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The New New Business: Helen Lee

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Head of new business and marketing at Wunderman Thompson UK on the best piece of advice she ever received and how the business of ‘selling’ in the creative industry has changed since she started

The New New Business: Helen Lee

Helen Lee is head of new business and marketing at Wunderman Thompson UK. Sitting on the UK leadership team, she heads up Wunderman Thompson UK’s New Business and Marketing function, overseeing net new & organic growth, PR & thought leadership, events, proprietary IP, owned channels and internal comms. 

With 10 years experience across Business Development roles at Wunderman Thompson, OMD and Publicis, Helen has won a range of high-profile pitches, including Toyota, Lexus, Centrica, First Direct, Ingka and Pets at Home. Helen also drives excellence in marketing across the agency, as the global marketing lead for the launch of Inspire, Inspire B2B and the annual Future 100 report which, this year, became the first Wunderman Thompson event to be held in the metaverse.

One of Helen’s proudest achievements at Wunderman Thompson is helping the agency to hold an Agency of the Year title for five years in a row, most recently pivoting from Customer Experience Agency of the Year to Integrated Agency of the Year. 

Helen has a passion to see other women rise and reach their full potential at work and, in 2021, she co-founded Wunderman Thompson’s Women’s Network, RISE. The group inspires and empowers over 300 women in the agency and hosts regular events for all those who identify as female, including providing safe spaces for transparent conversations around tricky topics such as the menopause and allyship. 

Helen has won multiple accolades, including being named as a Top 100 Superwoman by Pitch Fanzine, being named as BD100’s Business Developer of the Year list in 2019 and shortlisting again in 2020 and 2021. Most recently, in 2022, she has been shortlisted for the IPA’s iList, for her work with RISE.


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?)

Helen> My first win wasn’t necessarily the biggest in terms of value, but I remember standing in the company meeting when it was announced by our CEO and seeing how it impacted the whole agency. Still today, I find the affect that new business has on everyone to be hugely humbling and motivating. But recognising how invested everyone is in winning reminds me that new business isn’t just down to the few individuals in the new business department. Our mantra is “new business is everyone’s business”. You win together, and sometimes you lose together. But ultimately, you’re in it together. 


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

Helen> One of my first bosses and one of my biggest inspirations, Nikki Mendonca, told me it was time to move on from your role if you stopped learning. It’s something 10 years later I still reflect on, and why I continue to surround myself with seriously smart people. 


LBB> And the worst?

Helen> That we should build weekends into pitch plans in order to win. I fundamentally disagree and luckily so does the rest of my agency (shocker!) No one wins by presenting a Sunday night idea frazzled. 


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

Helen> As someone who started out in the industry by cold calling for agencies I’d say things have changed dramatically (yes, I had a headset!) Today it’s about building your network and long-term relationships with a tailored approach, talking less about ourselves and more about the clients. 


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

Helen> New business is a craft and I truly believe there is a rare breed of person who is right for it. You can teach people the process and the skills needed but what you can’t teach is the competitive spirit, the sense of calm amongst the madness, the ability to pick yourself and others up after something’s not gone your way, the want to always be better than the last time, looking beyond what’s in front of you and the passion for bringing people together. Many people say they hire on attitude not aptitude and I think that’s never truer than in new business. 


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 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?)

Helen> Pitching often brings the best out of your people and agency, bringing a diverse group of people together to create an explosion of creative solutions that day-to-day might not see the light of day.  It’s thrilling. But at high investment, it’s important to set clear boundaries to sustain momentum. The IPA and ISBA recently launched the Pitch Positive Pledge which centers on driving efficiencies and reducing wastage. We place a big focus on making sure we’re spending our time and energy in the right places by properly qualifying opportunities. And when we go for it, we make sure we run the process so we can show up in the best possible way. Getting the right team involved from the off, asking for a tissue meeting if there isn’t one and making sure we get constructive feedback (“We just preferred another idea” isn’t really that helpful) to name just a few. The beauty of pitching is no pitch is the same as the last, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a solid process to navigate everyone through the craziness. 


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

Helen> Having a clear story around who you are as a business and believing it is key. Having a strong foundation allows you to flex and mould your offering to people without losing who you are. Luckily, I am in a business where everything I say we can do, we can do, there’s no smoke and mirrors or false promises. To build on your foundation, get to know who you’re speaking to, but make sure you understand the wider context and stakeholders, the challenges they are facing and how you can help. 


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

Helen> Sometimes you can do everything right and still don’t win. The important thing to remember is that you didn’t necessarily not hit the mark, someone just hit it better and that happens. Remember it’s not personal, take the positives and the learnings forward and come back stronger. And when you do win, celebrate hard. 


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?

Helen> It’s all about relationships. You just can’t take things too personally if it doesn’t go your way. At the end of the day everyone is doing what they think is right for their business. 


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

Helen> Dig deep to understand the problem you’re trying to solve. Not necessary the one that’s in the brief. The real problem. 


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?)

Helen> It’s critical. At Wunderman Thompson we talk about the whole brand experience. Even if we’re brought in on a brand brief, we’ll look at the CRM journey and digital experience to give ourselves an integrated view of the brand to truly understand the pain points and opportunities. And that often needs to be placed in cultural context, what’s right in the UK won’t necessarily be right in Japan, so make sure you put yourself in the customer’s shoes. 


LBB> How is technology and new platforms (from platforms like Salesforce and Hubspot to video calls to social media) changing sales and new business?

Helen> In one of my previous global new biz roles we used to do all our reporting in excel with 200 markets sending files in each month for consolidation. It felt like a full-time job. Particularly when you got the dreaded “I sent you the wrong file” email just as you’re done.  Working with new technology platforms has simply but crucially freed up hours of time, allowing teams to focus on the more strategic, creative tasks that fill the pipeline, which is where, frankly, we all want our time to be spent.


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? 

Helen> The AAR does an apprenticeship course for understanding the end-to-end process of new business that’s brilliant for those starting out. For those a bit further along, skills training such as NABS’ masterclass in building confidence & gravitas and storytelling are a worthwhile investment. I’d also recommend referring to the old school SPIN selling framework of Situation, Problem, Implication and Payout. It’s still as relevant today as when it was developed in 1988. 


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?

Helen> No question is a stupid one and no idea is too crazy. Don’t limit yourself. And be nice – it’s free! 

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Wunderman Thompson London, Wed, 09 Mar 2022 13:49:55 GMT