‘It’s like the boat is sinking’: Confessions of an agency business development director on the Great Resignation

The uncertainty of the past two years has led agencies to pitch more new business accounts than they usually would, according to a business development director at a full-service agency. Those agencies are doing so out of fear, with leadership worried about clients spending (or lack thereof) and the impact on their business.

At the same time, agencies running a pitch everything strategy are doing so with fewer staffers due to the Great Resignation, making it even more difficult for those who are still with their agency. In the latest edition of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor, we hear from the business development director about the impact of the Great Resignation and what agency leadership should be aware of now.

How has the Great Resignation affected new business? 

Everyone is talking about the Great Resignation. When it comes to new business, that means who works on new business. Everybody is scared about Covid and where is the money coming from so now they’re pitching everything but you’re pitching everything when half you’re coworkers aren’t there.

Can you explain that a bit more?

The past couple of years, for all agencies, there’s been so much uncertainty. Are clients going to spend? Are they not going to spend? We used to have minimums [for pitches]; we’d never pitch below $500,000. With Covid, it’s been like, what if we don’t get that? So now we’re looking at $50,000 accounts and considering pitching for them, too. There’s been so much more fear. Where’s the money coming from and what does the pipeline look like? So new business has been less selective. Everything is fair game. We have to keep the lights on. 

In that same environment, employees are saying, “I don’t know about this.” As soon as people start to leave, other people go, “Why am I here?” In times of Covid, you’re already doing the job of two people. Someone just left and then you’re doing the job of three people. So then people start looking around for somewhere else where they’re not doing multiple jobs. What happens if you have the juxtaposition of the two: Pitch everything and fewer staffers. All of a sudden the extra burden is even more so. 

Has the pitch everything strategy led to more new business or more burnout? 

It’s just leading to burnout. You can’t pitch everything and do a really good job. We literally pitched a $50,000 account. At the same time, we were pitching a $700,000 account. It’s like, did we really just take time away from the $700,000 account for a $50,000 account. We lost both. We weren’t qualified for either. In traditional times, we would’ve said no to both [because we didn’t have the expertise]. All clients love to see you have expertise in the area. There [are] 61,000 agencies in the U.S. When you’re throwing your hat in the ring and you don’t have relevant experience — someone else does so you’re pitching against someone [with a leg up]. It can be a waste.

It’s like the boat is sinking. Instead of throwing everything you’ve got at everything, you’ve got to have confidence in who you are, why you exist and act on the opportunities that are a fit for your agency.

Is there any recognition from agency leadership that this pitch everything strategy is leading to more turnover? 

I don’t think so. There’s a lack of awareness. Because of Covid, so many agencies are asking people to do more with less. You have strong people who are already doing a lot. When those people leave, even if you are rehiring, it takes six months to get those people up to speed to do the job of one person. Your veterans do the job of two. If you lose a veteran you lose someone doing two jobs so you’re still down a person. It’s a really poor model. People get tired and they quit.

What should agency leadership take away from this? 

There’s a push to give more time back. Maybe it’s Fridays off. Maybe it’s unlimited vacations. At the end of the day, you’re struggling to pay people more money because you’re scared but if you don’t pay people more money you’re going to pay more to their replacement when they leave. Look at the market. Look at what’s being paid. Treat your people well otherwise you’re really going to be down.


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