What It Takes to be a World Class Ad Agency New Business Person

Most ad agency new business people are competitive, and want to be the very best they can be. What separates the average from the great? The experts from the “wannabes”? I was struck by a section of Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, that provides a very simple answer.

Gladwell relates a study by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and two colleagues at Berlin’s Academy of Music. In the study, the school’s violinists were divided into three groups: those who were stars; those who were good; and, those who were unlikely to ever play professionally.They were all asked the same question:

Over the course of your entire career…how many hours have you practiced?

What the researchers found is that everyone started off playing at about the same age – five or six years old. They all practiced about the same amount: two to three hours a week. But after about three years of study, those who ended up being best in their class started to increase the amount of practice time: “six hours a week by age nine, eight hours a week by age twelve, sixteen hours a week by age fourteen, and up and up until by the age of twenty, they were practicing – that is, purposely and single-mindedly playing their instruments with the intent to get better – well over thirty hours a week.”

In fact, by the age of twenty, the elite performers had each totaled ten thousand hours hours of practice.

Gladwell goes on to say that the researchers couldn’t find any “naturals” who were able to perform at a high level with little effort. What they found, instead, was that:

the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is hard work. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.

He then reports that study after study has confirmed that 10,000 hours of practice is the qualifying line for world class talent – whether in music, sports, chess, or even to be a master criminal.

So, what does 10,000 hours of practice represent to a new business person? Let’s say you work 40 hours a week and work forty-nine weeks a year. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to:

  • More than 5 years of dedicated, focused effort at improving your skills – assuming you work at it full time.
  • More than 10 years of dedicated effort if you work at it half-time.
  • And, if you’re like many agency principals who dabble at it for five hours a week: it will take you 41 years to master new business.

This should be sobering. If your agency doesn’t have a full-time new business person, and a team of people who practice really hard at their craft, can you ever (realistically) hope to be really, really good at new business?

Or, if you’re younger or relatively new to the new business game, are your expectations realistically set? Are you willing to work really hard, full-time, for at least five years before claiming to be good at new business?

These findings resonate with me – as a still-competitive athlete and a business person with enough years in the seat to recognize that knowledge really does comes from practice and experience.

It takes a lot of hard work, making mistakes and overcoming them – over many years – to be good at something. You’ve got to be in it for the long term, with a desire – and a serious commitment – to be the best you can be.



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