As I mentioned in my introductory post, Winning The Pitch by Being First, Fast and Fabulous, chasing after any big piece of new business starts with thorough due diligence. And the bigger and more potentially lucrative the account, the more you must know about the company and its leadership…quickly and insightfully. Nowhere is this more critical than the event marketing business.
In the mid-2000s I was recruited to the post of Director of New Business for Passage Events (now rebranded as Rally Marketing), at the time one of the nation’s largest event marketing agencies headquartered in Seattle. Though my official title was Director of Direct Marketing Services (to bypass gatekeepers), I was essentially the cold-caller who got the appointments and first meetings that eventually led to the team hauling in the new accounts. From scratch. No leads, no referrals, no nothing. Yet for my part, what made for an easy sell was our category dominance, instantly validated by our dream-list of clients I’d rattle off in my 20 second elevator speech—most of which were the largest consumer brands in the world—Starbucks, Safeway, General Foods, Visa, MasterCard, Ameriprise, Ford, and others.
By New York standards we were a small shop of 90 employees under one roof officing in hip digs on the edge of Seattle’s International District. Our modest size made us nimble. But when you added up the remote brand ambassadors contracted and trained by Passage—who engaged thousands of event attendees by passing out direct mail, telephone or web-activated coupons along with samples of branded coffee beverages, beef and sports drinks along the highways and byways of the nation’s metro areas—our numbers swelled to nearly 4,000.
As such, it wasn’t too hard a task to do what I do best (but what most biz dev guys loathe simply because they lose patience far too quickly). What was that all important task?
The Approach—reading the water, knowing the currents, choosing the right lure, fly or bait. And casting. Then waiting for a bite. Then casting again. And again. And again. That uncomely thing known as cold-calling.
Like a true sportsman, no one made this part of business development more fun and exciting than my boss, Larry Weil (yes, the one and only “Sponsorship Guy” from Dallas–www.thesponsorshipguy.com). Larry and I were an indomitable team, partly because he was super-skilled, and because he liked me and appreciated my dirty work of cold-calling that most senior executives just won’t do. And his confidence in me was palpable, and ever so important when I’d occasionally hit a months-long dry spell where I couldn’t seem to get a nibble from a prospect.
But beyond the confidence Larry instilled in me, he invested in the best tools money could buy to ensure my success—online subscriptions to Hoover’s, Dun & Bradstreet, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He even hired a sketch artist so we could present brand strategy, offer and audience activation concepts to potential new clients—often with no more than 24 hours notice.
Those tools were a godsend and paid off in spades when, in the spring of 2006, he tasked me to blitz the nation’s largest magazine publishers to present our subscription activation strategies to their in-house Circulations Directors. To my own surprise, within 30 days I had appointments with Publishers and Circulation Directors at Gannett / USA Today, Time-Life, Hearst, Hachette Filipacchi, Martha Stewart Omni Media, Reader’s Digest, Sunset / Southern Living, Men’s Health, Rolling Stone and many others.
Yet despite wielding the best tools that opened exciting doors before competitors could get a whiff of the potential new business opportunities we were unlocking under the radar, sometimes those opportunities fell flat, as they one time in particular when we initiated a highly focused newspaper and magazine prospecting blitz targeting Manhattan-based publishers. Even with an incredible 80% success rate cold-calling and getting appointments with the world’s largest magazines, after a brutally sweltering week the summer of 2006 our outreach yielded a single paltry account—Better Homes and Gardens (the magazine was far from paltry…it was our closing rate that sucked). Though our value proposition and book of business may have impressed our prospects, we shortly discovered that precious few would take the bait. In fact, we were told almost verbatim by numerous publishers that our subscription acquisition model was financially flawed, that “No publisher in their right mind is going to pay $50 per sub to generate $20 annual in first year subscription gross revenue.”
Sadly, about a year later Larry left Seattle to start Sponsorship Universe in the not-so-greener pastures of Dallas. In the vacuous wake of his sorely missed leadership, I forced myself to step back and take stock of my then lack-luster new business work. Sure, I’d proven I could get appointments with high-level publishing and entertainment executives. I could even present them with an innovative subscription acquisition model. But how could I get these potential Passage Events clients to invest in a unique, event-based subscriber acquisition model that made financial sense?
