There’s No Business Like New Business: Laura Vipond

In the latest episode of our series focusing on growth, we chat to Laura Vipond, managing partner with responsibility for business development, marketing and PR at London agency Karmarama, part of Accenture Interactive.

Please tell us a little about Karmarama’s position in the market, compared to its competitors? You’ve always been a different kind of agency…

We recently celebrated our 21st birthday, believe it or not – and of course we’ve grown a lot over the years, thanks to organic growth and our own acquisitions. Now we’re part of Accenture Interactive, we really can propose genuine left and right brain expertise. As well as our heartland in creative advertising, brand strategy and related activities, we also have deep expertise in data and tech, not to mention the scale and operational rigour of Accenture, which all adds up to something unique. But the thing that’s stayed the same over the years – and which clients often say about us – is our culture. For at least the past five years we’ve been the highest ranked creative agency in the Sunday Times Top 100 Companies to Work For survey. It really feels like a special place to work – even now we’re all working at home!

You became managing partner of the agency in 2019. What additional responsibilities has that entailed compared to your previous post as group new business director?

Well, for a start I get to lead a brilliant new business team who are the future stars of our industry. I love working with them and the way that we all pull together to drive growth across the agency. But I’m also responsible for Karmarama’s PR and marketing, ensuring that our work always has a stage and that our “shop window” represents us in the best possible way. Plus I work very closely with Accenture Interactive across all those responsibilities. When we do joint pitches it always feels as if we’re at the pointy end of the industry – and that together we’re pitching some really transformative approaches. It’s something I find fascinating. And I learn more and more each day.

Early in your career you switched from being a marketing executive in publishing – which sounds like a great job, by the way – to a new business role at an agency. How and why did you make that switch?

To be honest, it was an absolute dream job for me. I studied English Lit, I took a gap year and went backpacking – I love travelling – and then I managed to get an internship at Rough Guides and [publisher] Dorling Kindersley’s travel imprint, followed by a permanent job in their marketing team. I was part of the team that started transitioning to digital for the first time, which was an amazing experience. I also loved helping to choose book covers and working with the editors. But after a few years I had to admit to myself that it was slow paced and fairly repetitive. I wanted more variety, so I spammed adland with my CV and ended up at another agency with a funny name: Elvis. I’d never worked with agencies – I barely knew they existed – so it was a revelation. I went from a slow industry to a fast one and the fastest team within an agency, which is new business.

How has the “new business” role evolved over the past decade?

I’m actually stunned by how little new business has changed. It’s part of our industry that’s ripe for a reset. I can’t believe how much we still give away to win clients. And we’re the only sector that seems to do that, compared to, say, law or architecture. We give away everything for free in order to win, and in the long term it’s not sustainable. Not only that, but there’s a general trend of clients wanting more. So it’s an even more competitive market, yet we’re still following the same processes we were ten-plus years ago. Things need to evolve. I’m co-chair of the IPA’s new business and marketing group, so we’re working with industry bodies and intermediaries to see if we can accelerate that shift, and provide guidance to clients on alternative options to agency selection.

One positive difference I’ve noticed over the past 18 months is how much the new business community has pulled together. That’s very new for this role – and it feels like the right direction to be heading in. There’s more of an open forum to discuss issues. It’s less cloak and dagger and more about collaboration and transparency, which will ultimately benefit everyone.

In terms of the role itself, what’s changed is the need to be an expert in every discipline – and that list seems to grow longer every day. You need to have exceptional market understanding, a strategic brain, a creative eye, to be a brilliant leader and know how to manage upwards, which is never easy. We’re also going to be heading into a hybrid pitch model, with some people working virtually while others are in the office, so that’s going to test our skills. How do you build trust, maintain energy and have empathy in those circumstances? That’s going to be our next big challenge.

Talking of the pandemic, how has the agency adjusted to seeking new business and pitching? Has anything positive come out of that experience?

Like all agencies, we’ve gotten used to pitching virtually; we’ve all learned video conferencing etiquette and built those new muscles for presenting to tiny thumbnails on a screen. But to be totally honest, it’s been really hard and I’ve hated having to pitch like that. Yes, it’s good that we’ve stripped away the theatre and the fanfare, the jazzy cupcakes and all that. But at the end of the day this is a people business – people buy people – and how do you really connect with people through a screen? That’s something we’ve been missing. It’s hard to know if the client’s really into an idea when you’re pitching virtually. So frankly I can’t wait to get back to pitching face to face. Clients want teams that they can trust and rely on. Pitching shouldn’t just be a process to get to the right answer to a brief; it should be about finding the right team.

Where does new business typically come from today? From consultants? From prospecting? From clients themselves? Where does the story usually begin?

Recently everything’s been thrown up in the air and we’re still waiting for those new rhythms to establish themselves. Last year was tough for everyone. The number of new opportunities across the industry dropped to incredibly low levels. The intermediaries had a hard time too. But we’re absolutely in the middle of a bounce-back now. All those backlogged pitches seem to be happening at once – especially in the UK. The opportunities are coming from all sources: through intermediaries; directly from clients who’ve heard of Karmarama and want to work with us, and of course from Accenture.

What’s the most challenging aspect of the new business role from your perspective? And the most satisfying?

Surely the most challenging part of the role, for all new business people, is losing. Given the amount of effort we put into pitches, all the time that people give up and the passion they put in, and how deeply you get into a client’s business – only to come a close second, it’s absolutely heart-breaking. Finding the effort to run at the next opportunity just as hard is all part of the challenge. But of course there are highs and lows. One of the things I like about the job is the pace: no two days are ever the same, as I’m sure lots of people have said. But also, I really enjoy seeing the industry’s topflight doing their thing – it’s an honour to be in their presence. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning: what’s today going to hold and what brilliant ideas will I get to be a part of?

What are your tips for managing the different personalities involved in pitches, both on the client and agency side?

It’s a skill I’ve tried to hone over the years. A happy team is the key to great work, so emotional intelligence is a huge part of understanding team dynamics. Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as their own preferred ways of working, so you need to identify these really quickly. You need to ensure everyone is in the right role to create a high performing team. It’s the same with clients. I try to coach the pitch team to read the room and work out what different people want to hear. Who are the decision makers? Who wants the details – and who just wants the big idea? So we’re always meeting the expectations of the different personalities in the room. That’s why pitching virtually has been so difficult. The human aspect is important.

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