What do I know about pitching?
I’m a Business Development Consultant with 16 years experience working in-house and as an independent consultant with digital, technology, and creative agencies, always with a focus on new business.
I dread to think how many pitches I have been involved in directly, but it’s in the 100s easily, so hopefully I know a thing or two about them.
In fact hopefully I know at least 10 things about them, as this is what I’m meant to be writing about.
I’m sure you will have ideas of your own too, so please do let me know if you think I’ve left anything out and then maybe we crowdsource this as a resource to share with members ongoing… something we can open source on the BCI website for any agency to read and take value from… this is not the Jack Thompson show 🙂
Why the pitch process is broken
For me it stems from one simple truth; that agencies pitch all the time and therefore become (relatively) good at it, whereas client side marketers may only have to hold a pitch once every few years, and therefore simply through lack of experience often make mistakes and run an inefficient process for both themselves and the agencies they invite to pitch.
I’m not ‘blaming’ clients though, there is plenty of bad practice on both sides.
And so this article isn’t just about making it better for agencies – both sides win, which is an important thing to consider when it comes to improving the buying and selling of anything.
Time is a precious commodity, and broken though it may be it is the currency by which most agencies measure their value. This whole post is about agencies in particular being more efficient with the pitch process, hopefully winning more, spending less time on irrelevant opportunities, and therefore improving their overall profitability as a result too
I’m sure there are £m’s to be saved across the industry if the pitch process was improved even by only a few %.
Always good to share some pitch horror stories to set the scene, and so a couple of mine which always spring to mind…
The worst one for me was a multi-year 7 figure pitch with a large telecoms company for their eCRM account including the design, build and sending for all their emails across B2B and B2C, a biggie.
We had the B2B account already, and were invited to pitch for the B2C account too, so with the inside track we threw the kitchen sink at it.
This included most of our senior management team and board, loads of the wider team (planning, creative, technical, client services), late evenings, long weekends, multiple rounds of meetings and documents, etc. etc.
We smashed it and won the account, happy days… loads of high fives and I’m sure popping of corks…
Two weeks later we got a call from the client saying their procurement team had been in touch on the back of a request to add us to their supplier list, and there was a clause in their contract with a much larger global agency group that they could not give their B2B CRM account to anyone outside that group.
So we lost the pitch.
Always check what the status of the incumbent is. No point entering a fixed race.
My other favourite face palm moment (professionally) was being invited to pitch for a global architectural consultancy’s web design and build project. It sounded like a great project in which we had bags of relevant experience, but this would be have been a big project for us too.
After an initial call with their Marketing Director I rocked up to their fancy flagship London office only to be effectively turned away at reception because I’d gone alone… they took it as an affront that a lowly BD Manager was their only visitor that day, and not the agency’s entire senior management team.
Again a simple mistake which would have been avoided with the right conversation and questions up front.
So here are my tips to help you avoid some of these kinds of situations yourself…
1. Qualification is a 2 way street
Some self-selection is inevitable in the pitch process, i.e. clients will only approach potential agencies based on some agreed criteria for what they are looking for (experience, location, size, etc.) – so clients do come pre-qualified to a degree – but even if this is the case all your initial calls and meetings need to be focussed on ensuring there is a ‘good match’ for both sides.
Both sides need to be asking lots of questions in the early stages of a pitch, rather than just jumping to ‘selling’ and ‘solutions’.
You should ideally have defined your ‘qualification criteria’ for an ideal client, so this is your chance to ask the questions you need to decide if you’re even going to entertain the idea of a pitch. Saying no to irrelevant opportunities early will save you lots of time and energy.
This is not about being a robot and always asking the exact same questions every time you speak to a prospect, but it’s good to have some standard questions to cover off in the early stages so that you can be consistent with the types of pitches you commit to.
I have seen some agencies with a whole scoring matrix, voting systems for SMT, etc. when they get invited to pitch, only going for those which score over a certain %.
Good idea for some, but probably OTT for most, so start with something simple and build from there.
2. You can’t build a relationship through a portal
Both parties need to provide a suitable forum for the Q&A from the outset. For some clients this is often the 1st ‘mistake’ in that the Q&A process is handled at arms length via online forms/procurement portals, or simply via email, with no chance for the agency and client to have an actual conversation.
A good chance to walk away in my experience. Any pitch done at arms length is a massive red flag as far as I’m concerned, although I appreciate there are certain industries and clients where they are a necessary evil.
If you have the ‘inside track’ and know it’s purely a formality then of course it’s probably worth the pain.
But in my experience without the chance to qualify it’s hardly worth starting, more often than not you’ll simply be ‘making up the numbers’ so someone on the client side can show they have ‘gone to the market’, when in fact they had their preferred agency lined up from the start.
3. 3’s company, 5’s a crowd
The polyamorous amongst you may disagree, but the facts speak for themselves.
Only pitch when there are 5 agencies or less involved please, don’t just make up the numbers.
You can do things to increase your odds, and hopefully some of my advise here will help with that, but if you’re consistently pitching against 4 or more other agencies well guess what, you’re only going to win ⅕ or worse of your pitches, and they’re not good odds.
4. Trust in each other
B2B purchasing, which is what all your clients are doing, is heavily reliant on trust.
Clients don’t start working with an agency on impulse, they don’t walk past your office one day and think oh, I need to work with this agency!
So trust and emotions play a huge part – if nothing else the client doesn’t want to choose the ‘wrong partner’ and potentially waste time, energy, and budget, not to mention their reputation, on failed campaigns.