We couldn’t change the cost of intercepting, engaging and activating subscribers at live events by offering magazines. Our current model only yielded a lop-sided if not upside down ROI. But what about other subscription products? What about offering a monthly subscription for a service that delivered something far more valuable to consumers. What content might customers be willing to pay substantially more for, thereby mitigating Passage Events’ high subscription activation cost and making the model profitable in the first subscription year?
After thinking and brainstorming with my team, then digging some more, it didn’t take long to stumble upon the entertainment category and delivery mechanism that held the key to financial viability with event-based customer engagement and activation.
By the mid-2000s the cable industry was in slight decline from its peak in 2000. After some quick Hoover’s research I concluded cable was a perfect target for our event-based subscription acquisition model. I learned who the big guys were, who was succeeding (on the distribution side) and who wasn’t…all in a matter of an hour.
More importantly, the same day while searching for scuttlebutt on cable I read some game-changing news in the Wall Street Journal. I discovered that cable’s step-sister industry and arch-rival—Satellite TV—had just been slapped with the largest civil penalty in FTC history. The penalty was a whopping $5.3 million fine for violating federal telemarketing laws by its behemoth star company—DirecTV.
But why, I pondered, would DirecTV bet the farm on a surly marketing discipline famous for aggressive tactics that often led to class action law suits? They were pitching nearly every home in America to switch to DirecTV—from cable, Dish TV, or rabbit ears! They used it because it worked. Until it didn’t.
If knowledge is a precursor to power, this new revelation gave it to me in spades. With some more fast digging I learned that DirecTV was desperate to replace their now abandoned go-to subscription acquisition strategy with something—anything—that would keep funneling a steady flow of new customers into their subscriber base to prevent them from losing market share. So with this ah-ha moment I went to work. Within 24 hours I had a 1-page plan full of bullet points to keep them on the map as the biggest satellite TV company in North America.
The Big Idea? An innovative activation concept never before attempted by them—or any cable company—so we were later told.
The activation strategy I ultimately presented to the Senior VP of Sales and Marketing punched our team’s ticket to present a proposal that called for DirecTV to purchase a fleet of Hummers, dress them up in branded “wraps” and cruise beaches, outdoor concert venues, fairs and parades. At each event our DirecTV (Passage Events) brand ambassadors would fan out into the crowds, tablets in hand, to capture emails that enabled us to bounce-back a screaming introductory DirecTV deal within 24 hours. It was a huge hit.
Cool as it was, the strategy is not the point here. What’s important is the chase…the approach—the idea of being fast and first. The fabulous part may well have been the DirecTV Hummer sketches we presented to the SVP. But the fast and first part was the critical approach phase–doing the research fast, coming up with the strategy fast, based on discovering the prospect’s main pain point—and being first. That meant weeks of calling and emailing, calling and emailing until I got the SVP’s attention and agreement to meet with me.
Winding up the story, wen I did finally get a return phone call from the SVP, he was on his way to Las Vegas to attend the CES (Consumer Electronics Show). Fortuitously, so was I but for a different conference. Yet as providence would have it, three days later I met him in an empty, dark banquet room at Caesar’s Palace, sketches and laptop in hand—and finally set the hook hard and fast. With stellar follow up by the new account team in the following week, we won the business without any other agency having a clue there were millions in billings and fees up for grabs with the DirecTV account.
So, what did I learn from this prospect and outreach…and what can you take-away from this story?
- Do your homework. Make sure you know a lot more than anyone else about a prospect, including a SWOT assessment through your research.
- If you don’t have the right tools to do the research, ask your boss to buy them. If he/she says no, find another job, or another boss. You won’t succeed without proper insights of your prospect.
- Be lightning fast. This applies to follow up phone calls, emails or any communication to a prospect that reinforces the message “This guy is a pro…thorough and fast.”
- Have a strong, supportive team. That means people who will treat qualified prospects with the same tender care and feeding as when you were chasing them. And they’re eager (but not overly so) to take on the mantle of leadership of the new account, yet still listening to you as you help them with the ownership transition. If not, go to #2…get another job, or another team to back you.
In my next post we’ll talk about chasing the 2010 Winter Olympics account, and how being fast, first and fabulous means saddling up with strategic partners to ensure success in grabbing low hanging new business fruit before your competitors even start looking for trees.