Pitching...a few home truths

Whatever the method of your new business pitch…competitive, non-competitive, refusing to deliver fully developed creative etc. etc. etc… there are loads of ways to improve your chances. (I’m going to leave the “should you, shouldn’t you?” question for now. That’s for another day.  You can download our pitch qualification tool here.)

Pitches can be time guzzling, resource sucking, money wasting pursuits if you don’t win. And no, there is no coming second, that’s called losing. But, the flipside to that is winning and winning a lot. It’s challenging and invigorating for an agency to pitch and win, and keep winning. I’ve always loved the energy of it, and when done right it:

  •  gives you a massive opportunity for your people to hone their craft
  • strengthens your agency so it becomes a collaborative, cohesive unit
  • allows you to stretch your imagination beyond the day to day
  • gives you the platform to push the limits of your thinking and creativity
  • let’s you learn about new brands, products, services and entire industries (for me that’s covered everything from Michael Jackson’s estate, single malty whisky, through to foot fungus and commercial construction, I kid you not)
  • it gives your agency the confidence to win, and win and win

Let’s be honest, who needs to jump out of a plane to get an adrenalin hit when you can lead your agency on a winning streak. It’s freaking addictive and I will always love it.

As you can imagine, after almost a decade and a half of running agency pitches, winning (and sometimes losing) 100s of millions of pounds worth of business, I’ve learnt a thing or two (sometimes the hard way) about what works and what most certainly doesn’t.

Now, I’ve talked about how to win BEFORE you get in the room previously. Today, I want to talk about the nitty gritty of the pitch itself. To challenge your thinking about it and hopefully offer some practical tips and advice on how to improve your conversion rates.

I’m going to start with an important question that many agencies tend to forget to ask…
"Why does a brand pick one agency over another?"

This might shock some of you, but it’s NOT simply “the creative”(think about how often pitch work actually runs), it’s not just “the solution” (that often changes once you start working with a client anyway), and it’s not even “the price” (usually). Don’t get me wrong they are important, and not to be forgotten, but they are ticking off a list of must-haves. Tt’s a given that the winner can deliver the solution and provide the services they are looking for – otherwise you wouldn’t be there in the first place. No, do you know what it is?

It’s that “They understood us”, “They listened”, “They just got it”. Ultimately they pick who they like, who they trust instinctively and who they think will be the best people to work alongside to achieve their objectives; someone that cares enough about them, their brand and their business to make them look good and to give a shit about their success. And by the way, this isn’t just my opinion, this come from hundreds of interviews our team conducts yearly with our client’s clients. It’s the same answer almost every time.

OK, fine, that’s why, but how does that affect how you should conduct your pitches? How do we show them we understand them?

Do the research (sector, business, brand, marketing, sales, people)

o   figure out what challenges they are facing, what’s keeping them up at night as a business/brand and as individuals with different responsibilities. [Sometimes the real challenge isn’t written in the brief, you need to dig deeper.

o   discover true insights that drive your thinking, strategy and creativity (DO NOT try and shoe-horn insights because you raced straight to solution, if you think they don’t know, you are kidding yourselves) if you can’t afford to do a big piece of research, I guarantee there are academic papers somewhere online that someone has done, or why not even get out there with your iPhone and record people on the street’s thinking and reactions

o   ask them the in-depth questions others are too scared to ask, show genuine interest (think of the dating scenario – first date, the person who asks the questions is the one showing interest right?)

o   Research the people, try and figure out the dynamic, who are the decision makers and who are the influencers. Is there anything we can find out about the individuals that allows us to be more personal, more understanding of their nature, their role, what they care about, hell, what music they like. It’s amazing what you can find out about people online if you are willing to put in the effort. I’m not just talking LinkedIn, I’m talking about reading interviews they may have given, comments they’ve made on Twitter etc.


o   At every step of the process ask questions, get to know them as much as you can in the lead up to the pitch

o   Take notice of language in conversations, briefs and emails – reflect their language and turn of phrase i.e. If they use consumers instead of customers, you do the same

o   Read between the lines, for example, if they ask you to provide an example of how you have worked with other agencies in the past, that sounds to me like their current roster are not playing ball with each other and they are sick of wasting time having to manage that

Get the casting right

o   Create a pitch team that matches their team, not just in skill set, but in personality.

o   You want them to feel excited by the possibility of working with like-minded people

o   Cast the right team to make them feel that buzz, not just between you and them, but with each other, now this is what real chemistry is all about, not how you present your latest case study in PowerPoint

Give the pitch the time it deserves

o   We get this is hard to do sometimes when you are also trying to do your day job, but if you do everything you can, to protect and ring fence the pitch team and support people then a client will ‘feel’ that time has been given to them and that you’ve made the effort

Don’t just focus on the solution

o   Agencies, when under pressure, often revert to answering a pitch brief like it was a client brief. DO NOT do that. Pitch to win, don’t approach it like you would a ‘normal’ piece of work.

o   Remember, it’s the EQ as well as the IQ that they are really looking for in an agency. Aim to win hearts and minds, because all of the research on psychology and behavioural science tells us that during the buying cycle, we buy with our hearts first and then post rationalise with the logical part afterwards

Run an organised, smooth pitch

o   The details matter and a last minute rush with an update in the cab on the way to the pitch is going to stress out your team and the clients will feel the stress, whether you like it or not

o   Set up a kick off meeting with the appropriate main people within 24 hours of receiving the opportunity and brief, allocating roles and responsibilities and work out who is pitching and who is supporting

o   Create a project management timing plan immediately following the kick off (don’t miss a thing)

o   Work out the logistics early – I’ve even taken my own IT people to pitches in the past and have impressed clients by asking to visit their meeting rooms ahead of the pitch (They accidently cc’d me in on the following comment “if they are going to run our account with this much care and consideration, I want them as my agency”. It’s no surprise we won account.

Make it all about them

o   Respond, observe, be willing to adjust your approach in the middle of pitching if you can see it’s not landing, don’t just insist on “carrying on” just because that’s the flow of the PowerPoint

o   Try if you can to make it as authentic, interactive and discussion-led as possible, rather than presenting ‘at’ them

o   Don’t, whatever you do, make it look like you have cut and pasted responses. Bespoke as much as you can. They ALWAYS know when you haven’t made the effort. Don’t be that person who turned up on their first date in a tracksuit and trainers.

Hopefully, that has given you some food for thought, a different way of “showing you understand me” and that you’re the kind of agency they want to work and partner with for a very long time.

Be brave enough to pitch from a different perspective and make it all about them and you will be on your way to your winning streak in no time.