Building a Balanced, Organic Prospect List: The Prospect Pyramid

Let’s take a timeout from the outreach case studies and look at how to build your list. In building a manageable list — say 150 prospects (there is no set number) — you will chart a road map that will lead you to your Top 5 Prospects. We know that those Top 5 should get 80% of your attention; but that leaves 50% of your time unaccounted for (Yogi Berra math). More importantly, it broadens your bandwidth and increases your odds. Everyone knows to establish criteria and emphasize category experience. Yes, you can approach several prospects in the same category with the same unexpected insight or business idea.

One of the most interesting things I learned working on the agency side was the role that Planners played in determining the sweet spot (why does everyone put that term in parentheses?) target audience for their clients. I loved the way they profiled demos and anointed the target with pithy titles — “The Discount Diva” for Song Airlines was my favorite. The Planners established target criteria, set up a prism and fed different profiles through the prism. I’m a bit surprised that agencies don’t do more of that for themselves — you know, run basic research on their targets and feed them through an Account Planning prism (maybe some do — I’ve just never heard anyone talk about it yet). Well, that’s the way I started to approach prospecting — set criteria, build a prism and run prospect profiles through it.

Lee Lynch built a pretty good creative agency at Carmichael Lynch. Someone once showed me his new business triangle on a napkin. I lost the napkin but built my pyramid around an adaptation of Lynch’s triangle. It looks like this and is fairly self-explanatory:

Palma-Prospect Pyramid

It’s important for agencies to have a balanced client roster. It’s healthier, better for morale, and better for their clients. It’s more conducive to fresh ideas and uncluttered thinking. It rejects cookie cutter solutions. I know that opinion flies in the face of the conventional wisdom of promoting your agency as narrow specialists — but didn’t Bogusky just give a rousing keynote on the merits of defying convention — on breaking the rules? If you were a basketball coach, you would have a very difficult time winning with five point guards. Or five centers. or five rebounders. You need all those things to win, but the great teams are balanced. Therefore, I think it’s important to have a balanced prospect list. One key point on the Pyramid is to realize that your Top 5 prospects will come out of the “meat” grouping. This group represents half of your total prospect list.

Again, everyone knows the basic criteria: category, geography, demographics, revenue, etc.. Lately, I’ve had the most success with another criterion. I don’t have a pithy name for it, but a great way to build a relationship with a marketer is to “live” their brand. Those prospects’ brands are in your closet, your garage, your refrigerator, your liquor cabinet. They’re on your American Express statement and your bank drafts. Ask your new business council to run an audit on the brands they live with and make a list. You can speak with conviction to these prospects. You can lead an exciting conversation. Exciting conversations are memorable. This is organic prospecting — not shaking down your existing clients for more money.

I know the new wisdom is to dumb everyone down into being category “experts” (geez, how pompous). I’ve heard all the fear-mongering, “clients are afraid, they want ‘safe’… they want round pegs for round holes”. Reminds me of fashionistas who say “never wear plaid and stripes together” or foodies that won’t mix red wines with seafood. Is there anything less interesting than a matchy-matchy person?  I’ve also seen how some search consultants construct their RFP’s. Part of their service is to eliminate the guesswork. I believe that when smart marketers seek creative solutions, a little art appreciation is required — it’s not a pure science and math.

Regardless, most small-to-midsized creative agencies will never see the shadow of a search consultant, no less an RFP from one — so don’t prospect accordingly. The real truth is that the last thing your best people want to work on is another account in your cash cow category. And on the prospect side, you will be eliminated from consideration due to a perceived conflict within your “expert category” at least as many times as a prospect will value category experience. The best prospects want fresh ideas anyway. They want to stand out and defy category conventions. They want to be a category of “one”.

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