Twenty years and hundreds of new business pitches. I won them all, made no mistakes whatsoever, and every single pitch was a smooth as a baby's bottom. Well, not exactly. And quantifying success-to-fail ratios in the art and science of new business in the agency world is difficult at best.
Some you win, but many of what one might consider a loss have little or nothing to do with the agency's pitching skills. There are so many factors that go into agency selection today that it's difficult to determine exactly what may have gone wrong. In other words, sometimes you do everything right and you still don't end up with a "win."
On the other hand, I've had the unfortunate privilege of experiencing (either first hand, or from the cheap seats) a lot of less-than-smart moves an agency can make while trying to execute the most costly journey an agency must embark upon: getting new clients.
Ignore the request for proposal (RFP)
A request for proposal in the agency world is like a cattle call. Sometimes clients send them out because they have to and due diligence demands it. A burning desire to change agencies isn't always the driving force behind the request. Asking a group of agencies to come in and pitch a specific aspect of their business is a time consuming process on both sides of the equation.
An RFP for large business can read like "War and Peace," and while winning the business might prove to be worthwhile, if you're not taking the time to dissect the contents and understand what is being requested of potential partners, you owe it to yourself to politely decline to participate.
You can ask all kinds of questions. You'd be surprised how well clients respond to detailed Q&As, particularly if said questions weren't in the RFP. And therein lies the problem, since the win-to-loss ratio can be really high, a lot of agencies simply ignore the contents and move right into asking their standard or scripted questions. If the answer to your question is on page 74 of the accompanying RFP brief, you've already lost.
Promise the universe
A new business pitch will not always come from an RFP, and it's important to set success criteria when preparing for a new client relationship. Some clients will provide detailed information about their success criteria, and while the most overused and least understood term in the business might be key performance indicator (KPI), you better be prepared to meet the goals you set.
Perhaps more important than meeting goals you set is making them believable. For a whole lot of really good reasons, digital marketing goal setting (particularly in performance media) is a lot more science than art. It's not unusual to be reviewing previous campaign data while pitching a new account. My agency recently won an account because both the incumbent and the other runner up offered (in the client's estimation) wildly unachievable objectives.
Do all the work before you see a contract
Frankly this sort of thing scares me. Pitching new business in the agency world has become a race to the bottom to see who can do the most work for free. I think the agencies are only partially to blame. I've seen many clients ask for a tremendous amount of work (we call that spec) prior to awarding the business. Then, even after you get the business you might find yourself in a "trial period" in which other shops are running campaigns. This is the very similar to running so-called "contests" in the graphic design world to get creatives to do work free.
I have walked away from many a pitch when clients demanded lots and lots of spec work and didn't lose a moment's sleep.
You can think about this from multiple perspectives -- none of them good. In the old days, when a client wanted you to pitch their business, you'd get a check to cover your costs to make sure (among other reasons) that any work you prepare for them in the course of the pitch could be legally owned by the client. You were giving them something; you got a something in return. Today (see No. 1), it seems clients are asking for more and more upfront work and offering nothing in return. Doing work without a contract opens you up to all kinds of legal problems (advice without the protection of a contract is a very bad idea). There is nothing to stop an agency from taking all those great ideas that Brand A didn't like and pitching them to Brand A's biggest competitor.
Read the slides, not the audience
Getting lost in decklandia can kill any pitch. Failing to read the room is a big no-no. When I first started pitching clients, we used presentation boards. That's right, Don Draper-style presentations with big easels and three-foot square boards. I was the one that had to schlep them through the airport because I was the low man on the totem pole. We invested hours and production costs but one thing was always made clear to me: Sometimes if you want to win, you have to be able to abandon the boards and have the discussion the client wants to have. In today's world, we have 500 slide decks, and you can be more nimble. You can bounce around and form the presentation on the fly according to what the client wants, but the ancient art of reading the room has never been more important.
Skimp on the research
For the life of me, I can't understand why an agency would spend so much time and effort on pitching a client without learning about the client's business category or even the people in the room. If you aren't already an expert in the client's vertical, asking what information resources they value can't hurt.
If you are walking into a pitch, there is absolutely no excuse for not having a complete background on the category and everyone in the room. You don't always have to let them know you know where they went to school, what jobs they've had, and all the restaurants they check in at, but it's good information to have in understanding the people you'll be interacting with throughout the pitch process.
Assume you know the business
The opposite of skimping on the research is making the assumption that you know the client's business better than they might. While it's important to understand core objectives and knowledge distribution is critical, there will always be more than one angle, and you'll never see them all in the pitch. In one instance, a client had been using what was generally accepted by the in-the-know crowd as dated tech. Said dated tech was the foundation of what the CMO was using to keep the digital unit funded, so calling it out as ancient ware may not have been the most tactful delivery. In the same instance the person, calling out the ancient ware continued to beat that horse long after the CMO pointed out its importance in the short term.
Speak down to your audience
This happens in digital more often than anywhere else. Knowledge has become so specialized in digital marketing disciplines, the temptation to deep dive into technology or how a specific discipline functions can be great. This type of knowledge dumping can easily travel into pompous town. The real challenge lies in knowing when you've gone there. There is a fine line between being an expert and being the tool who is now alienating (or boring) the client by tanking the pitch Brainy Smurf-style.
Let your emotions run wild
Some people are passionate about what they do. Generally, enthusiasm about your potential client's business is a good thing, but don't go overboard. An overzealous approach can push the client away and blind you from reading the room. I've seen many a big pitch begin to swirl the bowl when (and this is just an example) the search engineer guy grandstands about the importance of 404 error management when the all the client wanted to know was if you know how search engine optimization (SEO) works. Ever go out on a first date with an overexcited person and exit stage left at the first opportunity? Don't be that person.
I know this one will come as a shock to some, but it seems medicating your way through tough meetings with various short-acting benzodiazepines has become the norm. I'm not a doctor, but if you need to dose yourself with powerful anti-anxiety meds before a pitch, you may want to consider an alternative career path. Senior managers in the agency world need to start setting an example for the more junior folks coming in to the business. It's OK to be human. You aren't always going to get it perfect. Sometimes you'll struggle for a thought because you are nervous. And if you are pitching the sort of client that doesn't think it's OK to be human, do you really want that business?
Fail to practice
One of my favorite old clichés is the Carnegie Hall bit. How do you get there? Practice. You have to get everyone on the same page. If it's a big pitch, chances are you have people coming in from multiple offices, regions, and maybe companies. Independent agencies will often bring people in from contract companies to speak to specific areas. This is common practice in the digital world. Large or small, agencies will have vertical (email, search, programmatic, mobile) experts in a pitch, and it's extremely important to invest the time in getting people on the same page for a pitch. Everyone should know who's in charge and controls the flow so you can shift gears and deliver a consistent message.
Learning how to pitch business is a long process. It's taken me 20 years to hone the skill, and I still don't get it right every time. Sometimes walking away isn't a win, but it certainly isn't a loss. And if you are wondering why I didn't refer to anything in this missive as "sales," it's because I believe the term diminishes the art and science of agency new business. In the end, you don't have to love every aspect of the work, but you should love the work. And for heaven's sake, don't take it or yourself too seriously.
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"Fight" image via Shutterstock.