So human relationships are massively important.
Although the initial Q&A is partly to simply ‘fact find’ and assess the suitability, it is also a chance to start building some rapport and work out ‘do we want to work with these people?’.
People being the operative word.
Take them out for lunch, have a beer, play a game of Monopoly with them, visit their factory, buy their products, whatever works for you and makes sense for the given client, but the idea is that the bigger the contract, the more weight I’d put on the ‘getting to know them’ bit.
This needs to involve speaking to the right people at the right time. Yes initially you might be speaking to a more junior member of staff who’s been asked to kick off the process, and they may well be very important for your ongoing relationship, so you don’t want to patronise them by saying ‘can I speak to your boss?’, but you also need to make sure you’ve got access to all the decision makers, to understand them and what makes them tick.
If you don’t get on when everyone’s trying to be nice to each other during the pitch, just think how bad it’ll get when the proverbial hits the fan.
5. Crap in, crap out
The creatives and planners are going to love me for including this one.
Take the time to write a good brief – this is an art – it all starts with a good brief.
Client briefs can often lack the kind of details that agencies need to do their best work, let alone to understand what actual problem they are being asked to solve.
For me, rather than being a chance to moan, it presents an interesting opportunity to flex your strategic muscles with the client early on, for example by suggesting a workshop to fill any gaps for your internal brief.
This isn’t about saying ‘your brief is rubbish’, this is about ‘we have a process and have a few additional questions we need to ask before we brief the team’.
More collaboration = better outcome for all.
6. Protect the crown jewels
If you’re being asked to do all the work in the pitch, please don’t.
Clients’ decisions should be made on relationships and trust – trust in the portfolio, trust via other client references, trust in a solid team and processes, etc. etc.
Pitch work often never sees the light of day anyway – what a massive waste of everyone’s time!
If a client is asking for thinking and creative then either turn it down, or find a more interesting way to show what you can offer… as per the previous point I would always recommend a workshop for a couple of hours as more valuable for both parties than a few days of speculative strategic or creative thinking based on a surface level understanding of the client’s business.
It’s far less of an investment for the agency, and you get to know each other a bit more too.
7. Avoid the ‘aha’ moment
Regardless of what you end up proposing, and how, if the client isn’t involved somehow in your process they have no ownership of the end result, and you are putting a lot of weight on your ability to ‘sell in’ your proposal.
No doubt there are some great agency salespeople who can sell in a great idea and wow a client, but if one of your competitors has had time with the client co-creating their idea, and are also great at selling it in, guess who wins?
If you can build in any kind of co-creation to the process your clients will have far more buy-in to the end result and feel somewhat committed to and excited by the ideas you present.
In worst case scenarios if you don’t do this you end up completely missing the mark, or using a colour which the client can’t actually see, which may or may not have happened to me once.
8. Don’t burn your bridges
I have so many examples of pitch wins which have come back from apparently ‘lost’ situations.
This could be during the actual pitch process where by being a bit tenacious and offering different terms, or heading off any misunderstood objections, that you can sometimes rescue a ‘no’.
But ultimately you are going to lose more than you win, so please don’t burn your bridges.
Client roles change like the wind, and as much as clients you work with can be a rich vein of new business when they move around, so can clients you pitched to but didn’t win.
Always stay in touch, treat them as ‘leads’, and one day they may realise the error of their ways and hire you for their next big project.
9. Copy and paste
This is a classic tactic which can hopefully help you get some value from all those ideas on the cutting room floor.
Big pitches can be a real drain on resources, but can generate so many amazing ideas.
Don’t waste the chance for those ideas to be used elsewhere… if there was one client experiencing whatever strategic challenge they wanted you to solve, there will be others.
And it doesn’t have to be just their direct competitors (who you may have got to know a bit via your research for the pitch); you can think laterally here about where your ideas might also work… similar audiences, similar business models, etc. etc.
If you package up your insights in an interesting way it could be a good piece of content to help attract the next client looking for someone to solve those problems for them too.
10. Don’t use an intermediary
This may be a controversial one…
In my 16 years of agency new business not one client win has come through an intermediary, and I’ve worked with them all.
Of course I’m sure for some agencies they work really well, there’s always going to be the anecdotal examples of the big client which an agency met through an agency dating service.
But I can only speak from experience, and from what I have seen the numbers just don’t stack up.
Create conversations yourself, manage the sales process yourself, and don’t rely on 3rd parties to bring you work.
11. Hire me
How could I not add this cheeky extra tip in 😉
If you think your sales or pitch process could do with some TLC hopefully I’ve demonstrated I can help, and I’d be very happy to offer any BCI members a 1hr chat to go into more detail on their own agency.
I’m not a lead generator, I don’t make client introductions, but what I can do is make you more effective in your sales process from end to end.
You can read more about me and get in touch via my website here www.growwithginkgo.co.uk
So do you have any other ideas? Any glaring omissions?
As I said in the intro this should just be the start of the conversation… so please do get in touch with me and share your own tips, and we can start building a resource for all BCI members to benefit from…
Finally if you are a BD person, or are at least directly involved in the BD function of your agency, you’d be very welcome to join our monthly BD Meetup which you can read more about here:
Shaping and delivering business development strategies for B2B businesses, creative agencies and tech companies. For many of my clients, business development feels like a bit of a dark art. I’m here to show you that it isn’t. What it is, i...