Part One: How to win more business and lose fewer pitches
In a fiercely competitive environment for creative agencies,the pressure to win pitches and hold onto clients has never been greater.
For decades the emphasis has always been on ‘blowing away’ the client with inspiring creative ideas. The agency assumes the role of the ‘impressor’ – wowing clients with their creativity and big thinking. The client assumes the role of the arms-folded ‘inquisitor’, cynically waiting to be swept away by the uplifting effect of 130 powerpoint slides.
And supposedly all it takes is the power of persuasion to convert clients to the agency’s idea. Sometimes “persuasion” that can feel like it’s going on for a lifetime as the senior delegate from the agency insists on doing all the talking because he or she believes it’s the only way to convince the client.
It’s an ‘us’ and ‘them’ piece of theatre, with everyone dutifully acting out their respective roles.
But is it always the best idea that clinches the deal?
Right Answer (R)
Sure, you need to meet the client’s brief and do so with imagination, creativity and originality. But that’s a given. There will be other agencies invited to pitch who will similarly have a right answer. How is the client going to distinguish between you? Sometimes “right answers” produced by different creative agencies can be almost interchangeable.
Your idea needs to be instantly communicable outside the presentation room. Clients have many stakeholders, bosses and teams to brief on the idea and they can’t all sit through 45 minutes of presentation and Q&A. You need to be able to summarise your idea in two or three sentences at the most to give the client a narrative that works in a snatched conversation in a corridor.
Trust is probably the most underrated but important quality in winning a pitch.
In Future Factory’s survey of marketing directors, 82% said the main reason they would instigate a pitch would be to get new or fresh ideas. But the biggest influence on winning the pitch was “the chemistry of the team”.
It’s trust that seals the deal.
In his highly recommended book “The Trusted Advisor”, David Maister presents a formula for anyone in the business of serving clients looking to improve their level of trust as a consultant.
Trust is a combination of: credibility, reliability and intimacy divided by the perceived level of your own self-interest that you communicate to the client.
In a pitch situation for creative agencies, this formula might look something like the following.
Your track record, your experience, your relevance are all important. But make sure these qualities are highly attuned to the client’s own specific situation.
Sometimes pitches are won by the agency that was most reassuring about the nuts and bolts of delivery. Make sure you are communicating reliability through all stages of the pitch process, from the swift return of phone calls to turning up at the allotted times.
How clearly, thoroughly and believably can you put yourself in the client’s shoes? How does s/he think? What matters to them? How do they judge success? What are their beliefs, value systems, fears and ambitions? Deep listening skills are vital to creating intimacy. And creating time to listen is an essential part of pitch preparations.
But even if you are convincing about your credibility, reliability and intimacy through listening, you may still undermine your cause if you don’t put the client first in everything you do. If the first question you ask in response to a brief is about payment terms and flexibility on budget, it won’t go well. Better to focus on asking the client about their feelings, what success would look like and how you hope to work together to create something truly amazing.
So a formula for winning business as a creative agency doesn’t rely just on the big creative idea. It’s a combination of having a right answer, a portable idea and the ability to establish trust without putting your own interests first.
Human Qualities (HQ)
But the winning formula still depends on the human qualities of the agency team. Clients instantly notice when a junior executive looks terrified in a pitch or the MD decides no-one else on the team should say anything. The team needs to feel empowered, passionate, confident and rehearsed. Those feelings will instantly translate to the client. The key question isn’t “how will we get the client to understand our thinking” but “how do we want the client to feel when we’ve left the room”.
Feelings are communicated by the quality of human interaction and inspiring trust is the surest way to winning more business and losing fewer pitches. If “the chemistry of the team” is the number one factor in a client choosing an agency, getting your team in the right place should be any agency’s number one new business priority.
Part Two: How to waste less time winning business
Winning a competitive agency pitch is one of the very best feelings known to competitive agency people.
It’s the ultimate adrenalin rush that fuels fondness of feeling and celebrations that will be remembered long after the hangover has worn off.
Losing a pitch can take you to a place that’s as bad as the winning feeling is good.
But whatever the outcome, it’s undoubtedly in the agency’s interest to run the pitch process as smoothly and efficiently as possible.
So here are ten thoughts that will help you get to a pitch more effectively – reducing wasted time and enhancing your chances of winning.
