Business development has changed rapidly over the last two years…
It can be hard to know if you’re making the right moves to grow…
You’re not sure how to get invited for a pitch—or maybe you’re not sure which pitches are even worth your time…
What are the top agencies of today doing to build referral networks that produce an ongoing flow of opportunities?
Amy Mierzwinski of WHITE64 is here to share her expertise on business development—and reveal how you can get new clients without ever having to do a pitch again.
Mentioned in this episode:
Voiceover: This is Performance Delivered, Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success with Steffen Horst and Dave Antil.
Steffen Horst: Welcome to the Performance Delivered Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success podcast, where we talk with marketing and agency executives and learn how they build successful businesses and their personal brand. I’m your host, Steffen Horst. The topic for today’s episode is business development. Here to speak with me is Amy Mierzwinski, who is the VP of Business Development at WHITE64 and WHITE64 Studios. Amy has over 15 years of marketing and brand management experience for a range of lifestyle, hospitality, and experiential clients. Leveraging her background in digital marketing and brand development, she works closely with clients to reinvigorate brands building revenue and loyalty. Her client experience includes ACCOR, Hilton, [solidcore] and the Starwood Preferred Guest loyalty program. Amy, welcome to the show.
Amy Mierzwinski: Hey, thanks for having me.
Steffen: Now, Amy, before we dive deeper into business development, and how to win new clients, tell our listeners a little bit more about yourself. How did you get started in your career and what brought you to WHITE64 and to your current position?
Amy: Okay, it’s a little bit of a journey. So I guess I’ll start back at the beginning. But I majored in advertising in college. I always knew I wanted to go into the advertising business, I just thought it was so creative and fun. And that, you know, would just be thinking up cool random ideas all the time. I really didn’t understand it at the time. You know, the level of effort that goes into those, you know, creative strategies. But I took an internship, actually a small boutique agency in London, coming out of college, and I just kind of fell in love with travel and decided when I got back to the states that I was going to, you know, try to do something in like travel marketing and advertising to kind of put together my personal and professional pens.
And I ended up at a marketing consultancy that later was acquired by a local advertising agency. And I really was doing just account management. I managed all of our travel and hospitality accounts. And from there, I decided to get a master’s in Hospitality Management. And after that, I went and did client side for hotel company doing marketing and public relations for two of their properties that were under renovation and figured out that I hate working on the client side, that’s not where my skill set is. I’m an agency girl. That’s where I want to be. That’s my happy space.
So after I relaunched these two properties, I left and went back agency side and was actually working in the client’s office for on their loyalty press PG, as one of their account leads. And, you know, they ended up merging and being acquired by Marriott. And I left shortly after that, to do consulting. So I was doing marketing consulting, still in the hospitality space. And, you know, it was lovely getting to work on a bunch of different brands and traveling all the time. But, you know, you’d put the marketing plan and recommendations and you’d hand it off to your client.
And then they’d go off and do whatever with your plan and not really see it through all the time or not see it through the way that you would want it. So I decided I wanted to leave and go back to the agency world. But I definitely kind of took pause and said like, is this really what I want to do? And if I do go back to the agency space do I have to work in travel. Like I’ve kind of put myself in this very sort of niche space. And I wasn’t sure that that’s where I wanted to stay. So I ended up at WHITE64.
And I was started as an account director overseeing our line of business and you know, travel and sort of what we call travel and leisure. So I enjoy doing that. I grew our relationship with Hilton, one of our big accounts, and eventually was promoted to do business development for the agency as a whole. So now I work across all of our client verticals from not just travel, but financial services, government and advocacy. Those are sort of our core client verticals that we focus on for business growth and acquisition. And that’s how I ended up here.
Steffen: Now Amy, business development has two sides, right. It’s about going after new clients. And then it’s also looking at the portfolio you already have of clients and looking at how can we strengthen relationships. How can we grow relationships? And then therefore also grow revenue from clients? Let’s start off with the growing revenue from existing clients. How do you approach that? How do you work across the clients that you already have to identify which clients have opportunities to grow?
