If you've set up your own agency, new business is now your business. You may have a raft of existing clients but, at some point, you're going to have to branch out, have an adventure, look for work in uncharted waters...
There's no single method or place from which this new work will emerge. "We had one client come to us because one of our ex-colleagues from Interbrand met somebody at the school gate," says David Carroll, formerly of both Interbrand and R&D&Co, now founder of DC&Co. "She was looking for a brand agency and asked could our friend recommend anyone. She, luckily, recommended us! And that turned into a three-year-plus relationship. It's bizarre where work can pop up."
School gates are lucky for some, but it's certainly not recommended as a primary source of new business. Sooner or later you will have to get suited and booted, and set out to find your fortune among the maze of companies looking for precisely the fresh, exciting design you can offer.
Contacts are everything
That said, Carroll's point is a serious one. Much of your new work will come from people you already know. They may move to work at different companies, presenting you with new opportunities, or they may recommend you to friends and family. And then, of course, your avenue of new business might emerge from a chance click-through to your website.
"I think letting people know about what you do is still the best way to get new business - whether that's by email, or when you meet someone new," says Vassilios Alexiou, interaction director of London agency Less Rain. So, what are his suggestions for getting yourself out there? "Going to events to meet people, being active in forums, writing blogs, giving talks on things you care about€¦ However, picking up the phone [to cold call] is very intrusive - we'll leave that to the recruiting agencies!"
But there's no getting around The Pitch, the mythological competition between agencies to win work from would-be clients. Besides awards, pitches have the attraction of being able to be 'won'. They're high stakes and they're potentially worth a lot of money to your fledgling organisation. Getting them right really matters.
Pitches may invoke images of cool, groovy creatives wowing roomfuls of stuffed shirts with electrifying multimedia presentations but, unsurprisingly, the truth is more complex and often prosaic.
"Every pitch is different," says Paul Canty, MD of London agency Preloaded. "Sometimes a response is as big as a two-pager, with an idea and a rough costing. The other extreme is like something we did with the Arts Council, which was a very formal process whereby we had to answer a PQQ [a prequalification questionnaire giving details of an agency's portfolio, finances and other business assessment criteria] and then, if they're happy with that, you submit a full written proposal before going in and doing a keynote."
To win your pitch, it's not enough simply to have what you consider a booty-shaking creative idea. Your presentation may be brilliant, but if it's unsuitable to the prospective client or their market, your chances of success will be greatly diminished. Get a grip on the task at hand by making sure you've done your research.
It's also handy to make sure you bring the client on board. "What works almost without exception," Vassilios Alexiou begins, "is getting that magic moment where you and the client are sharing the vision. You'll mention an idea and perhaps if you don't go to great lengths explaining it, the client can buy into that and complement the idea with a point, which you then take on and you make part of the idea. You show how that point they made can be an integral part of the idea. Immediately you give them ownership of the idea, and the more ownership that people have, the better they work as a team."
You should also not be afraid to challenge the client. After all, you're the designer, hired for taste and judgement in such matters. Bear in mind Alexiou's jocular warning, however: "The 'client is always right' motto was not invented for nothing. But don't practice it too much or you might be guilty of negligence."
"You do challenge," advises David Carroll, "but you do it in a non-threatening way. You take the client on a journey. It's all about where you start from and where you end up. Start with a set of problems and then use logical, creative thinking. Creative thinking is where you challenge; that's where you look at the brief a different way. You do some research to back that up."
He adds: "Bring it back to the brand. If you've got the business positioning right at the beginning, it makes the creative work coming out of it a whole lot easier. It also gives you the reference point going back, [so if someone says] 'Why have you done that?' you can say, 'We did that because X, Y, Z; that's the brand', and that's what makes the company product - whatever it is - different from someone else's."
Be sure, as they say in hip-hop, that you 'gets paid'. Set the right price for the right amount of work. If you spend too much time researching an unpaid pitch, in business terms you risk nil net or at least diminished returns. Too little research risks losing out on work. And setting rates too low or high carries the same dangers.
"Basically, work out how much money you want to be earning in a year and then you can work out what your day rate should be," adds David Carroll. "There's always a difference between day rates and what you charge for a job; there's always a negotiation with the client. They may not have that amount of money, so then you adjust."
"Assume you will be working only half the month, because there might be dead times, so you might be working 10 days a month, maybe 15, but certainly not 20," recommends Vassilios Alexiou. "Really make this mathematical calculation about how much you should be charging. Then you can look at competitors and if they're charging more or less, then you can adapt that number to be competitive. But I think it's important to ask, 'What sort of life do I want to lead?' and 'Am I happy with getting X amount per month?' and work it out like that."
"We have a rate card; it's pretty straightforward," reveals Preloaded's Canty. "We apply that to any kind of brief that comes in. I'd say 90 per cent of the time there is a budget on the brief. The client will tell us how much money they've got - wherever possible, we insist that we find that out, because otherwise we could provide a response that is wildly out of kilter with the kind of budget that they have."
He continues, with some sensible advice: "If we know the size of the brief in terms of the budget, a nice rule of thumb for us is that we will probably spend in the region of 10 per cent of that budget, notionally, of our time in winning it. So, for example, if it was a £100,000 project, we'll probably use £10,000 worth of our own time to put the pitch together."
It's worth reiterating that pitching is but one small part of your overall strategy for finding new business. There's plenty of hard work to be done. David Carroll puts it best: "You have to make your own luck, because you need to maintain relationships and do PR, get yourselves out there, have a good website and a good story. It's not just handed to you on a plate."
Voice of experience
Vassilios Alexiou offers his advice for pitching
"I co-founded Less Rain in 1998. Since then, the company has grown to 20 staff, and has studios in London, Berlin and Tokyo.
"Our first real pitch was at the end of 1998 for the online presence of Viva TV, which was then competing with MTV. They called us because we had won the D&AD Student Award and put the first LessRain.com out there, which was full of interactive experiments. We spent a year developing that site, pushing the technology to do things that had been considered impossible or were different from anything else out there.
"That's always something I say to students: often it works if you just express yourself, because you never know how it's going to capture someone's imagination. In our case, our first clients saw the website, they loved the interaction and ideas, and they said, 'We want a cool, different website, and these guys can do it for us.'
"Now we spend time formulating a pitch in such a way that the client can really see where we're coming from with our ideas. We used to say, 'It's an amazing idea,' but it's not enough to do just that. You have to express it in different ways so that people get what this amazing idea is really doing for them. We give them an insight into our process, as I think selling our process rather than selling our work is a much better way of winning pitches.
"Of course, it doesn't work all the time. Sometimes eye candy wins over process and strategy. You have to know which one works best in which case, so talk to the client. If no one in any of the other pitches talked about process, and you see the client being impressed, you know to use that."