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6 Ways to Blow a Pitch

Sean X Cummings
6 Ways to Blow a Pitch Sean X Cummings
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Introduction 
Talk a lot about your agency history   
Assume you know more than the client 
Forget the client's budget constraints 
Be oblivious to the client's other agencies   
Ignore the RFP 
Staff the pitch with who is available 
Conclusion


Introduction


I am often dismayed, if not outright shocked, by the delusions that occur when agencies get involved in pitches. To be honest, I was once one of the delusional. I remember when our entire agency team would prepare for a pitch. The pace is such a frenetic, berserker time-crunch that you often feel joy in merely surviving it. In the post-pitch decompression, you believe you know when you've nailed it or when it all imploded.


But often, what you know is nothing.
 
Following are some great ways that you can completely blow your next pitch.


Next: Talk a lot about your agency history

Introduction 
Talk a lot about your agency history   
Assume you know more than the client 
Forget the client's budget constraints 
Be oblivious to the client's other agencies   
Ignore the RFP 
Staff the pitch with who is available 
Conclusion


The internet has changed the level of information that clients can gather about you before you even enter the room. In fact, the client may know more than most of the people in your agency about what is going on with your agency.


Many clients are becoming quite savvy about pitches from online agencies. They scour your website, absorbing how you're structured, what clients you have and where your competencies are based. They look at whether you have the ability to service the account locally or will be farming work out across your agency network. They find out where your media and creative teams will probably be located and whether they will be in the same office. They do blog searches on your name, see what accounts you've won, which you've lost, and what the public's perception of those losses was and why. They can find out whether you have a structure based on "centers of excellence," which is another way to say that you are structured for your efficiency, not the client's.
 
So why do online agencies keep coming in and wasting 30 minutes of precious pitch time on telling the client who you are and explaining your process model?


Be serious. Does any agency really operate by the process model they throw up on the board for the pitch presentation? All the model does is remind every agency person in the pitch how they are supposed to be operating with their other clients, instead of how the work actually gets done. There are a few notable exceptions where the process dictates how the agency produces work. But agencies that are that rigid in these processes often find themselves unable to adapt to differing client models.
 
The client does not care about your process, only that you have one. As far as the client is concerned, the agency is magic pixie dust. They call the agency. The agency does a scope of work. The client signs. Magic happens. Magic is reviewed and measured. The process repeats.
 
Bottom line: Stop taking up time telling the client who you are. They know. They invited you to pitch.


Next: Assume you know more about the client

Introduction 
Talk a lot about your agency history   
Assume you know more than the client 
Forget the client's budget constraints 
Be oblivious to the client's other agencies   
Ignore the RFP 
Staff the pitch with who is available 
Conclusion


Why do so many agencies assume they know more about the client's business than the client? You wouldn't go into a sneaker company and tell it how to design shoes, so why do online agencies go to brands and insist on what they could do to improve the product?
 
Many agencies get excited when researching the client's brand while preparing for the pitch; excited that they are going to discover some unique insight that the client has not thought of. They get excited when they experiment with the client's product and discover nuances about it ("if the product could only do this…"). It's tempting to go overboard when acting on this excitement, but do not fall into that trap.
 
The client knows who their consumer is, and probably even knows who it should be. On the other hand, your knowledge of how to influence the consumer is what's important to convey. Your challenges are the same as the traditional agency: finding out what the challenges are to consumers adopting the client's brand and its products. It's your job to develop programs to get those consumers in the door. It's the client's job to have a product good enough to have them come back.
 
Most clients understand the current limitations of their product and the challenges to consumer adoption. They usually have a product roadmap planned for two years out to fix those issues. If possible, ask them what success looks like to them before you present. That will help determine what they believe will help move their brand forward. Does it involve tinkering with their product? No? Then you will have to leave it at that.
 
Bottom line: Do not recite what, to them, is obvious about their product.


Next: Forget the client's budget constraints

Introduction 
Talk a lot about your agency history   
Assume you know more than the client 
Forget the client's budget constraints 
Be oblivious to the client's other agencies   
Ignore the RFP 
Staff the pitch with who is available 
Conclusion


Know what type of client you're pitching to because budgeting dependencies vary wildly between them.


