A dozen tips for agencies pitching business

Success in the first round comes from doing the basics really well.

I had the opportunity recently to sit in with a client on a number of first-round new business presentations by various public relations agencies. I don’t get to do that often, and as someone who was on the agency side of that dynamic literally hundreds of times, the experience was fascinating.

I have some observations that agency pros should consider. Success for agencies in the selection process, certainly in the first round where the primary goal is to get to know one another and relevant capabilities, rarely comes from doing anything magical or breakthrough; much more likely success comes from doing all the basics really well.

Here are my top 12 tips. These may seem obvious to many of you, but I can also assure you these are rarely executed consistently. And when they are, they almost inevitably lead to advancing to round two.

Do research
Regardless of how much or how little advance time you have prior to the meeting, do some basic research on the client. Be sure each person in the meeting really has read the results of that research. Then share the knowledge and insight you acquired. Obviously, you don’t want to be presumptuous regarding how much you know, but you can link your insights to good questions and foster substantial engagement.

Show a team
An early meeting is premature for the firm to present "the" team for the client. But agencies should show a range of staff, senior to junior. I’ve always found that rock-star junior staffers create positive, lasting impressions, yet ironically it’s rare they’re allowed in these meetings and when they are often don’t say much.

Let the leader lead
The person who would likely be the most relevant senior person working with the client should also likely take the lead in the meeting. That person should demonstrate strong knowledge of the company, be deeply engaging, and be sure other agency staffers have an opportunity to show their stuff.

Link cases
There’s a tendency, for good reason, for agencies to share case studies with clients in order showcase work, results, creativity, etc. But each case needs to be consistently linked back to the client’s situation so the relevance is clear. I’ve always thought cases need to be really brief unless the correlation is compelling.

Start strong
There is a tendency for meetings to start with introductions and then either questions for the client (in an effort by the firm to engage) or agency capabilities. I’d suggest firms consider starting with the equivalent of "five observations" or thought-starters based on the preliminary research. Such an approach would drive engagement but also immediately showcase value-add by the firm.

Show frameworks
Clients want to know not only what work an agency is capable of doing; they want to understand the thinking and process behind it. If you have frameworks for strategic planning, narrative development, content creation, etc., share them. It reveals insight into the firm and speaks well to an approach that seeks to assure consistent quality.

Physical set-up matters
I sat in two late-day meetings. In one session, the room was brightly lit, the temperature was proper, and the table was an interesting v-shape that created some intimacy. In the other session, the lighting was somewhat dim, the temperature was warm, and the table was a long rectangle with clients sitting at one end and agency staffers at the other. Did that affect the outcome? Hard to say, but it didn’t help those in the more difficult room.

Deck or no deck?
I sat in six meetings this week, three with slides on a screen, three without. Truth is: it didn’t matter. The slides tended to provide a little more focus and structure to the meetings, but they also occasionally got in the way of discussion because people had to "present." Insight: Do what you like, but assure some structure and deep engagement. Fewer slides are usually better; too many and the focus of the meeting tends to become "get through the slides" rather than good conversation.

Energy matters
Agency teams with energy and passion for their work and for the client’s business make a difference. Perhaps it’s just human nature but people prefer other people who bring positive energy to the table.

Give it your all
First meetings are a touch awkward and occasionally agencies aren’t even certain they want the business. Perhaps there’s a potential conflict, for example. If you take the meeting, give it your all. Don’t let any reticence come through if you take the meeting, do everything you can to show your best. You can always reserve the right to withdraw.

Show your digital chops
Agency credentials in the social and digital space still vary widely, as do firms’ approaches to how they leverage those credentials for each client. It remains a point of differentiation. Showcase your capabilities regarding listening, analytics, content creation, syndication, paid, earned, etc.

Showcase innovation
Clients appreciate creativity and breakthrough ideas and want to see them, even if they’re not sure their own organization may have the courage to execute such ideas. But be sure the creativity is linked to business outcomes. When it is, it’s compelling; when it’s not, it’s irrelevant.

Bob Feldman is cofounder and principal of PulsePoint Group, a digital and management consulting firm. He can be reached at bfeldman@pulsepointgroup.com.

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