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The New New Business: Why Anyone Can Be Taught Anything with Cat Davis


MISSION's group marketing director on having the skin of a rhino, living in Asia and advice from Eminem and Indiana Jones

The New New Business: Why Anyone Can Be Taught Anything with Cat Davis

Cat is the group marketing director for The MISSION Group, a collective of creative and martech agencies employing over 1,000 people across 28 locations and three continents. Cat has around 30 years of experience within the marketing industry and is one of the most senior female figures in the fields of advertising and communications, marketing, media and associated trade bodies. Prior to joining MISSION, Cat oversaw new business drives at Dentsu-owned gyro and earned a reputation at GREY London for driving new business, landing 68 new accounts including major names like GSK, HSBC and Ribena.

LBB> What was your first sale or new business win? (Was it a big or small job? How difficult or scary was it? What do you remember about how you felt? What lessons did you learn?)

Cat> My first sale was a set of curtains on the walls & windows department during my Saturday job at Habitat. I progressed to running the furniture department and was then informally known as ‘Miss Storecard’ for my ability to get more people to sign up to the store’s Storecard than anyone else in the country! I refused to wear the commemorative green sash to ID this accolade but it was easy – “just give me your name, address (have you been there over three years?), bank account details and signature and get 20% off your shopping – I’ll do the rest”. Some people do make things so complicated. My job then (as it was now) is to simplify, make things easy, enable everyone else to excel in their fields and for us all to have fun in the process.

My first ‘new business’ win saw a huge global RFI land on my desk three hours into day one of my first new business role. No pressure there then! Q1/ what is your company number, Q2/ what is your VAT number… were nerve-wracking enough when I knew no-one in the Agency let alone the basic company information and it just got ‘worse’ as every single question was alien to me as the newbie. But what a learning curve that was! Fast forward x months later – Allianz appointed Grey to its £60 million global advertising account. What did I learn? A mountain is less scary to climb if you just focus on putting one foot in front of the other, how every mountain summit is within reach if you just keep climbing. And how the hardest mountain to climb is actually the one within. But the happiness and growth you get climbing said mountain is pure joy. The winning was pretty fantastic too!

LBB> What was the best piece of advice you got early on? 

Cat> “Surround yourself with radiators, not drains”.

LBB> And the worst?

Cat> “They said no so it’s over”.

“It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over” sang Lenny Kravitz and in this game of new business that’s 100% true.

LBB> How has the business of ‘selling’ in the creative industry changed since you started?

Cat> The fundamentals haven’t changed. The tactics have. Awareness is key. An ‘always on multi-channel’ approach is vital. You need to always be ‘selling/promoting’ across all media formats so that you’re in the consideration set when a brand does decide to review. No-one is sitting by the phone waiting for that call to land. Be nosey, be interesting, be engaged, be ‘on’, set yourself up so that when the brand goes fishing you’re in the right pond.

LBB> Can anyone be taught to sell or do new business or do you think it suits a certain kind of personality?

Cat> I believe anyone can be taught anything – albeit to a particular level. But differences in capability, and differences in the desire to succeed or to put the effort in mean that we won’t all become experts. And we don’t have to be. I’m learning how to play golf – not to be world champion but ultimately just for a nice walk digging holes!

But yes I do think new business suits a certain kind of personality. You’ve got to like people, be able to talk any/everything with any/everyone. If you’ve got the skin of a rhino, a sense of humour, the ability to just ‘get it done’, to expect the unexpected whilst smiling and staying swan-like on the surface, to take responsibility, always, and to galvanise and motivate teams, then you’re off to a good start. The ability to spin a lot of plates, do so simultaneously and not drop one, helps! And be you – the real, authentic you.

LBB> What are your thoughts about the process of pitching that the industry largely runs on? (e.g. How can it be improved - or does it need to be done away with completely? Should businesses be paid to pitch? What are your thoughts about businesses completely refusing to engage in pitching? How can businesses perform well without ‘giving ideas away for free?)

