Introducing ‘Hopium’ – the ailment blocking agency growth and securing deals

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I once had a boss who said, “I think we got away with that one” after just being told by the Chairman of a global cereal brand our creative proposals were “the biggest load of crap [he’s] ever seen”. We were fired the next day. The agency was closed six months later with over 350 jobs lost.

Delusional thinking around your agency’s performance is dangerous. Yet this form of commercial suicide is all around us – especially in business development. It’s an ailment that global M&A and growth advisory firm, Waypoint Partners, calls ‘Hopium’.

The concept is described as, “A sales behaviour featuring unsubstantiated optimism, delusion and self-deception within the context of winning new business”.

A positive mindset in and of itself isn’t a bad thing – it’s needed to keep pushing forward. However, Hopium blurs your vision and blocks creating tangible routes to growth. No agency can afford to limit its growth potential - especially in a tough economic climate. I have no doubt Hopium was the nail in the coffin for the agency that lost the cereal account.

Hopium is the business equivalent of looking into a crystal ball or tea leaves and convincing yourself the future’s bright with no basis in reality. Before you know it, the whole team’s on autopilot and have lost control of their future. They float about in a miasma of self-deception until, inevitably, disaster strikes.

If you are fine with Hopium in your workplace, we wish you luck and have a lovely range of gifts for you to choose from. These include a replica of Damian Hirst’s Eternal Prayer to remind employees there's no real plan except to hope. Or perhaps a cuckoo clock for hourly reminders that no new business has come in, with nothing really done about it. If you like, there is also a vintage desk phone that never rings.


The first step to overcoming Hopium is to stop being in denial. There can be no more excuses for new business underperformance. Let’s stop pretending it’s out of our control. Excuses like, “the competitor plays five-a-side with the other prospect’s director” carry minimal weight. If you truly knocked their socks off, that wouldn’t be a factor.

The second step is to ’know what you need to know before you believe what you want to believe’. No one with any sense would ever bet their house on roulette. Even if they think it can be pulled off, luck runs out eventually.

The third crucial step is to embrace healthy paranoia. This means consistently taking action and asking questions about your processes with prospective clients. Don’t take platitudes at face value – you become adept at reading between the lines and adjusting your approach accordingly. Always assume the competition is in the lead and, to catch-up, you need to work harder and smarter.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, either. Network around multiple contacts at the client company and don’t just rely on one relationship.

It’s also vital that your agency knows when and when not to pitch. Put a process in place to prospect potential clients, and whether you have the experience, skills or services to actually win and provide the solutions that the client is looking for.

That approach should lead to pitching less but winning more.

Understand that every interaction with the client, from an email to a presentation, matters. And always ask yourself what more you need to be doing to secure the win.

Let’s leave Hopium to the finger-pointers, gamblers and wishful thinkers.

As the Zulu nation says, “If tomorrow fails to arrive, you must go and fetch it”.

By David Kean, Co-Developer of agency growth accelerator, Catalyst2 .


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