If you are going to succeed in servicing a wide range of clients, understand that some of their businesses may be incompatible with your pricing model. If you cannot service a particular client or are unwilling to service a client under the budget they have specified, then do not just assume the budget can be expanded to conform to your business model.


If you decide to participate in a pitch, make sure you understand when the client's budget may be pliable. And if you really want their business, determine how you can adapt to service it.


Another question to ask is whether the brand is a traditional one that has gone online or is strictly an online brand? The differences that dictate the budget process within those companies are stark.


Traditional
A traditional brand, one with an actual, physical real-world product, like say, a sneaker company, has numerous ways it can adjust Operating Income Before Amortization (OIBA) to meet forecasts and run its business. It can cut manufacturing and operating plant costs. It can source another supplier who can provide higher-quality materials at a lower cost. It can shift to just-in-time delivery to shave warehouse costs, purchase in bulk, adjust distribution methods, packaging materials, shipping methods and sales cycles, as well as adjust headcount and marketing expense. All of this goes to the bottom line. That type of monetary flexibility enables more stable, larger retainer-based relationships.
 
Online
An online brand has considerably fewer ways to do this, and some, especially those in the service industries, usually have only two places to adjust OIBA: headcount, and marketing expense. The marketing budget for an online brand is much more flexible based on the brand's success, but much more rigidly tied to it. Online is held to a higher standard on direct business drivers due to the nature of much of the media and the degree to which it is trackable.


This means that it will usually have much smaller allowances for retainers and a tighter reign on project costs. However, the same flexibility traditional brands have in OIBA adjustment means that there are more diverse places for investment within the company, and thus places that eat up money when performance from an online campaign is contributing to the company's success. Online brands can more easily expand their marketing budgets based on campaign performance.


On the plus side, online brands are usually staffed with marketers who are steeped in internet marketing and technology. It's their business. Often on the traditional brand, although the team of online marketers is very savvy, they exist within an organization that is not. This usually requires longer approval processes, more "marketing by committee" and thus more agency personnel to staff the account.
 
Bottom line: Not all client business models, and thus budget models, can adapt to yours. Be more flexible and you'll fill those gaps you have in your client roster. Start small with online brands. Start with small teams, small retainers, small projects, and you will structure the account to grow based on their success.
 
Next: Be oblivious to the client's other agencies

Introduction 
Talk a lot about your agency history   
Assume you know more than the client 
Forget the client's budget constraints 
Be oblivious to the client's other agencies   
Ignore the RFP 
Staff the pitch with who is available 
Conclusion


You know how you find out what other agencies work for the client you're pitching? You ask the client. The client is often more than willing to share who its current agency relationships are with, who services which aspects of the business, and where the openings are.


It is suicide to come in and recite to the client who it is working with without confirmed knowledge. It demonstrates lack of research and immediately positions the agency for failure. Individuals on the client end tend to be very loyal to their agencies. It is much easier for someone to listen to you when you are not stepping on their toes.


Find out who, at the client, is the chief contact for each agency, and then who is actually conducting your pitch. From that you should be able to customize the pitch so that you are positioned as a nice little puzzle piece for them. No one wants confrontation, and no one wants to feel that their agency relationship is threatened. Only from the inside will you be able to avoid encrouching on other territory.
 
Interactive pitches are often clouded by the looming presence of the traditional agency, with the interactive agency as second-class citizens. Don't feel bad. Interactive agencies used to be fourth-class citizens but are now viewed as essential to most client plans. Seek to understand the dynamics of the interactive side of a client's business.


Learn to play nice with the traditional agency. The traditional agency often sets the overall arch of creative positioning. This is the reason you are a multi-disciplinary agency and why you are often not invited to interactive pitches. It is not that you don't have competencies in interactive, it's that the client cannot send confusing signals to their traditional agency.
 
Bottom line: If you don't try and prove to the client that you can replace the other agencies not involved in the pitch, you are less likely to cause internal conflict in their decision-making process.


