness. Identify opportunities where your agency can be of service. Clarify the selection and the creative approval processes, discuss timing, and find the budget. Set the prospect up for a fast close if possible. Get invited into a formal selection process if appropriate. Make your agency easy to hire. Clearly understand what the next steps in the relationship will be. Don’t drop the ball!

Do a chemistry litmus test

I can’t stress the importance of chemistry in new business enough. From outreach to closing the account, chemistry can help or hurt your chances to win. Your agency must always work to indentify and profile the prospect. Evaluate all of your touchpoints, and make sure you’re matching the prospect’s view of the world. Are they focused on results? Or process? Or are they the warm and friendly type that likes to sit and chat? Something as simple as accepting a cup of coffee while on an interview can end your chances. And you’ll never hear back from them and have no idea why. After all this work, don’t blow it with a stupid mistake.

Widen your circle

Connect your brand with key influencers in your market. If you have an area of focus, deepen that area by speaking at events, publishing articles, or writing a book — whatever you can do to enhance the awareness of your brand and you. If you have no focus or expertise, start by reconnecting with current and past clients. Reach out to friends, family, and vendors, and ask for leads. Be sure to have a compelling brand message including what you are looking for and how you can help. Host an event and showcase your brand with the second level influencers: printers, photographers, media reps, vendors, and more. After you get the basics up and running, there are many ways to create a ripple effect. Use them. Never sit still.

Always be refining the process

Hold monthly review meetings to check on your progress: how many prospects touched or nudged, converted from awareness-building to relationships, how many leads, RFPs, blue birds. Always check your progress and catch any drift early in the process. There is nothing worse than setting up a whole program only to generate leads with a bunch of worthless prospects — or having a disconnect with your brand that drives prospects away. The key is to always be looking for opportunities to modify elements of your business development strategy by improving, adapting, and taking advantage of any changes in the market. A competitor loses a big client and is struggling? Perhaps a special push with some of its current clients is in order.

The bottom line

Setting up a new business development program just doesn’t happen overnight. It takes careful planning and the willingness to always be refining. The old line about “ad agencies don’t really have any clients, they only borrow them for a bit” is truer today than ever. You must always be building awareness and relationships with new prospects. And that takes setting up and running a consistent new business program — if you want to grow, that is.