Cat> Finding a new client or agency is exciting and daunting in equal measure. It’s a big investment –in terms of time, emotionally, creatively, financially, psychologically and a fair few other ‘ly’s’. What is vital is for the process to be fair and transparent – for all. 

It’s everything in proportion for me. 

Is it fair to ask an agency to develop a full-blown pitch for a financially ‘small’ piece of business? Why not have a workshop or appoint off the back of a chemistry meeting – ascertain if you have a shared culture, vision or values with your prospective new partner. Can either of you envisage enjoying a long-term relationship together? 

Large, complicated pitches require a greater level of rigour and detail. If the prospect is transparent up front about the pitch/tender requirements, size/scope of the prize and the pitch process, agencies can make informed decisions and decide whether they are happy to ‘invest’ - in every sense of the word. Some pitches are more like back-to-back marathons than a sprint. It takes a team on both sides to maintain momentum and passion/optimism for such a substantial time period so as importantly as it is to say ‘yes’, it’s also important to know when to say ‘no thank you’ or when to bow out gracefully.

As the Grail Knight told Indiana Jones “Choose. But choose wisely”.

LBB> How do you go about tailoring your selling approach according to the kind of person or business you’re approaching?

Cat> The most important word here is ‘tailoring’. Do your homework. Find common ground. Make it count. Do not ‘go for everything’ just because x opportunity might be up for grabs. And listen, listen, listen. Then act on it and deliver what you say. There’s no one size fits all here.

LBB> New business and sales can often mean hearing ‘no’ a lot and quite a bit of rejection - how do you keep motivated?

Cat> You have to remember it’s not personal. Learn from it. Move on. And stay in touch. You might not be right for x brand ‘now’ – in 18 months’ time it could be a very different story.

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?

Cat> It’s a people industry. I think the blurred lines make things easier. Some of my closest friends are people I’ve met working in this industry – be they agency or client side, intermediaries, procurement leads, journalists/editors etc. There’s an established trust, transparency, and shorthand between you which makes for wonderful efficiency and fun. And at the same time, you’re going to bring the same A-game you bring to a pitch with someone you do know as much as someone you don’t, because you win/lose as a team in this game. Friendships might give you a head start – but they won’t be the decider. In fact maybe in retrospect it’s harder –you’ve got more to prove!

LBB> In your view what’s the key to closing a deal?

Cat> New business is like dating. You’re not looking to progress through each stage, thankful you’ve made it. From your very first ‘date’ your intent must be to ensure you’re the only one (agency) left at the altar ready to wed. You need to slay every single interaction. Thus, ensuring that from that first meet you’re in front and hold that position throughout the pitch process. 

LBB> How important is cultural understanding when it comes to selling internationally? (And if you have particular experience on this front, what advice do you have?)

Cat> Hugely. One size does not fit all. Ever. Having lived in/worked with Asia for eight years, firstly agency then client side, I embraced the culture, ensured I was informed so as not to inadvertently offend and tried my hardest to blend in as a local. I spent three years learning Mandarin. Did you know there are four different tones (plus a neutral tone) so – the pitch and intonation you use changes the meaning of the word. For example, depending on the tone you use the meaning of mǎ (horse) is very different from mā (mother), or hemp or scold (!) and you don’t want to get any of those four mixed up!

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? 

Cat> You cannot beat on the job training. It’s the fastest, most immersive training programme you can get. There are now training courses you can attend on many aspects of the job but they didn’t exist when I started out. You learn most from those around you, so choosing who they are is critical. I’ve no doubt that training makes a difference, particularly on technical topics, but we work in a relationship business and that’s where the real learning comes from.

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?

Cat> Find those you think are the best in the business (for you) – be that a particular individual, intermediaries, journalists/editors etc. and ask them how they got to where they are. Then take the assembled advice, tweak it to make your own and follow the guidance!

Or as Eminem much more succinctly said …


If you had

One shot

Or one opportunity

To seize everything you ever wanted

In one moment

Would you capture it

Or just let it slip?

I can’t rap. But I try not to let anything slip.

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krow, Mon, 13 Mar 2023 15:24:00 GMT