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Cancelled pitches and rising stress: Opinium and jfdi publish seventh annual UK New Business Barometer

jfdi, the UK’s leading specialist new business consultancy, and award-winning strategic insight agency Opinium, have published their seventh annual UK New Business Barometer – an in-depth benchmark of performance and insights for new business and agency leaders.

The largest and most comprehensive industry study of its kind in scope and scale, the Barometer is conducted nationwide, with data drawn from 266 agency business development professionals (up 30% on 2023) across 18 disciplines from creative to media; digital to experiential, and content to social.

The Barometer is published in partnership with Agencynomics, The IPA, Prolific North, BIMA, Bristol Creative Industries, The Drum Network and the Alliance.

Mark Clark, CEO, jfdi said: “New business is the lifeblood of every agency whatever its age, size or expertise. As a practice it changes at the same pace as the agency world it serves. How you manage that change is an invaluable competitive advantage. Which is why the Barometer offers much more than data and insights. When applied, it’s a playbook on how to win in the world of agency new business.”

James Murphy, founder and CEO, New Commercial Arts, added: “The industry is evolving so relentlessly and rapidly, that you’ve always got more to learn and skills to hone. No more so than in new business – where briefs and pitches are, rightly, demanding more of us. The jfdi/Opinium Barometer is, quite simply, the gold standard of new business benchmarking. Our go-to source for exceptional insights and practical solutions to contemporary pitching.”

Key Findings of this year’s report included:

  • A return to human-based prospecting as strategies shift from lead generation digital outreach to a human-connected approach. 88% of respondents used management connections to prospect– with 44% citing this a top strategy; 68% asking clients for referrals and 67% forming alliances and partnerships. This change may be driven by email overload and an explosion of pushed content in an over-supplied agency market.

    Jfdi CEO Camilla Honey said: “In our challenging new business market, competitive edge is everything and it’s interesting to see the human touch is overriding overwhelming digitally-based automated approaches. AI watch out!”
  • Ideas that deliver, are practical and affordable are winning pitches. In a difficult economic environment, the proportion of respondents saying they commonly win projects because of ideas that are ‘practical/affordable/deliverable’ has risen 8 points to 33%.
  • The shrinking new business pool. The total value of new business targeted by larger agencies has fallen by 28% while the number of opportunities pursued has remained consistent (+2%). This suggests that larger agencies may be targeting more project-based work, previously the preserve of small and medium-sized agencies.
  • The rise of the cancelled pitch. 43% of respondents reported client withdrawal of budget as the most common reason for not winning a pitch. Significantly, this is up 10% on last year, following a consistent level in previous years. Other reasons include: “rarely given a reason” (41%); “economic uncertainty” (33%); “ideas not deemed affordable” (20%); “agencies failed to demonstrate relevant expertise/capability” (18%.)
  • The ticking stress bomb. 70% of new business practitioners report their role becoming more stressful over the last 12 months. With new business teams generally recognised as the most resilient in the agency, this worrying trend signals the need to ensure mental health welfare and wellbeing in this space.

    Josh Glendinning, research director and partner at Opinium, said: “The New Business Barometer’s unparalleled insight shows how the pressures of a tough economic environment are cascading through the marketing industry. Clients are demanding more than ever during the pitch process but finding it more difficult to provide concrete assurances to agencies that work will be commissioned.”

Additional Findings

  • Reasons for winning: Clients award business with combination of rational and emotional decisions: 73% stated relevant experience and expertise (up six percentage points on last year) and 69% mentioned good chemistry.
  • New business revenue targets for large and medium agencies dropped by -17% and -7% respectively during the past year. Large agencies saw a massive dip in 2020 and again in 2023 – indicating large agencies are less resilient in difficult markets. Conversely, targets for small agencies rose by 9% year-on-year.
  • Pitch conversion has dropped for large, medium and small agencies – a trend seen since 2021. Large and small agencies are converting at the lowest rates since the survey began. Both have seen an increase in number of opportunities pursued which potentially stretched pitch capabilities and resources and is now showing diminishing returns.
  • Client is King – with changing complexity at the heart driven by factors including: the client community is under increasing pressure to deliver short-term conversion and long-term equity, leaning harder into agency partners to help navigate newly emerging technologies, fast-changing consumer demands and explosion of new places and spaces.

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