Jess Cheney is a head earned thinker at Thinkerbell, working to build and shape the reputation of brands and change consumer behaviour.
She has nine years’ experience in earned and owned media, and before Thinkerbell worked at communications agencies TBWA\Eleven, FleishmanHillard and Weber Shandwick. Her brand experience includes ALDI, Bose, Carnival Corporation, Johnson & Johnson, Mattel, Mars, Medibank and more.
In her spare time, she is studying her MBA in Marketing at Melbourne Business School and supports the creative industry as a mentor with MADC’s The Aunties.
LBB> What was your first sale or new business win?
Jess> The first response I crafted and sold in was a yearlong influencer engagement and content creation piece of work for a global brands ANZ market. I was an account executive and worked directly with my group head.
What felt like a long process of preparation was a relatively short presentation in the room. The job was implemented and ended up being one of those pieces of work that is replicated across global markets, which is always a win for an ANZ team.
I learnt people care about how much you care – and personal passion and interest in the brand and work proposed amplify the energy in the room tenfold.
LBB> What was the best piece of advice you got early on?
Jess> I’ve worked under some excellent leaders, all who have left me with a tonne of advice and learnings. The top three are:
It’s OK to say no, to turn work away, and to give advice against your own interests. Particularly the piece on advice. Reputation, trust, and competence are what matters most, particularly if you want to make a long-term career in any form of consulting.
You must set your goals and delivery milestones realistically. This not just for yourself, but for your entire team working on the job – otherwise the work suffers. It’s key for potential clients as their first experiences establish the relationship and satisfaction.
You are servicing both the company and the client. The work is important, but equally so is the satisfaction of the client.
LBB> And the worst?
Jess> When it comes to potential business, the worst advice is anything around quick conversion – usually via pushing your own interests or agenda – or the request to generically follow up a client to convert a piece of work.
Potential business partners – who are also normal people – are dealing with their day job, families, extracurricular activities, and the possibility of now adding a new partner to their business.
You always want to read the room as best you can and match their pace in communications. And, while you want to remain proactive and interested, without a clear update on your end, new piece of information or specific ask, the generic follow up or check-in is just annoying for the client.
LBB> How has the business of ‘selling’ in the creative industry changed since you started?
Jess> The biggest challenge is the fragmentation of media. It’s still true that news drives news, but 10-years ago ideas that would be stories of the day in press and social media would struggle to cut-through now.
The idea has to be smart, different and has to live in a variety of channels. And that’s hard to do well.
LBB> Can anyone be taught to sell or do new business, or do you think it suits a certain kind of personality?
Jess> Yes, 100% it can be taught – and is best learned on the job from a great mentor.
If I had to list learnable skills, you want to be confident in the work because you will communicate it better and adaptable because every potential client will be different and require different levels of information.
LBB> What are your thoughts about the process of pitching that the industry largely runs on?
Jess> A pitch is a huge output of energy, productivity and ultimately great work – for both agency and client. If an agency has demand that outstrips its capacity and it doesn’t have to pitch at all, then good for them.
I understand the rationale to pitch when the agreement is a significant financial and multi-year time investment. However, I don’t think pitches are necessary for short-term or one-off/first-time engagements as in the process of planning the client isn’t buying a finite idea.
The idea is interchangeable, particularly in the early phases of working together. No external partner will ever know the intricacies of the business or category like the client team. Nor should they. The benefit of an external partner is their broad category knowledge, depth of technical expertise, and ability to look in and identify unseen opportunities that will provide value – ultimately profit – for the business.
The client is buying the agency’s brand, the skills, the people, and the past work and results. All of which can be ascertained without a pitch.
LBB> How do you go about tailoring your selling approach according to the kind of person or business you’re approaching?
Jess> You must consider the goals and vision for the work from both businesses. Otherwise, expectations won’t be met and at least one party – if not both – will be unsatisfied.
You must consider what the business is willing to pay, too. It’s a loss of time and energy on both sides if price isn’t discussed upfront. Most ideas are scalable and the comfort level of spend and the ROI expected is important to agree on from the start.
You must consider the company and the client. You can’t just throw people together and produce a good result, you need to consider the skills mix and personality profiles that will show up best for that client.
In saying that, most of the time securing work is being available at the right time, and ensuring the right people know who you and the business are and what you do.
LBB> New business and sales can often mean hearing ‘no’ a lot and quite a bit of rejection - how do you keep motivated?
Jess> No is common. But no can and does go both ways too, which is important to remember. And a no now doesn’t mean a no forever.
Often a “no” is not a reflection of the work and can be driven by time pressures or relationships.
Often there is something to learn, but sometimes there isn’t – so in either case you need to either implement the learning or simply move on.
LBB> The advertising and marketing industry often blurs the line between personal and professional friendships and relationships… Does this make selling easier or more difficult and delicate?
Jess> It is much easier as trust is pre-established. But there is always a balance in managing perception and expectation no matter whether the relationship started off as personal or professional.
I think for any relationship that begins as personal and transitions to professional it is important to demonstrate competence as quickly as possible.
Clients and businesses hire you because you work smart and hard – not for social reasons. You want to keep that at the forefront of all interactions.
LBB> In your view, what's the key to closing a deal?
Jess> There isn’t one key, and responsibility doesn’t sit on any one person. It’s a team sport.
I like the saying, “Products are consumed, services are experienced”. It comes down to the whole experience, from the first point of contact with the agency to all communications via phone, text, email, or in-person. What was the speed and clarity of those?
On clarity, are the most relevant people explaining the work. When talking through pricing and product, these topics may not sit with the most senior person in the business but a manager or specialist who has priced an element of the job.
You want every interaction to be thoughtful, positive, and consistent to the agency’s brand – whatever its point of differentiation might be.
LBB> How important is cultural understanding when it comes to selling internationally?
Jess> The latest Census data shows the Australian population identifies with more than 300 ancestries and more than one-fourth of us born overseas. Understanding cultural nuances is important no matter where the work is located – internationally or domestically.
You never know a market until you’ve lived and worked in it – and you will never fully understand a culture unless it's yours. Ideally, you have a counterpart in the market or connection that you can partner with to broaden your knowledge and understanding.
LBB> How is technology and new platforms (from platforms like Salesforce and Hubspot to video calls to social media) changing sales and new business?
Jess> New platforms are great. They do the jobs of streamlining processes, nudging contact reminders and capturing information well. Relationships can absolutely be built virtually, but much of business is human interaction and it’s important not to lose that touchpoint.
LBB> There’s a lot of training for a lot of parts of the industry, but what’s your thoughts about the training and skills development when it comes to selling and new business?
Jess> Training should be focussed on hard skills, your craft and technical knowledge. Get good at that first, and the soft skills required – that are harder to teach in a formal capacity – will happen on the job.
LBB> What’s your advice for anyone who’s not necessarily come up as a salesperson who’s now expected to sell or win new business as part of their role?
Jess> Don’t interrupt. Don’t assume anything, either. Let any potential partner speak for as long as they need to. The more they speak the more you learn about them and their business and the better you can tailor a solution to the problem.
After any interaction, actively demonstrate back that you have heard what they have said by summarising key outtakes and actions to follow.