Making pitching a positive
In the world of strategic services there are few topics as all-consuming, emotive and divisive as the pitch.
In agencies, where I’ve thus far spent 70%+ plus of my working life, the new business pitch often feels like everything. Pitching is exhausting on an agency’s resources and morale. The impact of new business is often net negative for at least a couple of years. But still for many senior agency leaders it is first thing they think about in the morning, and the last thing they think about at night. (And, if they share my obsession levels, they have a decent go in the middle of the night too.)
If you haven’t lived in this world, or perhaps have only sat the other side of the table, this probably feels like hyperbole. But it’s really not. It’s a situation where careers are made, where lifelong friendships are created, where agencies surge or implode, where exciting innovations are birthed, where politics are at their most brutal.
And one where effort and resources are poured with little or no constraint. We once ran a calculation, and found that in one year pitches comprised as much of 30% of the entire annual workload of the agency. In almost all cases totally unpaid, and in theory with no more than in a 1 in 4 chance of success.
If the above sounds slightly off-putting, I should state at this point that I love pitches. My father was and is a brilliant salesperson, I love the theatre, I am a decent holistic strategist, and I’ve led some fantastically competitive new business teams in my career. I’ve had some very positive, collegiate, hilarious, exciting pitching experiences. (And not a bad win rate, too.)
On the other hand, I reckon I’ve spent nearly 1,000 hours of my life in pitch meetings, and tens if of thousands of hours working on the preparation. A decent proportion of it accrued no value and quite a bit of collateral damage to the businesses I worked in or led. Along the way it has frequently affected by health, my state of mind, my relationships with family and friends.
Was it all worth it? On a cosmic scale…who knows? In a business context, largely yes. But it’s fair to say that approaching them in the right way is a) absolutely vital, and b) almost impossible.
There are all kinds of systemic problems with pitching, including but not restricted to the process, the expectations, the role of intermediaries, the lack of transparency, the challenges of being choiceful in the face of your stakeholders.
But what’s in your gift is to win as often as possible, and to do it in a way that is productive and efficient.
So how do you do that?
- Focus on the missing word
And that missing word is ‘sales’.
Outside agencies, the pitch tends to be described in much more straightforwardly commercial terms – sales, bids, tenders, proposals. In agencies, where pitching skills are in many ways more sophisticated these words are almost invisible, at least to the bulk of the teams working on them.
This is partly because the aspiration towards great ideas and powerful relationships calls the pitch team to more intangible ground. But one side-effect of this is a tendency to lose the wood for the trees.
Why would you include anything in your pitch that is not a direct and obvious demonstration of the distinctive benefits of choosing your agency? In fact this happens all the time.
Your benefits take different forms, whether that’s differentiation, reassurance, cost, or progress…but the job of your sales pitch is to highlight the right ones and make them as tangible as possible. The point of the process is to create a territory on which you can win, and then to evidence on that territory the concise set of reasons why you are a better choice.
If you’re in the middle of a pitch and you’ve lost track of that case, it’s time to take a break and have a think.
2. Tell an ambitious truth
The ability to sniff out a fake is an evolutionary imperative, and by and large, we can all spot someone who’s not quite on the level. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And if that pitch is coming from an advertising guy, unfortunately those chances are a bit higher.
Yet it’s not at all unusual to see marketing industry pitches that are built on apparently fundamental tools and approaches that are at best rickety vapourware, and in some case entirely non-existent. Where the case rests on a process, or piece of intelligence, or a piece of technology that is not what it seems.
Why does this happen? There are lots of reasons. Because agency-people are inherently ambitious beyond their reach, and unhappy with what they have. Because client demands sometimes stretch beyond what’s reasonable, and agencies try to soar to reach and surpass them. Because what people want at pitch time looks a little bit different to what they want on the average trading Tuesday afternoon.
But the pitch that’s built on fictitious grounds is of course a) less likely to be credible, and thus to win and b) massively less likely to lead to a multi-year, stable relationship, even if you win (ie one that actually makes you a profit.) So absolutely do be ambitious, create the new – but don’t try to sell the lie.
3. Don’t disqualify yourselves
99% of the time we think about pitching as a process of qualification, in which a set of mighty opponents duke it out to offer the best possible solution.
The truth is that most of the time, pitching is a process of disqualification.
Choosing is hard, and an emotional and practical burden for the chooser. If you can exclude some people – because they don’t demonstrate respect for the process, or seem enthusiastic, or don’t answer the question, or can’t cover a core capability – that makes it much easier.
We would like to believe in most cases that clients had 5 incredible options and chose an amazing one that just edged it. Speaking to people on the other side of the table it is just as frequent to feel at the end of a long process that they only had one or two viable options that didn’t get them severe pause for thought.
Pitching is a time when agencies show themselves at their best, but it’s also likely that at some point you will accidentally flaunt your Achilles’ heel. To stop this from happening, you need to hunt for it constantly…and with an open mind.
4. Sacrifice, and commit beyond reason
It seems an absurd thing to say in a discipline that suffers so badly from excessive resource usage, but it is nonetheless extremely common for even great agencies to suffer from putting things forth in a pitch that seems slightly half-arsed – and could have benefitted from an extra 10-20% of time, skill and quality control.
And bear in mind, in a sales pitch, it’s often only the last 10-20% that actually makes any difference. The bit of effort that makes an offering really distinctive, or bullet-proof.
Now the reason for the lack of that final 10-20% is rarely a lack of motivation, or in fact skill, but a lack of either resources or time, or simple exhaustion. The issue here is not a lack of commitment, but a lack of discipline in choosing what you commit to.
I have worked in some new business situations that were extremely committed, but still a little bit mediocre in output and performance, and the common thread tends to be a mindset of ‘leave nothing undone that could be done.’ They involve every person possible, to every insight source, to every piece of collateral.
The best new business teams are brutal about choosing what’s needed to build the case…and committing beyond reason to making it absolutely immaculate.
5. Plan for a legacy
Here are two things you will hear a lot about agency pitching:
“Pitches are R&D for the agency”.
“Pitches are the breeding ground for the agency leaders of tomorrow”
In an industry that struggles to identify R&D budgets, and with structured career and skills development, new business does play an incredibly important role in development. But it doesn’t just happen.
On the R&D front, new business can for sure be a powerful use case – an accelerator of focus and investment that drives a stream of thinking forwards. But it will only do that if a) the areas of innovation within the business are already clearly scoped and b) the value of the R&D activity is captured and reapplied, whether you win or lose.
And in terms of personal development? Well, this brings us back to where we started. For sure the industry has grown generations of leaders who live and breathe the pitch experience.
There’s a question mark as to whether that has led us in the right direction.
But if we assume for a moment that the petri dish of pitching is a good way to keep breeding our future leaders, we need to ensure that the experience is a good for them as possible, and one that leads them in the most productive direction.
And to do that we need to be efficiently excellent: respecting people’s time and their talents, helping them to focus, with pitching with integrity, and overcommitting to the win, and to its positive legacy.
Hook Strategy has helped a lot of great businesses to improve their approach to pitching – through narrative development, strategy red threads and organisational development. If that’s something you need, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.