Next: Ignore the RFP

Introduction 
Talk a lot about your agency history   
Assume you know more than the client 
Forget the client's budget constraints 
Be oblivious to the client's other agencies   
Ignore the RFP 
Staff the pitch with who is available 
Conclusion


The pitch document is usually the most important document you will receive when you are looking to win new business. Read it. And after you start working, read it again. Force everyone in the pitch to stop and review whether the path you are going down will be what the client needs, not what you think they need. Those who created the document know a heck of a lot more about their brand, their brand challenges and segmentation research than you can ever hope to learn in the short time you have to conduct the pitch. In that document are the nuggets of platinum to construct your pitch.


First, find out who at the client's business wrote the RFP and whether that person is the final decision maker? You're bound to have questions for this person. But, do not compose a huge list and then fire it off at once. Your exhaustive interest is great, but all it will do is exhaust your client, and you'll never get your responses in time. Fire small quick questions, such as, "Is this the right direction or have you gone down that path without success? Or can you just quickly clarify these five insights that will drive our work? Is this on the right track?"


Be cognizant that they are not there to solve your problems. You are supposed to be there to solve theirs. Be prudent. Make sure your questions will provide real, meaningful direction for your work. Engage your own team in their creation, have one person act as a point person, and then fire away.
 
Bottom line: Ignore the pitch document direction at your own peril.
 
Next: Staff the pitch with who is available

Introduction 
Talk a lot about your agency history   
Assume you know more than the client 
Forget the client's budget constraints 
Be oblivious to the client's other agencies   
Ignore the RFP 
Staff the pitch with who is available 
Conclusion


Clients analyze the job postings on your site and across HotJobs, Monster.com and CareerBuilder. Do you have a lot of open positions? This is a warning sign. It signals to clients that your current staff may be stretched thin, and it could be the proverbial straw.


You can fill in all the little boxes on the org chart of who will be servicing the clients account, but they know that 50 percent of the time what is calculated as 20 hours is really a fourth of their 80-hour week. I have even witnessed agency personnel from different offices introducing themselves to each other at the pitch. And this is supposed to be your team?
 
The people you have may not be the people who are good for the client's account. Staff the pitch with people that you envision as the people servicing the client's account but have back-ups. Your agency may be stable, but staffing at online agencies is sometimes akin to a blind date. You just never know who you're gonna get.


When your pitch includes employees whose "business cards are not ready" and those who won't actually be on the account day-to-day, these are sure signs to the client that you are throwing the team together based on your needs and what you have available, rather than their needs.


Not all teams are equal. There is nothing more disruptive than frequent changes to the personnel on the client's account, and they realize that. Every single change involves someone who then has to spend time learning the client's business and style, and this is time that the client is paying for.
 
Bottom line: Get your people talking to each other before walking into the room, and make sure that everyone knows their role in the pitch. The client can tell when they don't.


Next: Conclusion

Introduction 
Talk a lot about your agency history   
Assume you know more than the client 
Forget the client's budget constraints 
Be oblivious to the client's other agencies   
Ignore the RFP 
Staff the pitch with who is available 
Conclusion


There are no hard and fast rules for agencies in pitches. You could have the greatest work but not present it right. Someone on your team could say that one thing that just irks the client about their brand. You could continually refer to someone in the meeting by the wrong name or show up wearing or using a competitor's product. That's sure to kill your chances.


You can probably recite the first 10-15 slides of your presentation without a single cue, which is bad. Pitches are art, not science. What most agencies do when they confine it to process and slides is reduce the variance of that art.
 
If you are successful at winning business, just keep doing what you're doing and ignore everything I've said here. You may not know what it is, that magic you have in a pitch. It could be that the last couple of wins have given you that aura that clients can sense when they're in the room with you. Perhaps it's quiet confidence, without being arrogant. It's the same effect when you are interested in someone across the bar. Confidence is sexy, and no one wants to go home with the ugly agency.
 
But if you know you've nailed the pitch and just seem to keep missing a win, review whether you are making some obvious mistakes in your preparation. Sometimes what you know is not what you think.


Return to introduction


Sean X Cummings is director of marketing for Ask.com. Read full bio.

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