I've been consulting for a couple of companies running agency pitches recently. After reviewing myriad RFP submissions, it seems clear that a lot of agencies aren't thinking through what will make them stand out and seem desirable as partners. In fact, most agencies do exactly the same bad things. The result is a pile of non-distinctive presentations and pitches -- a mishmash of words and pictures that has all of the bite of watery polenta.
Here are seven common ways that agencies miss the mark in the pitch process, and some ideas on how to avoid these problems in your future efforts.
It's all about you
When brands ask agencies to pitch, they want to know something about the company and how it is different or right for the brand. However, many agencies spend more than a dozen slides and half their meeting time droning on about their history, capabilities, and founders instead of focusing their story on the business needs of the client and why they are the perfect fit.
Clients don't hire agencies because they have interesting founder stories. U.S. domestic brands don't want to know about your global network and the office in Dushanbe, Tadjikistan. As you formulate your "about us" section, think about the six Cs:
Critical mass-- Show that you are big enough to serve the brand or that the brand is big enough to warrant your best people and attention.
Capabilities -- Assert and demonstrate that you have the capabilities necessary to serve the account.
Category expertise -- Show that you understand the business. You can do this through past experience, analogous experience, research, and astute knowledge of what's happening in the brand's business sector.
Concern -- Develop powerful ways of conveying your passion for the brand's business and challenges. For example, when you are the brand marketer for mayonnaise, spreads are very important to you. Show that potential client that you care just as deeply about condiments. And don't just say it, show it.
Character -- Exhibit the "fit" between the agency and how it works to the unique characteristics of the company. Why are our people going to mesh? Why is your approach and style what the company needs?
Crew -- Show your potential client who will be working on the business, and demonstrate that client's worth by making them the center of your pitch team and presentation.
Prospects need to know what unique aspects of your concern make you a great fit for them.
You don't sound different
While agencies pride themselves on strategy and messaging, few are actually any good at differentiating themselves from one another. Passionate, full service, award winning, nimble, effective, results -- they are all just throw away words when every agency uses them.
Find a way to say and show something truly different. Think about what really does make you different. Stop trying to be all things to all people. Stop pretending that you are world class at everything.
And never under any circumstances use the sentence "We really want your business…" in a document or meeting. What, as opposed to the other agencies in the pitch who don't really want it? What clients want to know is if you deserve it.
You didn't read the RFP
The documents clients send to agencies are meant to be devoured, not ignored. When it comes time to pitch it becomes abundantly clear when at least some of the members of a team didn't bother to read and understand the briefing material. While a few companies simply slap together an RFP, most really take time to provide essential facts and detail about what their businesses need.
The corollary to this is that you need to answer all of the questions outlined in an RFP, and do so in a manner that makes finding and consuming the information easy and efficient. For example, I recently saw and RFP with 18 questions in it -- some specific to the brand and some more "boilerplate."
A surprising number of agencies failed to answer every question, or to provide documents and presentations that made clear the location of each answer. When you are responding to an RFP, remember that the clarity of your response sends a strong signal about the effectiveness and efficiency of your organization.
You have no point of view
Whether or not a client has asked for it, it's always valuable to demonstrate some real thinking about their business, and to posit some ideas for discussion that relate specifically to their challenges. Ultimately, you are being hired to provide thought and solutions to brand issues. There is no better way to convey your thinking abilities than to show them in a pitch.
One of the prime reasons why clients choose to consider new agencies is that their current resources have stopped challenging their thinking and aren't delivering powerful new ideas. A pitch is your opportunity to show your strategic and creative chops.
Your POV needn't be entirely correct, by the way. It's possible that greater information sharing would bring you to new conclusions. Clients understand this -- what they appreciate is your well reasoned arguments, and your demonstration of concern for their business. It's important, though, that you listen as much as you talk when the conversation moves into the POV stage. You need to be committed but show flexibility and a collaborative nature.
The agency does all the talking
When you are assigned 60 or 90 minutes for a pitch meeting, don't fill 57 or 87 minutes of that time with presentation. You best outcome in a pitch meeting is to foster a real discussion between your team and the prospect company. Discussion allows for greater information sharing and provides real time experience of the strength and "fit" of your team.
Explore pitch formats that drive collaborative, business related conversation. Come in with a point of view that begs for their reaction. Communicate the essentials of the RFP, but work to change the tenor of the time from a lecture to a conversation.
The principals dominate the meeting
Clients want to see and talk to the people that will actually work on their business, day-in and day-out. If you are a small shop and expect that the agency president will play a prominent role in servicing the account, then it's OK for the president to play a leading role in a pitch. But when that isn't the case, have the people that will actually be working on an assignment lead the pitch.
While it is possible that these individuals won't be quite as polished as principals with decades of presenting experience, most clients tire of agency formality rather quickly and would rather hear from those who will actually be stewarding an account. The passion and engagement of those individuals will count a lot more than their presentation choreography.
You don't understand the fundamentals of their business
When you boil it down, there are really only three types of marketing challenges out there -- awareness, trial, and repeat purchase. Start first by understanding which need is most urgent for the prospect's business. Then ensure that your past work for other clients that relates to that sort of business challenge features prominently in your presentation.
Then consider category -- the dynamics of the bubble gum trade are rather different from those of luxury automobiles. Think through those business challenges before you start brainstorming ideas. Virtually any organization can come up with hundreds of ads or product ideas in a world without business rule constraints. The right agency views those constraints as a springboard for their unique and powerful new thinking.
I'm not suggesting that you need to approach their challenges in a strait-jacket but rather that you filter your ideas through a workability lens.
Once I helped a candy company with their agency search. One agency came in and pitched an effort that centered around new 3D labeling technology that would certainly have added a great deal of impact at shelf. But the cost of such labels -- 3-5 cents per bar, ate up fully half of the company's gross margin on the item. Taking the product cost of an item from 22 cents to 27 cents is both "just a nickel" and "a whopping 27 percent increase." A few moments spent with an improvised Excel spreadsheet might have mitigated that agency's rapid elimination from the pitch group.
None of this is all that earth shattering. But you would be amazed at how many agencies forget or ignore these fundamentals. As you pursue your next new assignment, make sure you make the effort to "show" your remarkable nature. You won't win everything, but I think you'll see an increase in your hit rate.
Further, by showcasing what is special and unique about your firm and its people, you will win accounts that are truly a better fit for your organization. And that's of vital importance because their fit with you and your shop is just as important as your fit with them.
Jim Nichols is vice president of branding at ROI DNA.
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