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The New New Business: Jack Williams on Turning Negatives into Positives

Atomic London's head of new business and marketing on self motivation, staying level headed and loving the pitch process

The New New Business: Jack Williams on Turning Negatives into Positives

Jack is head of new business and marketing at Atomic London. He specialises in building and executing new business strategy that combines a proactive approach with a publisher mentality. His unique approach to new business has consistently delivered strong growth across the corporate, event and advertising industries. In his career Jack has helped win business for global and local brands including the likes of McVitie’s, Hasbro, Jaffa Cakes, Homebase, Bacardi, Funding Circle and Sky Betting & Gaming.


LBB> What was your first sale or new business win? (Was it a big or small job? How difficult or scary was it? What do you remember about how you felt? What lessons did you learn?)

Jack> I started my career in high volume sales roles and so the sales of the first few years of my career tend to roll into one, to be honest. That said, it was the best way to start my career, making over a hundred calls a day to land two or three small value deals was really hard work but it was worth its weight in gold for the skills that it taught me. It taught me how to be self-motivated and tenacious but most importantly it taught me resilience, the ability to turn negatives into positives and keep going, which is an essential skill when operating in new business roles.

Thinking more specifically about the creative industry though. I think my first significant new business win that I can fully recall was at an agency called Live & Breathe, a fantastic full-service agency who gave me my first new business role in the industry. We won The Pladis (formerly United Biscuits) BTL account across three or four of their brands. At the time I didn’t really realise what a significant piece of new business that was to win but looking back it was massive. It was such an amazing feeling to get it over the line, as you can imagine a piece of business like that was hotly contested and to come out on top was great. Particularly as we nearly didn’t go for it. I can still vividly remember pacing up and down Fulham Broadway tube station on the phone to my MD at the time, Nick Gray, who I had a brilliant relationship with, trying to persuade him that it was a great opportunity and that we would be able to manage the client workload and two other pitches we currently had on!


LBB> What was the best piece of advice you got early on? 

Jack> Staying level-headed in new business is the only way that you’re going to truly succeed in a new business. This industry (and even more so in new business) is filled with massive highs and massive lows. When you win a pitch that you’ve spent the last 10 weeks of your life on it is pure elation, but when you lose it in the final two, it can be crushing. The best piece of advice that I have ever had is don’t let yourself get too high in the highs or too low in the lows, keep a middle balance.


LBB> And the worst?

Jack> “This industry has a pretty tried and tested formula for winning new business. Follow that and you should be fine”.


LBB> How has the business of ‘selling’ in the creative industry changed since you started?

Jack> I think ‘selling’ is constantly evolving, there are so many ways that you can ‘sell’ to someone and as technology continues to accelerate, more ways are created every single day. How people consume content also has a massive impact on how to sell successfully. Film and video is king at the moment so if you’re trying to get your point across why would you not put it in a piece of attractive moving content?

When I was looking to get into the industry, I definitely noticed an opportunity. I think new business has always traditionally been quite reputation driven and in-bound leads were how you got your new clients. The combination of the market becoming far more saturated in the last decade and the gap between the ‘big network agencies’ and the ‘smaller independently minded agencies’ significantly closing has meant that there is a huge need for businesses to be a lot more proactive with their approach to new business. Reputation is still key, but having the ability to tell everyone how much better you are than the competition is far more important now than it was. 


LBB> Can anyone be taught to sell or do new business or do you think it suits a certain kind of personality?

Jack> I think anyone can be trained to work inside a framework of a strong new business and marketing strategy. If the strategy is good enough. However, having the work ethic and personality traits to succeed at new business is harder to train, I think. That hunger and tenacious attitude is either in you or it isn’t. 

But new business and growth isn’t all about ‘selling’. We’re not in an industry where a high volume ‘phone bashing’ sales approach works. Often, we are dealing with big order values and seriously long lead times. That demands a much more consultative sell when dealing with clients. They have to trust that you are an expert in what they need before they are willing to hand over one, two million quids worth of creative work. To do that requires more than just a lead salesperson who has a never say die attitude, it requires content creators, creative thinkers, strategists, writers etc. 


LBB> What are your thoughts about the process of pitching that the industry largely runs on?

Jack> This might be an unpopular opinion, but I love the pitch process. And I would argue that most people do love pitching, as long as they win! 

I think to say we should do away with pitching altogether is wrong as well as being pretty much impossible. As I’ve said previously, we are often pitching for big pieces of business and given the nature of what we are pitching for there needs to be a way to demonstrate our creative thinking to show our value. If the process doesn’t feel right for you, for whatever reason, whether you feel it’s too competitive or the budget doesn’t warrant the number of agencies, no one is forcing you to take part. 

That said, there is a huge difference in a well run and a poorly ran pitch process. Structure, clarity, and proper feedback are crucial for a good pitch process. It not only makes for a poor process for the competing agencies but also for the client. I always think that a pitch process where there is a third-party consultant or intermediary involved tends to run smoother. This is down to the fact that there is someone who’s fully focused on making sure that everyone gets the most out of the process and the fact that they know what an excellent pitch process looks like, having done hundreds of processes before.  

That’s not to say that a pitch run by clients directly can’t work, I’ve been involved in many that have been brilliant. I just think if there isn’t someone there ensuring there is a good structure, there is more opportunity for the process to go off-course.