Amy: Yeah, I mean, I think for us, it’s almost sort of natural in the way that we do our business, a lot of clients we’ll bring in on a project basis at first. And we do that knowing that, you know, if we can get them for just one project, and really knock their socks off, we’ll put in, you know, above and beyond the, like, scoped level of effort to really wow them. And then from there, we know that there’s an opportunity for bigger, more lucrative opportunities down the line.
I’ll work with our group account director, and to the different teams to say like, okay, I’m bringing in this lead, but here’s their sort of this and where their growth is happening, and where the areas of opportunity are. And kind of work with them as they develop proposals for new business, within those existing accounts. And kind of, you know, if we know that they’ve got multiple partners, we’re full service, so if we know that they’re coming to us just for video production, for example, which is how a lot of our new business comes in, because of our studio.
We’ll say, well, they’re also buying media with these guys, or they’re also, you know, have web development, digital with this other group, how can we kind of start to bring in those lines of service into our fold. And a lot of it is just through the relationship, and even just offering little things like an SEO audit to get them to bring us in as their web partner. Or, you know, saying like, okay, there, this person is buying, you know, your more traditional media, maybe we can come in and handle digital for you. But starting to chip away at those other relationships, so we can kind of grow our scope with them.
Steffen: Understood. Now, we’re still in the pandemic, we’re at the end of the pandemic at this point. But obviously, over the last two to three years, the pandemic has had a huge impact on the economy, run, how companies are growing or not growing. From a business development perspective for agencies, what have you seen over the last two to three years? Have things changed? Has there been a different approach successful? Talk about that a little bit.
Amy: Yeah, I think even in the last year, we’ve seen a lot of change. You know, 20, for us, in particular, 2021 was our best year ever. And I don’t think that’s novel to WHITE64. We’ve seen that in a lot of agencies that just had a boom in 2021. More pitches and more business leads coming in, everybody had cash to burn coming out of the pandemic, and wanted to spend it finally, on marketing and branding and video work and things of that nature. So we’re very lucky in that, you know, the floodgates were sort of open, especially towards the end of 2021.
And even in the beginning of 2022, I was taking, you know, two to three new business calls or like referrals from different clients or vendors almost every week. Now, a lot of those didn’t pan out. But there were just so many people in the market looking for agency services. And that’s really started to slow a little bit. You know, one of our big prospects told me that they’re holding off on the agency search until 2023, and that they’ve started to kind of cut back on their marketing budgets, due to fears of the recession. So I think some of this, like inflation and recession talk is going to impact, you know, that sort of just almost organic leads that were coming through. And now we’re gonna have to be a little bit more aggressive and strategic in how we prospect.
Steffen: Now, you just mentioned that you got a good amount of referrals in over the last year, year and a half. Was that the only source for growth that you saw, or were there others? Was the pandemic really the only reason, or were there other reasons that kind of drove that?
Amy: No, I think referrals for us, as an agency have always been sort of our core lead generator, and I don’t think that’s, that’s novel to WHITE64. I think, you know, from what I’ve seen, other agencies I’ve talked to most of their leads are coming through three different areas, networking, referrals, and then, you know, just organic growth of existing clients. So, you know, referrals are such an important part because we’re a business. And I think also with sort of pandemic trends A lot of people have left their roles at certain organizations, a lot of marketing teams have had turnover.
And those people go to, you know, other companies. And if you’ve kept a strong relationship, if you built that foundation with them, a lot of them will reach out and try to bring you into the fold and bring in a new agency into their, you know, new marketing department. So, I think that’s why we’ve had a lot of referral growth. And I think, you know, that’s why the relationships are so important. But no, it’s not been our only source of new business leads. You know, for a while, we were just getting cold leads coming through the website, like from companies we hadn’t heard of, just because we have a good awareness and history in the sort of DC area market.
But I don’t think that that’s going to hold or kind of sustain us going into 2023. I think, you know, as I said, we’re going to have to be more proactive in our outreach. And how we do that is going to depend on a number of factors. But I think a lot of it is going to be, you know, thought leadership, content marketing, getting our sort of stars or core people there in front of groups at events and things of that nature.
Steffen: You said, obviously, building strong relationships with existing clients is a way to build a referral network. Are there are other ways that you build your referral network as a business development leader to make sure that there’s an ongoing flow of opportunities that comes in?
