My column last month focused on insights for agencies that find themselves competitively pitching business. This month I'll extend that and concentrate on the actual final presentation. These observations are based on personal experience on both sides of the table.
• Clients want people who know their business and with whom they would like to work. Period. I've seen plenty of scenarios in which programs that were presented were completely rejected, but the agency was selected. Why? At the end of a competitive review, the client knows they're hiring a firm not to execute a set of tactics shared during the pitch, but rather they're hiring a business partner.
The implications of this: Beyond assigning the right people to the business, make sure your team is really a team. You can't fake it. It's one of the reasons agency teams who have been working together for years have a decided advantage. Clients can instantly sense that chemistry. If your team hasn't spent much time together, have them go out for dinner the night before the pitch. Sure, you probably have no time because you're working on the deck, right? Trust me, the copy on your slides at the pitch are far less important than you think. Invest your energy wisely.
• Clients don't necessarily know what they want. They might say they want a small, boutique-oriented team (regardless of agency size), but they may require more than that. It's a battle of heart versus head. Clients might want to see the real team in the room, but senior client execs (perhaps the communications organization's internal clients) may be more persuaded by senior strategists and care less about the day-to-day team. They may not want a "big idea," but they may be persuaded by one.
So, what's the lesson? You've got to learn to "read" the client and follow your gut. There's no easy answer. You better follow the rules and all that, but separating yourself from the pack is usually a good thing. Have courage and take some risk.
• If you really want to win the business, you probably can. Pitching new business is tough. It's an enormous distraction. It requires mobilizing people, often from different practices and offices. It also means becoming deeply immersed in a new business, developing brilliant strategic and creative insight in short order. And then presenting all of that flawlessly.
There are a hundred things that can go wrong. Adding to the complexity: the agency presumably has plenty of paying clients, all of whom are demanding much of their agency teams – and these very people are often the ones also ripped away to pitch the new business.
Here's the insight: If you do all the things you're supposed to do to win, you probably will. Why? Well, first of all, you'll likely develop a great plan and have great people. But, frankly, your odds are also increased because most agencies don't do everything right every time. It's just too hard and too demanding given all the other priorities. Agencies might or might not want to admit this, but it is a reality.
So the key takeaway: think carefully about pitching business. The statistical odds are one agency will really nail it. It could be you. However, if you can't devote all the resources needed to win, you'll probably lose. So make it easier on yourself: become more selective about what you pitch.
• Add value. Last month I noticed a phenomenon that in small meetings, usually during the RFI stage, the two most senior agency people did most of the talking. Not good; spread it around. But in the actual presentation, I've occasionally seen the opposite. The senior person is there to represent the agency, to oversee the engagement, to be a "relationship manager," to be sure all goes well, etc. Hint: If that's your role in an upcoming pitch, stay home.
Sure, all those things are important, but they ought to be the responsibility of a senior person who is engaged in the business. If your primary value to the client is administrative, give up your spot to someone who will actually work on the business.
• Keep your titles to yourselves. Agency titles are problematic to clients for two reasons: they're irrelevant and, to make matters worse, they're usually over-inflated. Clients care about your position on their business, not whether you're a VP/manager of media services or whatever. The client is wondering, “What will you do for me?" Use this to your advantage. Give your people client-specific titles. It's more relevant and less embarrassing than realizing 75% of your team has bigger titles than the clients in the room.
• Less is more. Take this to the bank: During Q&A, more than two answers to one question is likely a disaster. All it suggests is there is no answer and everyone is floundering. Short, crisp answers are great. And rare. And appreciated.
Bob Feldman is cofounder and principal of PulsePoint Group, a management and digital consulting firm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column focuses on management of the corporate communications function.