Feedback is crucial and I’ve experienced more times than I care to remember pitch processes where the feedback has been sub-standard. Again, in my experience, this doesn’t really happen when there is a third party involved. Detailed feedback is so important to giving agencies the best chance of cracking your brief and no matter how challenging or awkward it can be to give it, it must be given. For me, if proper feedback isn’t being delivered, that is when a process starts to become less than ideal.

So for me, I think the notion of refusing to pitch is a strange one. A well ran pitch process can be one of the best feelings you can have. A moment in time when your entire agency pulls together to deliver something special for a client that you’ve only just met. But the key phrase there is ‘well ran’, I haven’t met many people that have complained about a well ran pitch process.  


LBB> How do you go about tailoring your selling approach according to the kind of person or business you’re approaching?

Jack> No one likes being sold to, it's awkward and annoying. And when you don’t tailor your approach that’s exactly what it comes across as. You end up falling into the trap of talking about yourself and you lose your target's attention, rapidly! Tailoring your approach shouldn’t be forced though, it should occur naturally. If you are genuinely interested in solving a client’s challenge, tailoring your approach is a lot easier.

I’m a naturally curious person, I am always interested in how things work, what isn’t working and exploring how things could be better. I think that natural curiosity has helped me when talking to prospective clients. I’m genuinely interested in what is keeping them up at night. I think when you go into an initial new business meeting or conversation you need to be prepared at the end of it to say, ‘you know what, I don’t think we’re right for this brief’. I’m only really interested in taking on briefs where I know our business offering can make a difference.


LBB> New business and sales can often mean hearing ‘no’ a lot and quite a bit of rejection - how do you keep motivated?

Jack> I spoke about resilience earlier and it is such an important quality to have. Trying to turn a rejection or a ‘not interested’ into a positive is incredibly hard but if you can find a way to do it, then no opportunity or conversation is ever wasted. 

Take pitching for example, coming a ‘close second’ is possibly one of the most frustrating parts of a new business role and whilst that frustration will never go, taking the positives can help ease those feelings. Finding out the reasons why you were second and learning from them means that you’re not leaving that pitch process empty handed. 

Applying the thought process that I mentioned earlier when you asked the best piece of advice I ever had is probably most relevant at times of rejection. Keeping in the middle ground is going to always help you in the long-term.


LBB> The advertising and marketing industry often blurs the line between personal and professional friendships and relationships… does this make selling easier or more difficult and delicate?

Jack> You need to separate the two worlds, you can’t make business decisions based on your personal feelings, so no matter whether it’s your best mate or someone that you’ve only met two weeks ago, nothing is ever personal. 

That said, personal connections always help when you’re exploring the possibility of working together. I often say that if there is a personal connection in a pitch process with the client then you have a whole lot better chance of winning that business. Not because they are going to base their final decision on the fact that you’re mates but the fact that you know each other and therefore have a good understanding of what your working relationship will look like. Because when trying to come up with a magic campaign or piece of work, a strong working relationship is vital. 


LBB> In your view what’s the key to closing a deal?

Jack> Knowing and understanding what the client wants and delivering it in a way that is authentic to how your business operates.


LBB> How important is cultural understanding when it comes to selling internationally?

Jack> I think it’s crucial to understand your target audience, if you don’t you’re not going to be able to sell anything to them successfully. Understanding them as an individual and what they are trying to achieve is essential. Things like their local culture, their personality, their hobbies, their approach to work, even their opinion on the vaccine. These are all things that you need to arm yourself with to create the best possible pitch. 


LBB> How is technology and new platforms (from platforms like Salesforce and Hubspot to video calls to social media) changing sales and new business?

Jack> Technology is evolving everything at lightning speed and the new business profession is no different. The key with all the platforms on offer is finding the ones that work well for you and the way that you work. Sometimes certain platforms can over complicate things or have features that you don’t really need but you still pay for. Building and reviewing a relevant tech-stack should be line one on every new business professional’s annual planning.


LBB> There’s a lot of training for a lot of parts of the industry, but what’s your thoughts about the training and skills development when it comes to selling and new business? 

Jack> I think we have moved on a lot even in the last few years. The consultancies like the AAR, Oystercatchers and Creative Brief have always had a good programme of events and training sessions for the industry but over and above that training that is specifically for new business within the creative and media industry has been lacking, and it’s not just training, I think the new business profession needs to have more of a profile in general. It is such a difficult job with a lot of pressure and the people that work within perhaps deserve more of a public profile than what they get. Organisations like the BD100 have been amazing in helping drive that forward and I hope that more continue to spring up.


LBB> What’s your advice for anyone who’s not necessarily come up as a salesperson who’s now expected to sell or win new business as part of their role?

Jack> Listen and learn what your target audience is struggling with first and then offer a solution second. We have a tendency in our industry to be very me, me, me. Look at our awards, look at our amazing talent and our brilliant work for other brands. If you flip that on its head and for every new business opportunity that you get, whether it be an email you’re sending, an event you are hosting or a pitch meeting, you take the approach of you, you, you. Then I would suggest you will win a lot more business. And it makes your job a hell of a lot easier knowing what they’re actually interested in!

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