Amy: Yeah, I mean, it’s not just client relationships, you know, we’ve gotten referrals through some of our media vendors, because they know we can be trusted. And we’ve, we’re great to work with. But I think for, you know, not just for WHITE64, but for agencies in general, looking at sort of your client verticals, what categories are you most knowledgeable and whether like, for me, it’s been obviously the travel space. So going in and joining travel based marketing organizations. And being in those, attending events, sitting on boards, and kind of getting your name out there almost on a one to one basis, as a representative for your agency is really a good way to drive referrals.
Steffen: As head of sales and marketing, which do you put more focus or importance on for your business development efforts?
Amy: I’d say it’s not an either or situation. Early on in my career, I learned that you know, marketing is, quote, unquote, everything. And what I really mean by that is, even your sales efforts are a form of marketing. Every salesperson or employee that has a client or vending face, or excuse me, vendor facing relationship is essentially representing your agency and marketing your brand. So I think it’s not so much sales and marketing. I think sales is marketing, if that makes sense. But it’s all about and I keep going back to the relationship part, but it’s all about that relationship.
But in order to build the relationship and you know, create a new one, you have to have awareness with your key sort of markets, whether that’s a geographic market or client industry, or even people that are more sort of like service focus, whether it’s media or digital. Building that awareness first and then through, you know, marketing and one to one relationships, and then you can layer and the necessary preference. You’re never going to be able to join, be invited to join an RFP shortlist, if you know, the prospective client isn’t aware of who you are what you do.
Steffen: That’s actually a great segue into my next question. We talked about referrals, obviously, when you mentioned networking, and I’m pretty sure, you know, people are aware of what networking is, and how to do networking. How do you get on the radar of companies to actually get invited for pitches?
Amy: It’s such a challenging question. I mean, I think being invited to a pitch is great, but we all know how much work and energy that is. And, you know, in our business time is money, literally. So you’re taking away billable people from client work to focus on a pitch. And I think the marten agency was somebody that was recently in a lot of our industry news about getting new clients without having to do the pitch process. You know, they built an AOR relationship with Royal Caribbean and it was all through managing and leveraging existing relationships.
You know, if you want to go about it, where you’re not leveraging existing relationships, I think smart thought leadership, like what you’re doing with this podcast or, you know, putting out great video content of your different department heads or people that are just really smart, savvy on your team and utilizing those people and their thinking, to kind of sell in your services, but you have to put it out there in order to be discoverable.
Steffen: Now when, when you are known as an agency, you might get a lot of pitches or get invited to a lot of pitches. You probably don’t want to follow or kind of chase down every single opportunity. How do you decide which pitches you should really spend your time on and which pitches you should pass on?
Amy: I think you need to have a strategy in place and a prospecting plan, in order to say like, does this fit within sort of our client roster and our skill set? You know, if you’re looking at what you kind of currently have and where you want to go, and having an actual plan in place for that. It’s an easy decision to kind of weigh, you know, the ask of the RFP and the pitch process to say like, does this really fit with us and our goals. It’s easy to assess to every single one who doesn’t want the opportunity to win new business and make more money. But ultimately, if it doesn’t fit within a larger plan and a larger growth strategy, you know, it doesn’t make sense to waste your time doing something like that.
And I think it goes back to having a real plan and approach I think a lot of people’s business plan is like, just throw your biz dev person in the deep end and see what they can bring in and reel in for, for fish. And that’s not necessarily the right way to go about it. You have to be a little bit more tactical and thoughtful about how you want to grow and where you want to grow. And where you see those opportunities. Otherwise, you’re just, you know, grabbing at straws, and that’s not not good for anybody. You’re just gonna waste a lot of time doing that.
Steffen: Yeah, am I right to assume that, you know, you look at is this a client that would fit in our portfolio? For example? Is this a client that has the right size? Is this the client or is this an opportunity where we can actually also showcase that we’ve done this before? And that we can do a good job? Is that along the line with what you go through?
Amy: Yeah. Oh, absolutely. Like for us, the things that we look at are like, do we have category expertise in their business vertical? Would we have to bring in a partner? Can we service this end to end? Does it fit you know, in our within our goals, as far as delivering award winning work? Are we going to be able to drive results for them with the budget that’s been allotted within this sort of RFP? Because if we can’t do work, if we can’t drive great results, if we’re not not really truly knowledgeable in their business vertical, does it make sense to chase after that? I don’t think that it does.
