Want to win big when pitching? Use rejected strategies as your secret weapon

By explaining why you rejected two credible approaches to a client problem, you can derail any competing agency that came in and proposed one of those two rejected strategies.

Many years ago during my early days at Burson-Marsteller, I became familiar with an approach called the Strategy Selection Outline process, which was was something the old Marsteller Advertising agency occasionally used.

The concept was simple and often highly effective. And I’ve rarely seen it utilized since.

The SSO process, as it was called, shared with prospective clients the agency’s thinking about alternative strategic approaches to the business challenge at hand. The firm would spend considerable time, more often than not during a formal account pitch, explaining perhaps three distinctive approaches to a campaign and then further explain why it rejected two of them and would pursue only one.

The wisdom of this approach is that – whether you work for an agency or you work with internal clients within your own corporate structure – most clients want to really understand the "why" before they worry about the "how."

Most of us migrate too quickly to the "how." We discuss tactics we’re going to execute before persuading our clients why they should be making this investment in the first place.

The benefits of the SSO process are as follows:
1: It promotes critical thinking even before you get to the client, testing your hypotheses and ensuring that you really are proposing the best possible idea.

2: It helps the client understand the whys of what you are proposing.

3: It impresses the client with your team’s analytical capabilities, strategic thinking, and level of effort.

In a world in which communications practitioners are continually trying to elevate their engagement into the strategy sphere, those are all good things.

For those of you in the agency world, there is one other great thing about this approach. By substantively explaining why you rejected two perfectly credible, legitimate approaches to a client problem, you have managed to derail any competing agency that came in and proposed one of those two rejected strategies. It may not have worked 100% of the time, but I can assure you a thoughtful dissection of a strategy with a strong basis for rejection gave plenty of clients doubt.

I started thinking about the SSO approach recently because it’s relevant to much more than just communications campaigns. For example, I was in a conversation last week with the CCO of a Fortune 500 company. The subject: His organization and how to restructure it for the future.

Certainly, there is no one right answer. But often we try to get to one. My experience is that a better outcome is achieved when we really try to create two or three credible alternatives for virtually any problem we’re trying to solve, and then debate the wisdom of each. This can be true for organization design, communications campaigns, crisis response scenarios, employee activation scenarios, the role of the C-suite on social channels, and more.

This often has the additional benefit of providing a broader mix of talent to engage in stimulating, brain-stretching work. It can also prevent an idea that was adopted prematurely – either from laziness, an excess of enthusiasm, or the demands of deadlines ­– harden into a strategy as the result of unchallenged momentum.

I’ve seen leaders effectively put together two or three small teams to brainstorm a challenge and have the teams participate in a healthy competition for the best approach. The best solution is often a hybrid. And with positive, constructive feedback from the group’s leadership, the exercise is usually quite rewarding.

Bob Feldman is cofounder and principal of PulsePoint Group, a digital and management consulting firm. He can be reached at bfeldman@pulsepointgroup.com. His column focuses on management of the corporate communications function.

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