Pitching for and winning new business is not an exact science. Those of us involved in the new business world know there are no set rules, no silver bullet on which the agency’s name can be engraved.
It is perhaps because of this that the way in which agencies approach new business pitching is fascinating to observe. Equally fascinating, is watching a client’s reaction to the different strategies and tactics adopted by agencies in their effort to persuade the client to choose them during the pitch.
There are three scenarios that regularly occur when agencies are pitching for new business. I refer to them as:
1. The Murder Investigation Strategy
2. Slowly Slowly Catchy Monkey
3. Middle Distance Racing
The Murder Investigation Strategy
As anyone familiar with popular TV crime drama knows, the key period for solving the murder is the first 48 hours and some agencies adopt a similar tactic to pitching for new business.
A small team, usually comprised of senior talent that is familiar with each other, will address the challenge presented in the brief in a focused and concentrated manner. Strategy, target audience insight and understanding, hypotheses and creative options are quickly considered, debated and discarded. There’s often an overlap in roles and contributions to the debate to the point of a complete blurring of lines between planners, account and creative people.
Decisions are made, based on experience, intuition, gut-feel and a belief in what’s right for the brief. This is where the role of a new business director can be key; they can bring cumulative experience to the pitch table as well as a detached perspective, looking at it all through impartial eyes.
Then, having agreed a direction and the way forward, the agency’s strategy is to hone and refine the direction agreed upon in the first 48 hours throughout the rest of the pitch.
The appeal for clients of such an approach is that, as long as they like the idea, they become very engaged with the agency and its idea early on in the pitch: there’s a sense of the agency having ‘cracked the brief’ and stolen a march on the competition.
The challenge facing agencies that adopt this strategy is maintaining the positive momentum and energy achieved in the first few days of the pitch throughout the remainder of it, often across a couple of months, and (this is the tricky bit) all in comparison to other pitching agencies progress.
Client sentiment can swing from this agency being their favourite at the end of the first week of the pitch to being seen as having run out of steam with nothing new to add come the final presentation. The impact that the idea first had is diluted to such an extent over time that the client can forget how favourably they thought of the idea in the first place.
Slowly slowly catchy monkey
The ‘slowly slowly’ strategy is much more measured in its approach and delivery. Each emerging stage of the pitch is given due attention and consideration by the agency, building on what has been developed previously.
Insight is offered in the RFI, built upon in the Chemistry meeting, options developed for the tissue session, and favoured routes selected for research leading up to the final presentation. The agency’s final recommendation is presented to a fully expectant client audience who knows what’s ‘behind the curtain’ because they’ve seen the infant idea grow to maturity, alongside those that fell by the wayside, in the space of a few weeks.
Agencies that adopt this tactic have the reassurance that the client has given their tacit approval every step of the way. Indeed, there’s a sense of shared ownership of the idea and, hence, shared responsibility. No client is going to say no to a recommendation in which they have been so intimately involved, are they?
But, of course, sometimes they do say no.
In the post-pitch discussions that clients have amongst themselves, they can translate assuredness for dullness, measured progress for predictability and the agencies creative originality for a belief that they, the client, practically gave the agency the idea and all the agency did was to repackage it and claim exclusive origination.
Middle distance racing
The third scenario is when, for the first two thirds or three quarters of the pitch, the client’s belief is that the agency is off the pace and that they can’t see the agency winning come the final pitch presentation, based on what’s been presented to them to date.
In such circumstances I’ve been asked whether or not the agency should be stood down before the final presentation because, from the client’s perspective, they ‘don’t stand a chance’.
It’s at this point that I have to share this sage advice; No-one wins a 1500m race at 1000m. In my experience, it is not unknown that the agency that ends up crossing the 1500m finishing line first, and often by some distance, is the very same agency that are the least favoured and appear to be going backwards, relative to the competition, at the 1000m point.
How can this be so?
My observation is that the common characteristic in this scenario is an agency where the creative idea is the dominant driving force within the agency and their belief that it’s through the power of the creative idea that the client objectives can be delivered.
This is not to say that the client’s commercial imperative does not play its part in the agency’s thinking, but the ‘process’ of developing powerful creative ideas within such agencies does not adhere to the ordered programme that a pitch will often follow. Such creative inspiration cannot be delivered simply because there’s a work-in progress meeting scheduled.
Clients have to hold their nerve when faced with such an agency and it can be very difficult to do so when, even with reassurances from AAR, that steely nerve has to be based on a ‘trust us, we know what we’re doing’ stance from the agency.
Whilst the lead Marketing client might be ‘up for it’ and excited by what’s going to be revealed from behind the curtain, this might be too much for their boss, the Managing Director or Chief Executive, who may not be an experienced marketer and is not one who is up for surprises, pleasant or otherwise.
All being well, the agency will present an idea that blows all others out of the water, wowing the client team and winning the day. But clients will ask ’is this how it’s going to be?’ assuming that business as usual is delivered in the same way to how they have experienced the creative process during the agency pitch. They may not have the stomach for the white-knuckle ride that is the creative journey every time a new campaign is required.
So what, if anything, is to be concluded from all of this?
For clients, my advice is to use the pitch to decide on the most appropriate agency with which to develop a strong and long-standing working relationship. We all recognise that a pitch doesn’t truly reflect what it’s like to work with an agency, but it is the chance to gain an insight into agencies’ different working practices and styles. From an agency’s perspective, be aware of the style of pitching you deliver and what sort of client you are pitching to; then take appropriate measures to manage client expectations throughout the pitch.
Whichever approach is taken, agencies shouldn’t underestimate the importance of rehearsing. Don’t spend the last couple of days trying to perfect the last 10% of your presentation at the expense of rehearsing the 90% that you’re confident is right.
A client’s mindset in the final pitch presentation is much more Dragon’s Den than X Factor: it doesn’t need to be perfect; passion, enthusiasm, authenticity and self-belief can count for a great deal. For most agencies, pitching is about winning. Unlike most races, you won’t get a silver medal for coming second. But how you win and what you do after you’ve won, in order to retain the business, is just as important.
Paul Phillips is managing director AAR.