Celebrate the Wins, Learn From the Losses: Diane Heun, Critical Mass

For the latest installment in our New Business & Growth series, we spoke with Diane Heun, the Executive Vice President of Business Development at Critical Mass.

by Mark Tungate , AdForum

Critical Mass
Chicago, United States
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Diane Heun
Executive Vice President, Business Development Critical Mass

How would you define your role in a couple of sentences?

I’ve been with Critical Mass for over nineteen years — always in a Business Development role. It’s been an exciting and challenging journey. In the course of growing from director to VP, then to the executive suite, I’ve learned that I need to be a little bit of everything. A great listener, collaborator, and negotiator. A creative storyteller who can also juggle multiple deadlines, work well under pressure, and remain extremely detail oriented. A leader and motivator who is always available to my team. Someone who never gives up, and always shows up. Every week is different, and every pitch is different. That’s what I love about it — we could be pitching luxury goods one week, healthcare the next, and technology the week after that.


Critical Mass is an experience design agency. How different is the business development role in your environment compared to within a traditional ad agency? Or is the landscape blurring?

There are definitely similarities between CM and what you might find at a traditional agency. Business developers tend to have some similar traits—you have to listen, ask good questions, connect the dots between strategy and creative, etc. What may be different is our perspective. At CM, we look at how creativity, data, and technology connect across the entire ecosystem, and enable seamless, human, dynamic experiences—and the impact we’re seeing for clients is real. We’re helping them do things that no one else in their category is doing, and it’s exciting to see. 

We also work quite a bit with the more traditional agencies, and while the lines are starting to blur, most still focus on media + creative. I think we all recognize that people don’t want to sift through ads; they want to connect with something meaningful. And, digital is how you do it — the new inspiration, communication, commerce, booking mechanism — the new everything.


You’ve been at Critical Mass for 19 years now. What is it about the company that engenders such loyalty? 

I started with CM in January 2002 in our Chicago office, and if you were to tell me 20 years later I’d still be here, I would have laughed and said no way. The truth is I’ve never been part of an agency that’s so committed to its people, its values, its growth, and always working towards something better. We’re a humble group of smart individuals who are nice. You don’t find much ego here! We have a fantastic leadership team, and opportunities for individuals to thrive and advance are abundant — particularly for women and BIPOC employees, which is exciting to see.

I like to say that my time at CM is similar to a good marriage — a strong foundation built on solid values where we can grow together. I’ve been with many of my colleagues for ten and even twenty years now, but equally terrific is the ceaseless influx of new talent coming into the agency from all over the world. Whether they’re right out of school or very seasoned, I’m always learning from them. It’s a win/win all around. 


What is the most challenging aspect of the business development role from your perspective? 

This role definitely isn’t for everyone. You need a thick skin, as well as the ability to juggle intense deadlines. That’s what I love about it. The pace. The pursuit. The adrenaline rush. And I love to win. But, there’s a flipside. The intensity can take a toll. Some weeks I feel like I can’t catch my breath. My stress level goes up. There are ups and downs that can be hard to manage. Winning is great but you’re also going to lose, despite your best efforts. It is inevitable. You need to stay focused and motivated no matter what. We have an incredibly strong win record, but we just went through a couple of heartbreakers alongside some spectacular wins. In both cases,  you need humility — celebrate the wins, but learn from the losses and know how to move on and continue to rally your team towards the next opportunity. 


Where does new business typically come from for Critical Mass? Mainly from consultants? From clients themselves? Is there still an element of prospecting? 

Our New Business engine is driven by multiple streams that we consistently track. About 60% of leads come to us direct, mainly because of the incredible work our talented Marketing and Comms team does to drive visibility and awareness. We screen and qualify every lead for fit and make a decision based on specific criteria. This helps us achieve the tough quotas we set for advancing to the finals and winning business. We actually decline a fair bit of what comes to us. In addition to direct, about 20% of our leads come to us through our parent company, Omnicom Group, or through sister agencies within our network. These might be integrated pitch opportunities where multiple agencies are collaborating together or handed over to us if the ask is specific to our capabilities. Client and employee referrals and search consultants make up the other 20% of leads coming in. We do prospect with a focused lens against key categories and verticals using tactics that we believe are of value to the target. As mentioned, we track everything and can see the correlation of outbound efforts against leads coming in to determine ROI against prospecting. We’re a small, tightly integrated team, so focusing on the right areas is key to our success, but it’s also something we’re very good at.


How did the digital capabilities of the organization help it adjust to pitching during the pandemic? 

While we moved quickly to remote work, pitching itself was more challenging. When you’re in the room with the client, you feel their energy and feed off it. Now, we have to work hard to create chemistry over Zoom, especially in the first couple of minutes when first impressions are made. Authenticity and personality are key, so we make sure the time isn’t spent just staring at Keynote slides. 

We make sure we have strong, authentic presenters who can tell a great story, and we incorporate a precise mix of animation, sound, and motion in our presentations — but not so much that we’re thwarted by glitchy internet signals! We keep slides highly visual and convey our key points through our own voices. We also bring the client into the conversation, rather than just presenting to them or at them. True chemistry will always be about human relationships. We need to demonstrate that we can connect, collaborate, and get to know our potential clients over our screens.  


What are your tips for managing the different personalities involved in pitches? 

Not sure if this refers to our internal teams or the client’s team but managing both are critical. The Business Development lead wears many hats: ringmaster, cheerleader, conductor, motivator, and communicator. Internally, we must ensure we get the best thinking and output from our people and often we have to push back, and course correct. When it comes to clients, we do everything possible to understand the decision makers and influencers—what’s important to them in a partner, and what keeps them up at night as they think about the review and selection process.