Steffen: That’s a great point. Now, without tools without software solutions, just doing everything manual from business development perspective, that’s a lot of work. What are the most critical tools and assets that you have for success and agency growth?
Amy: I’m so glad you said that. Because as a small agency, like, we don’t necessarily have access to sophisticated CRM, or lead gen tracking. So I have to be really scrappy in my efforts. I you know, rely a lot on just simple things like Google Sheets for lead tracking, and my touch points with them. But the outcomes of those look like. You know, a web, your website is obviously the most important and critical sales tool. We’re, you know, hopefully making some updates to that next year. But for me, I think the biggest thing has been my team. My team is my biggest asset.
And what I mean by my team, like I don’t mean, you know, business development measures under me because I’m sort of a one woman show. But I mean, more of my executive team, and the people around me, like our department heads that I think are just so smart. And really, really, you know, clever at what they do. And those are the people I want to kind of put forward. I don’t want to take a new business call by myself if I know that this is a strong lead. And they’re really interested in media.
I’m going to tap the shoulder of my you know, VP of media and have her sit in on that conversation with me and help sell in like our knowledge and skill set as an agency because she can speak more eloquently to it than I can. If it’s somebody that is really looking for design and branding work, we have an amazing creative director who also leads up our design services. I’m gonna have him in the conversation to walk through our design process and get them inspired as to like, looks like and what each phase of like logo development is.
Because the clients aren’t going to be working with me on a day to day basis, in the end. They’re going to be working with an account team, as well as the service leaders for each department. So it doesn’t make sense for me to just have those first conversations by myself. My greatest asset is the team that I have around me, and knowing that they are, you know, category experts, and utilizing their expertise and leveraging that to really kind of sell in what we can do.
Steffen: There are a lot of agencies out there, and a lot of the agencies do the same thing. I mean, if you look at a piece of paper or their websites, you’re like, okay, they do this, the next one does the same. And the next one does the same. How can an agency set themselves apart or differentiate themselves from the sea of sameness?
Amy: I think this goes back to, you know, you were with me, at the Marin conference. And I don’t know if you sat in this session or not. But they played a video of this, one of the writers or editors from Adweek, went into an agency and played a game with all of the team members where it was, you had to guess if what he said, the name of whatever he said, was either an agency or a racehorse. And it was really hard to like, it was like a toss of the coin as to like, which one was which. And, you know, we as agencies do a bad job of treating ourselves like clients.
We do a bad job of marketing ourselves, and positioning ourselves and spending time and resources on, you know, putting a real sort of agency market sales and marketing plan together. You know, if we were our own clients, we would be recommending, you know, you start at the beginning, and you build a strategy. And from that strategy, everything else should kind of fall out of and you set KPIs, and you track against it. And a lot of people forget that we need to put ourselves first sometimes in that regard. So I think the only way you’re going to be able to differentiate yourself is to have a real plan in place.
You know, we can’t win against all of the agencies out there, but you’re also not competing with all of the agencies out there. So you have to figure out who your core comp set is. Pick your top sort of three to five competitors, whether that’s, you know, based on your geography or the client vertical, or the services you offer, the size of agency, or you know, all of the various factors. But then once you kind of do a real sort of competitive analysis, with that top core set, you can figure out how to start to position yourself and sell your services a little differently. And how you talk about yourself on your website, or in your social media, or you know, how you handle your email marketing and distribution.
And if you don’t have that sort of idea of where you want, then you’re just kind of stuck comparing yourself against all of the agencies out there, which you know, so many now. And you can’t compare yourself if your agency our size, to the holding companies or a big nationally recognized firm. You can look to them for inspiration, and for you know, ideas and how you want to kind of sell in different services. But ultimately, like you’re not competing against them. So you have to put a real plan in place and brand strategy in place to position yourself within your sort of key client verticals and audiences and build a plan from there. Otherwise, like otherwise you’re just putting out social media content and things of that nature, just to put it out there.
