sxc marketing

5 ways you will be defeated by the pitch process

Posted on: December 21, 2010

So you just got the call from the potential client, or worse, the loser-merchant handling the pitch for them. Your agency didn’t win, “but thank you for participating.” As if this was a ring toss at a carnival. Throughout the process you fried your staff, lived in 5-Hour Energy increments, ticked off your spouse… yet again, spent more money than you should have and destroyed internal relationships; just face it, you’re a loser.

Well seriously, you didn’t win, so what else would I call you? You ask the client why you didn’t win, but like the cold sting of the last episode of “Lost,” there are no real answers, no honest evaluation of your suckage that could help you improve – just more questions, and the dry tasteless meal of platitudes the client dishes out to try and get you to participate next time it wants a dog to beat.

You blew the pitch, and you might have done it before even agreeing to participate. Here’s where things went wrong, and how to keep from suffering the same fate next time.

Stop! Think. Then ignore that thought, and think of something else

You get the RFP. You’re excited. You tell everyone in your agency, “We’ve been invited to pitch blah-blah-blah.” And then like the controlled chaos of FEMA, you start to formulate a plan – the wrong plan. I know, it’s ego-gratifying. The head of new business is trying to save his job and show his worth. The financial books have been bleeding red ink for months. You are holding on by a thread, and none of the employees of your agency understand just how difficult and precarious every agency is from going under. You think, “This is going to be the client we win that gets our agency to break through!” Stop. Rewind. Think. Then ignore that thought, and think of something else.

The first job of your agency is to protect the agency. It is not to pitch clients. It is not to do award-winning creative. It’s definitely not to win this piece of business, nor even serve your current clients, and it is not to have your ego stroked like a little puppy. It is to protect the assets you have, and help build new ones. These assets do not include the great process you have (which no one likely follows), the (misplaced) belief that your agency is special, or those overpriced Aeron chairs. Your assets are your people, end of story. Without them your agency is nonexistent. And sadly, the fields of the advertising battlefield are littered with the desiccated corpses of agencies that thought otherwise.

If you need to win this particular piece of pitch business, in order to stay in business, you are likely already dying and this last-ditch effort won’t help much. You should have pared back your staff to be more lean and accurately assessed your business to trim the fat. Agencies often do not keep their best people – they get rid of those who were servicing lost clients. But just because a client is staying with you, and is easy to service, doesn’t mean that its account team is better than the teams servicing former business.

Downturns are great for our industry. They give us an opportunity to clean house. Is that cruel? Yes. But it’s less cruel than humoring the incompetent at your agency. Look at your agency staff and assess their capabilities and talents, independent of which clients they serve. You want to keep that rare combination of talent and positive attitude that works well with others, and lose that group of malcontents whose arrogant bravado is due to the luck of the client draw. How do you accomplish this? Ask your most trusted team members for their input on who is not pulling their weight, and then restructure for long-term success. This will position your agency to win more business.

The also-ran choice

When it comes to pitching, more agencies will be losers than winners. Reality sucks, and so do most agencies at winning new business. With around five agencies in the average pitch, you assume that a 20 percent chance of winning the business is not bad odds. And that is where you’re wrong.

You never had a 1 in 5 chance. The decision has usually been narrowed down to two agencies before the pitch even begins. The rest of you? Also-ran fillers for the race. Yes, there is the chance an also-ran can win – the long-shot – but it has to seriously outperform its breeding.

The client, or, as I like to call it at this phase, the pitch-handler-devil-spawn, will always tell you that you have a shot. Shocker here: The client is lying. Oh, it might not even realize it is lying because it has been in advertising and marketing so long that the speed at which it can generate its own reality distortion field circumvents its higher brain functions.

Clients have a preference of which agency they want to win. They always have a preference. There is some piece of creative they have seen, or there is some meme circulating about an agency that has the client ego-stunned. Before you accept any assignment to pitch, there should be a thorough evaluation by your agency of what you stand to gain from getting involved.

I often ask agencies one simple question: “Why are you participating in this pitch?” And they look at me as a deer in headlights, stunned they actually have a choice. Of course, I get the usual responses like, “Sean X, if you do not take advantage of opportunities you’ll never survive in this business.” Yes, I do know that, but it all depends on your definition of the word “opportunity.”

If there was about a 50 percent chance of winning the business, then it would probably be a good opportunity. However, at 100 to 1 odds, if you participate, your agency virtually deserves to lose. Best to do your research ahead of time. Call your client contact or the external pitch person. Be friendly. Ask questions. Ask why the client asked you specifically to participate. Ask what it saw in your agency. Express that you are excited about the pitch and are just trying to gather as much information as you can. If you are one of the favorites, then your calls will often be perceived as your agency being thorough; if you are on the also-ran list, then the client will generally seem annoyed. It is fairly easy to sense, and if you sense it, jump ship.

