The Dating Game: How Biz Dev is Like Dating

Alex Gardner

Director of Business Development

Even before apps made dating a semi-public sport, we would get a new book every few years that claimed to have finally cracked the code (think The Rules or He’s Just Not that Into You) and promised romantic success to those who follow these 7 (or 15 or 25) simple rules.

Now, with the popularity of online dating and our voracious appetite for listicles, we can avail ourselves of a daily dose of dating do’s and don’ts.

I admit, I’m a sucker for these articles. I fall for the clickbait titles whether they promise to tell me about the 10 rules I absolutely have to follow or the 8 that men really want me to break. Each time I read one of these articles, however, I have the same two thoughts—this is just common sense and this is just like business development.

I have now done business development for eight years, across four different agencies, and I have a proven track record of success which I credit, at least in part, to recognizing the ways in which landing new clients is like dating.

So, let me turn the tables a little bit and offer my top 6 rules:

1. Choose Your Wingmen Wisely
We’ve all brought a friend to the bar just in case we have nothing to say to the new guy or girl—it can help us relax and avoid those awkward silences. Of course, you have to choose your wingmen wisely—your most bubbly friend may help make conversation, but could make it hard for you to talk at all. Casting the room is just as important in a new business meeting. Choose those colleagues most likely to click with the brand, and always choose passion over seniority. You may be focused on your ideas for the brand, but the client is buying the team, choosing a group that they trust to solve their problems.

2. Listen at Least as Much as You Talk
Everyone I know has had at least one terrible first date where one person does all the talking—they start telling one story and roll right into the next and the next without pausing or asking any questions about the other person. Agencies do this too; they spend too much time talking about the successful campaigns they’ve done in the past or the awards they’ve won. If a brand is considering hiring you, it’s because they have a need that isn’t being fulfilled, a problem that they (and the creatives they’re currently working with) can’t solve. Ask them about it, delve deep, and let them talk freely. I guarantee you that feeling heard will make them leave happier than knowing how many Cannes Lions awards your agency has won in the last five years would have.

3. Don’t Write Anyone Off Too Quickly
First dates sometimes go badly. We’re nervous, we’re distracted, we say something we think is clever that falls totally flat, we talk too much, or too little. Don’t be too distraught, all hope might not be lost. My friends and I have a rule that we give everyone at least three dates before deciding there’s no future. Do the same with potential clients. Don’t drop out after one bad meeting, but do consider changing it up for the next one—take a new approach, or bring different people into the room with you.

4. Follow Up Sensibly
Entire romantic comedies have been built around the question of how soon is too soon to contact a person after a first date and how many times can you call or text without seeming desperate. Texting on the way home from the bar may be too soon, but when it comes to new business meetings definitely send a thank you note within a day or two. Make it personal by referencing something you discussed in the meeting. Hopefully, they’ll get right back to you with a request for a second meeting. If not, a couple more follow up emails are within reason, but if those go unanswered as well it’s time to move on. They’re just not that into you.

5. Date Before You Commit
If a friend came to you after a first or even a third date and told you she was getting married, you’d likely tell her she was crazy. We have to get to know people well to see if we’re truly compatible for the long haul. So, it’s no surprise that clients are often afraid to talk AOR in the beginning. That’s a big commitment for a new relationship. Be open to project work—it can be the best way to get to know each other and build a solid foundation. Wow them with your ability to be a good partner and the long-term relationship part will come naturally.

6. Getting Dumped Gracefully
If a brand that you’ve been working with decides to put itself back on the agency dating market, let it go. Being the incumbent in a pitch is like being dumped and trying to regain the attention of your ex. There is a reason they are considering a break up, there is a need (whether real or perceived) that your agency is not meeting. In this situation, the new shiny agency—the one who has yet to disagree or disappoint—is almost always going to beat you out (and there will be hard feelings even if it doesn’t). Don’t waste your time, move on with grace and dignity.

As with the rules on dating, these rules are 99 percent common sense, but sometimes when we’re nervous about landing a big new client, we forget the basics and stumble over our own best interests. There will be exceptions and times when you should break even the 6 basic rules I set out above, but for the most part following these guidelines has been very helpful to me in landing new business over the years.

My luck in dating, however, is another story. Anyone have a good listicle to recommend?

Alex Gardner

Director of Business Development