The top 5 ways you are killing your new business pitch

A veteran new business executive on the biggest mistake agencies make in the pitch process - and what they should do instead.

Most agencies can relate to this scenario: "We’ve got one week to prepare a pitch deck to win this business. Let’s just Frankenstein together some creds slides and case studies from the last three pitches."

I would know. I’ve been that new business executive, obsessing over which slides I needed to create from scratch, and which ones I could just copy and paste from last week’s pitch presentation.

It’s the first mistake every pitch team makes: They start by cracking open PowerPoint or Keynote.

I get it. Every pitch has an insane deadline, and any time that isn’t spent perfecting every slide in your pitch deck is a waste of time, right? Wrong. Agency teams who have only a surface-level understanding of the client’s behavioral mindset and emotional state are putting their entire pitch in jeopardy.

Here are five of the most common mistakes agencies make at every stage of the pitch process, and how to fix them to win:

They don't understand the client's personality, culture, and temperament. Most pitch prep goes something like this: What is the project scope? What’s the timeline? What’s the budget? It’s the kind of approach that only paints half the picture.

Every company has a distinct personality. You should know it cold. For example: Is this company full of hard-charging MBAs with a laser-like focus on the bottom-line? Or are they more relationship-driven folks who hire based on personality not just capabilities?

Don’t skimp on the personality and culture research. It makes every bit of difference between a pitch that’s completely tone-deaf, or one that resonates with the prevailing culture in the room.

They don't recognize when a weakness is really a strength. If you’ve got a good handle on your competition, you can focus on accentuating your strengths and guarding against your weaknesses.

The trick is knowing how to tell which is which in every pitch.

For example: I once advised a Canadian agency who was convinced their small size put them at a disadvantage against their larger US-based competition. Nonsense, I told them. You can turn your smaller size into a strategic advantage. Sell the clients on how they’ll be a prized fish in a smaller pond and benefit from more individual attention from the senior team.

Once they realized their perceived weakness was actually a unique differentiator, it gave them all the confidence in the world to waltz in there and win the pitch.

They don't understand the client's barriers and triggers. Most pitch teams think their only competition are the other agencies waiting in the lobby. Not always true.

You may be psychologically competing against the untrustworthy (and expensive) agency who burned them six months ago. Or, you may have to grapple with the public perceptions of your agency — you know, spawned by those less-than-stellar reviews from disgruntled employees on Glassdoor.

Take time to anticipate what obstacles or preconceived notions you might face, and use them to frame your strategic message. Good trial lawyers do this every day. When addressing the jury, they don’t ignore a perceived weakness in their case. They shine a light on it, and immediately discredit its importance. You should do the same.

They don't take a stand. If I’m at a new restaurant and can’t decide between the chicken and the salmon, the last thing I want the waiter to say is: "They’re both good." I want him to tune into who I am, what I might like, and make a recommendation with conviction.

Like a waiter, an agency’s job isn’t just to take orders and deliver what the client asked for. Their job is to listen, and to steer their client in the best direction.

One tip: Establish a recommended strategy early on, and cement it in a short high-level "Yoda message." It’s the best way to ensure every team member is on the same page.

Years ago, I was part of a big team pitching to a large office supply retailer. Early on, we learned the company faced a singular challenge: "Should our marketing campaign aim to attract new customers, or convince existing customers to take one more trip to our stores?"

To us, the latter strategy was the best path forward. And just like that, my pitch team’s Yoda message was born: "You need to turn friends into lovers."

They don't have a "win theme." In Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath reference how Hollywood producers rely on high-concept phrases to describe a new movie. Speed is "Die Hard on a bus." Alien is "Jaws on a spaceship."

In the new business world, we call this high-level concept a "win theme" — an easy-to-grasp message that unites your team around what it will take to win.

"Make them believe we’re Einstein on a razor scooter," for example, is a win theme that helped me rally an office full of employees when we needed to wow a prospective client visiting on an office tour. It helped everyone understand how to dress that day (no suits), what kinds of case studies to mention (ones that show off the agency’s innovative thinking), and to even how to approach small talk (make it intellectually deep).

Bottom line? Stop organizing your pitches around slides. Put the laptop down and take the time to consider the psychological mindset of your prospect, and understand the obstacles you’ll need to address. Your presentation deck should always be the last step in the pitch process; not the other way around.

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