In the first of a new series, we talk to Wunderman Thompson London’s Head of New Business, Charlie Martyn, about the challenges and highlights of his job.
Interview by Mark Tungate
How would you define your role? Is it simply about getting business into the agency, or is it more nuanced than that?
It may be the widest-spanning job in the agency, to be honest. You’re principally accountable for growth – growing existing clients and bringing in new ones – but at the same time you can find yourself picking up just about anything else that doesn’t have a natural home across the agency. That’s because as “new business” you represent the agency to the outside world, therefore you have to know the agency inside out. The core focus, though, is on growth. That’s ultimately what you’re judged on. So the main focus for me is on bringing in new clients, and – on select opportunities – growing existing ones. The latter is slightly easier as you’re already several steps closer to the client.
I’ve heard that many clients prefer to work on a project basis today, so the challenge is to convert that into a longer-term relationship. Has that been your experience?
It’s fair to say that in the old days it was about big, long-term retained relationships, which isn’t the way of the world anymore. More recently you’d find yourself pitching to be on a roster, which is not extraordinarily exciting unless it’s the government…But today I think we’ve reached a point where clients are saying, “Well, there are a lot of agencies out there who would probably do good work for me, but I appreciate that it’s a huge outlay for them to pitch regularly with no guarantee of return. So pitch for this project and if you win it and do well on it, then there’s genuinely further opportunity down the line.” Which is more motivating for agencies because it gives us an opportunity to prove ourselves whilst being remunerated – and we’d probably back ourselves to do a good enough job to grow the relationship from there.
What was your career path to your current position – and would you say it was typical? You started on the account side, I believe?
Looking across the industry at my peers in similar jobs, there are definitely two types. There are those who have come from an account management background, and those who have been career-long new business or marketing people. For me it was the former: I started in account management, worked my way through the ranks with small agencies, big agencies, local clients and global clients – a fairly broad mix of capabilities. When the opportunity to become new business director came up, I took it as an opportunity to see how our business is actually run. You’re suddenly speaking to an incredible breadth of brands across different industries, at different levels of maturity. And while being an account person enables you to get to know a client and their business in depth over time, in new business you have to get to know a client and their industry in a matter of days or weeks. That’s really enriching from an experience perspective, but it also gives you an insight into how different kinds of businesses are run – including our own. We’re right at the cutting edge of issues like new commercial models, remuneration, staffing, resourcing…in a more leading way than in other day-to-day roles.
It just occurred to me that you went through the whole “JWT to Wunderman Thompson” transformation. I assume you had to get to know your own business all over again?
That’s true: it was almost like starting a new job – but without moving! From a new business perspective it was great, because I suddenly had double double the capabilities. We found ourselves in the luxurious position where we could genuinely deliver fully integrated work.
When you arrive at the office in the morning, what’s facing you during the hours ahead? I’m sure there’s no typical day …
It’s a bit of a cliché to say that every day is different – but it really is. Partly due to the different types of businesses you’re talking to, and also because, to use another cliché, “new business is everyone’s business”. You’re dealing with people in different departments all the time. Of course, a big part of my job is running and overseeing pitches, so there are planning meetings, reviews, the pitches themselves and procurement discussions. In short, you’re often in meetings or, more informally, conversations. You’re building pitch teams, connecting parts of the business, trying to find the best talent for a specific task. There’s a lot of relationship-building and joining the dots.
Where does most new business come from today? How does the process of reeling in a new client tend to begin?
There are a few different sources. As I said, there’s organic growth – which I suppose you could say is not strictly “new” business. Looking beyond the agency, but not very far, there’s the advantage of being part of a group: we may get leads through WPP when we’re deemed relevant and don’t have a conflict, for example. That’s a trend we’re seeing with big global pitches: the brand will go to the holding company first and try to source the best talent from across that group. Then of course you’re familiar with the world of intermediaries and consultants…
Oh yes – we mustn’t forget about them!
That’s a key part of my role: fostering those relationships and making sure we’re top of their mind – and that they know what we’re going to be particularly suitable for. Having said all that, you’d be surprised how even very reputable brands still come to us through a contact form on a website, or a LinkedIn message…About a year ago, before lockdown, I even had someone call reception! So that still happens, but very rarely.
It’s like when somebody strides into the lobby of a newspaper saying they’ve got a great story.
One source we take a lot of pride and joy from is when a former client who’s moved to a different brand, but had a really good experience with us, puts us on a shortlist.
Can you talk a little about the relationship with the creative team? At what stage do they typically get involved in the pitch process?
Increasingly we try to ensure that the creatives engage with the brand as early as possible. When I first started out, it would be: “We’re definitely on the final pitch list, now let’s brief the creatives.” But that was missing a trick, because they could have been percolating ideas for days or weeks before. Today, as soon as we even have a sense that a brief might land, we start thinking about who the team might be – certainly who the leads across the capabilities might be – and we get them thinking and talking about the brand; or experiencing the brand if it’s appropriate, so they can start developing a point of view. If people get together early enough and start to trying to crack that, they can quickly come across a creative theme – even if it’s not what the final idea ends up being. Clients look for consistency in the pitch process, so if you can find a narrative early on that resonates, and you can carry that thread through, that’s a good start.
There are a lot of different personalities involved in a pitch. Any tips for managing them all to avoid any clashes?
It’s important for people in our role to know what those potential issues might be. For example, to know that a particular senior person is likely to have a particular kind of question at a certain point, and that you have to treat it in a certain way. It’s incumbent on new business teams to spot danger and trouble, because the worst thing you can do is have an uncomfortable, nervous pitch team going into a presentation.
So one of your key skills is diplomacy?
Yes – and coming from an account management background helps with that, because it gives you experience in managing different parts of the business: knowing how a creative’s mind might work versus a strategist’s mind, and therefore how to get the best out of them. Because our ultimate responsibility in new business is to show the agency at its best.
It sounds like a great job – but what are the hardest parts about it?
Well, as you can imagine we’re a pretty competitive bunch – so the highs can be high and the lows can be low. Winning new business is a great feeling, while losing is tough, because you invariably get very personally invested in a pitch. With experience, you get a little more used to that. But it’s important to be empathetic, because the people you’re bringing along with you on the journey may not have that experience, so it can be really hard on them. What I try to do is celebrate the art of the pitch. Straight out of the pitch – before the result – you should get everyone together and celebrate the great work you did. Because it is an incredibly emotional and demanding journey, and the gap between winning and losing is often so small, that the likelihood is that everyone’s worked really hard and produced something wonderful.
I imagine that the more “showbiz” aspect of the pitch process has suffered during the pandemic. Has anything positive emerged from this period?
Thinking about it – what wins you a pitch? It’s the people, the relationships and the work. And not having the theatre means there’s nothing to camouflage the work. Which makes us more ruthless in terms of: “Is this really good enough to hit those heights?” I’ve also found that we’ve become more efficient at collaborating on decks, which means fewer late nights – and the late nights are less late. Finally, although we can’t travel for face-to-face meetings with the client, it’s become easier to slot in a quick thirty minute chat with them here and there. So while at first it felt harder to build relationships, we’ve countered that by giving ourselves more chances to build them.