You see, if you jump ship, and you are dealing directly with the client, it can be viewed as a sign of strength. If the client viewed you as one of the front runners, it will likely try and get you to change your mind. If it does not, then guess what? You made the right choice. On the other hand, if you are dealing with the client’s intermediary, that contact will always try and have you participate. Why? Because it makes an intermediary look bad if you drop out. In that case, it’s simple. If the contact explains the client is really impressed with your work, ask if you can talk to the client briefly. If the intermediary tries to keep you isolated from the client, it’s a good sign that you were right to walk away.

Regardless, all you have done is increase your odds of not being a loser, and saved your agency time and money. Threatening to not run the race is often the best way to find out if you have a chance to win it.

Assemble the replacements

Agencies are running pretty lean these days, so when a request to pitch comes in, they often have to decide whether they can spare the resources for it. Though it’s more important to serve current clients that are keeping their doors open, they often make a catastrophic decision to give it a try anyway.

If that sounds like a smart decision, try this idea on for size: Take one person from your current agency and then assemble an outside team of people for the pitch. With the number of top talented people on the sidelines right now, that should be an easy enough task. You usually need about six total people for a pitch. Give them business cards and have the internal person give a one-day tutorial on your agency, the clients you currently have, the culture, etc., so that they can speak confidently about your agency process. The reality is that often agencies massively over-commit internal resources on a long-shot bet, in an attempt to drown the client with content. But in the end it is about two things: your ideas and your ability to connect to the client. By assembling a small team of people in this manner, you get more concentrated work.
Also, you get to constantly see external talent and what they are capable of.

The promise? If you win the account, the external team members will get hired to service it. Trust me when I say that you will more than get good work out of them if they know that a full-time job with health benefits is on the line. They will over-service you for the price you are paying, and you will pay a lot less to do the pitch than if you overstaffed internally to do it.

The lesson from this colorful example: The mistake many agencies make is that they grab resources for the pitch that never actually end up working on the account. They fry their current workhorses in a quest for that shiny new opportunity.

Worrying about what resources to shift around for a new client causes massive internal chaos. It is crucial that you concentrate on the relationship with the client, not just the current business pitch, otherwise you are setting yourself up to fail. The worst scenario is you’ve just staffed two accounts by shifting your current resources from existing business, and end up screwing them both.

It’s common knowledge that agencies really do not make a lot of money on clients until the first 18 months are done. Working with a hypothetical team of “ringers,” you can more predictively control your outlay and hit profitability much earlier. You get team members that are ready to go day one, dedicated to the business, and thankful you gave them this opportunity. It is also massively easier to control costs. At worst you can at least be the also-ran and get valuable information on future hires or people you can replace more efficiently.

Do you really want this POS?

How much are you really willing to sell your soul in this business? How much are you willing to compromise your ethics? Is this a competitor to a current client that you think will be better? What happens if you actually win the business? I often hear agencies tell me, “That’s a problem we’d love to have!” And yes, they all say that, but I have seen agency after agency dive headfirst into a new client relationship that destroys the agency.

Here are some key points to consider: Has the client shifted agencies three times in the last four years and yet still has the same account team lead? Guess what? Your agency is not going to change this trend. You do not have magical powers. People are people. Some have great communication skills and an understanding of semantics that allows them to placate difficult clients. And any business relationship can go sour; but three in four years? That’s an issue.

As Nancy Reagan would say, “Just say ‘no!’” Unfortunately, your ability to actually do that is about as effective as Reagan’s campaign was to actually curb drug use. Listen to that little voice in your body – that feeling of unease. That predator instinct and lizard brain warning. Do not be blinded by drinking your own Kool-Aid – you’ll likely end up dead.

There is no spoon

We sell air, the ethereal, the idea, the meme concept we want to propagate, but in the end this is not life or death. So, if you want to get on top of the table and slam your shoe, go ahead. Take some risks, no one is going to die. But do not go into a pitch and play it safe. Be willing to take off all the gloves (or the clothes if you have the body for it). The client might not hire you. The client might think you are crazy. But in the current marketing and advertising climate, you have to break through the barrier of sameness in order for you to help your client. If you are not willing to do that, then you are not willing to play to win.

If you decide to go through with the pitch, throw the long ball. You can be the mamby-pamby conservative agency with your current clients, But here, you have nothing to lose. Do not leave anything in the reserve tank of your passion. Make them cringe and crawl in their seats. Make them feel you. For this is what you are trying to bring to their business. Feeling. Something that affects us. At worst they will remember you, and when the conservative little idea they chose from that safe agency fails, they might realize they have to take bigger risks. If you are not willing to fall on your sword, then do not bother going into the battle. Because the last thing our industry needs is more advertising drivel that numbs the brain and our society.

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