The first five are tips that can be incorporated in to an existing new business framework. Thoughts six to ten are actually questions of a wider nature. They’re based in the insight that your new business processes don’t exist in isolation – they are inevitably influenced by what happen elsewhere in the agency.
1. Say No
Focus on the pitches that you have the most chance of winning.
Know how and why you win, and use this knowledge to gauge your prospects of success. Don’t chase long-shots at the expense of low-hanging fruit, however glamorous they might seem.
And if a brief seems beyond your reach now, say No and start planning strategically to build your capabilities so that you’re ready next time around.
Add a second very senior person to your pitch team.
Not to duplicate the pitch leader role, but to become The Voice of the Client. To stand apart from the process and to weigh the outcome against what they heard the client say in the initial credentials and chemistry meetings. Two heads really are better than one – as long as they stick to their agreed roles (see ‘How do you make decisions?’ below).
3. Start at the end
The most effective way of reducing wasted time in the pitch process is also the simplest.
At a very early stage, ask the client how long you will have to pitch.
The fashionable answer at the moment seems to be 45 minutes, excluding the question session.
Given that you are likely to devote five minutes to team introductions and five minutes to timelines and budgets, you’ve got 35 minutes to play with. Which, if you’re preparing a deck, means 30-40 slides. Fewer if you plan to incorporate vox pops and films.
Brief your teams accordingly.
Editing a presentation down from anything of more than, say, 50 slides, betrays a lack of rigour early in the process and consigns many hours and perhaps days of work to the waste bin.
4. Follow a process, loosely
The best winning streak in my agency career owed everything to having a small team of key players who combined insight, experience and drive to produce compelling narratives in double-quick time.
It owned nothing to process.
But as the team evolved, we introduced more process in a bid to recapture former glories.
It never really worked and our mistake was to teach the process rather than the skills that had made a formal process unnecessary.
My advice now would be to have an outline process that helps those who are new to pitching – and then, as soon as they have earned their spurs, take the stabilisers off and trust them to follow their own lead.
5. Kill the blank page
One of the biggest enemies of pitch efficiency is the blank page. Give your writers a head start by supplying templates and how-to’s to get them moving as quickly as possible.
The thoughts above might well help to reduce wasted time, but it might be that your efficiency is still not where you want it to be.
It could be that your pitch conversion is hampered by behaviours and patterns that are well-established in the agency as a whole.
Here are five good questions to ask:
1. Do you trust enough of your team to go out on their own and win business?
If you do, chain them to your agency.
If you’re not sure, train them. Build on their potential and make sure it’s realised in your employ and not the next agency’s.
If your view is that they’ll never be able to help win business, find a back-of-house role. And if those positions are full, then the kind, generous yet firm conversation goes only one way.
2. Can your team brief clearly, and give feedback that is meaningful and motivating?
You never know. Your junior creative might actually enjoy the drama of the storm-out scene with the client services director. She’ll perhaps compose the pub-story as she wipes away the tears over a skinny latte in Costa. All of which is unlikely to help make the next round of creative any closer to the clear vision you had some 48 hours ago, however.
3. Are your meetings a mess?
A pitch team of eight meets for an hour and behaves just as it would in every other agency meeting.
They wait ten minutes for the most senior person to arrive. They each spend perhaps ten minutes of the meeting on their irresistible digital device. Some actions are agreed; the hardest questions are left hanging. There is perhaps a purple spell in the middle of the meeting when eight people concentrate together on the same thing.
Purposeful man hours: two. Wasted man hours: six.
4. How do you make decisions?
Lack of clarity of roles and responsibilities at a senior level will hold a business back and potentially hamstring pitch conversion.
The senior executive who feels they have the mandate to ‘get involved’ and ‘help things along’ when they see fit will most likely achieve little beyond feeding their own ego. In doing a passable impression of a seagull (flapping in, flapping out, mayhem in the middle) they undo much good work and leave the pitch leader to pick up the pieces of a team’s morale when they have more pressing matters to hand. Like, er, writing a pitch.
5. What are you sharing?
Pitch leaders will do well to consider their own leadership style.
Clients want to see happy, relaxed and motivated teams – aka the ‘chemistry’ that influences 80 per cent of pitch decisions according to The Future Factory’s recent survey.
If you’re creating a world of pain, for yourself and your team, there’ a good chance that this will translate in to the pitch presentation, and then you really are wasting your time.
This post is based on a presentation called How To Win More Business and Waste less Time that we delivered for our friends at The Future Factory.