Steffen: Now, a few minutes ago, you talked about that you are basically a business development department of one. When you’re one person, you got to choose your battles. You got to decide what to focus on, and where do you see the most opportunities to grow the business. So when you look at inbound versus outbound, which of them has delivered better results for you? And is there a reason potentially for why that is?
Amy: I mean, I think with outbound, you’re spinning your wheels a lot of times. I mean, I personally don’t do a lot of cold emailing or LinkedIn messaging. I just think for what we’re trying to sell, and the business ask of, you know, somebody spending anywhere from, you know, a few $100,000 to millions of dollars, they’re not going to gamble on that and their reputation within their own organization. Simply because I sent them an email with a cool marketing stat that’s relevant to them. I just don’t think that that’s really going to drive growth.
I mean, I’ve done it, if somebody had a specific company that they wanted to go after in our organization, you know, if my president comes to me, and says, he’s got a great idea for a client we should go after, of course, I’m gonna do my LinkedIn research and figure out who the marketing heads are, and, and reach out. But ultimately, there hasn’t been very fruitful. The inbound leads, sometimes can be a little, be a little bit of a waste of time, you know. It’s small, don’t realize that they, you know, how much agency services really cost and they’ve been doing everything in house.
But oftentimes, that’s really where we see the best opportunity, and the best opportunity to just sell in a project. Sell in, you know, something, whether it’s a video or small campaign, digital campaign. Something like that, where we can really kind of have a small win, but a good solid win for them, and then grow the relationship from there. You know, very rarely does somebody come in, and we automatically develop, you know, a retainer agreement. Most of the time, it’s, you know, build the relationship over three to six months, they finally are like ready to sign but maybe it’s, you know, they wanted the world and now we’ve narrowed it, let’s just start here, with this one project, and take it from there.
But like I said, we just haven’t seen a lot of success for it with outbound outreach. It’s just, it’s hard to get somebody excited over, you know, an email or a LinkedIn message. You really have to nurture the relationship over time. And I think just some of the outbound outreach is just not personally how I like to do things. I don’t have a lot of free time to just be sending random emails to a long list of potential people that are not going to give me $100,000 to do a project.
Steffen: I love the idea about getting a relationship started, you know, with a project or kind of a three to six month engagement. Because I think that not only helps the client to get to know you, you know, what you’re capable of doing, what your delivery is, what the results are that your team can bring. But it also helps you as the agency to get to know the client. It might be that after six months, you identify, you know, what they’re nuts. They’re not fun to work. And I think we, we all have been in business relationships with clients that we had to work with, which at some point, the team was so demoralized, because the client is just terrible, you know, is never happy.
Yeah, everything can be better. You name it, right. And I think that’s the, that’s the worst situation to put your team in. Because no one wants to work on that business, you know. And the likelihood of people leaving as they work on that business is probably very high. So having kind of a test space, I love that. We do that here at Symphonic Digital, too. You know, I always like let’s, let’s wait three months, we get to know each other. And then we decide if we are you know, if this is a match made in heaven, for example, you know, and if not, that’s totally okay.
Amy: Yeah, one of our like, one of our biggest clients started from one small video. And we grew that relationship over, I think, a three year period to now they’re, you know, our second largest client at the agency. And it was really just that slow, sort of step by step growth and people are excited they love working on their business. And to your point, you know, we have had engagements where we’re like, never again, do we want to work with these people. They are just off their rocker. Like cannot please them, ridiculous deadlines. It’s just not a situation you want to sign up for long term.
Steffen: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I totally agree. Amy, thank you for joining me on the Performance Delivered podcast and sharing your thoughts on business development, and it has been a great conversation. If people want to find out more about you and about WHITE64, how can they get in touch?
Amy: Sure, you can find me on LinkedIn. Amy Mierzwinski. Or just go to white64.com and email the info box because that also comes to me.
Steffen: Well, and we’ll leave all that information in the show notes, obviously. Thanks everyone for listening. If you liked the Performance Delivered podcast, please subscribe to us and leave us a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast application. If you want to find out more about Symphony Digital, you can visit us at symphonicdigital.com or follow us on Twitter at Symphonic HQ. Thanks again and see you next time.
Voiceover: Performance Delivered is sponsored by Symphonic Digital. Discover audience focused and data driven digital marketing solutions for small and medium businesses at symphonicdigital.com