Dressing for the pitch: Divining client culture while dealing with wardrobe malfunctions

In an increasingly casual culture, knowing what to wear to a client meeting can be a challenge.

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

Curtis Sparrer knew that getting a little nervous during a big pitch is normal. Still, he thought, the amount of sweat he was producing while meeting with a potential technology client was not normal.

"All sudden, I had exploded," Sparrer recalls. "I was a human sweatsicle just covered in sweat."

In this instance, Sparrer, now principal at technology PR shop Bospar, was trying to win $15,000 a month in new business for a past employer. It was an important opportunity, but nothing out of the ordinary -- and he wasn’t just being self-conscious about his sweat. "Everyone looked at me and asked if I was Ok," he says.

Looking back on the pitch meeting, Sparrer realizes it wasn’t an outsized case of stage fright. Rather, medication his doctor had prescribed caused his heart rate to jump and his sweat glands to kick into overdrive.

Sparrer’s story is just one example of a hiccup during a client pitch for PR pros, who work in an industry based on perception but also must endure nerve-wracking client pitches. Appearances matter. What you wear to a pitch might not win you an account, PR pros say, but it can certainly lose you one, so ensuring everyone on a team is dressed appropriately is an important part of the presentation.

Sparrer says he has found over the years that simply asking everyone to look their best isn’t enough because there’s no way of knowing what people will show up wearing. "I have seen all sorts of outfit ideas that were perhaps not the best choice," he says. Some staffers can dress far too casually, as in beachwear casual, while others go in the opposite direction.

"One woman actually arrived in a formal evening gown," Sparrer says, noting that while it was "a very cute dress," it was also completely inappropriate for the occasion.

Too much? Or too little?
Full-on black tie may be an obvious faux pas, but sometimes simply upping your sartorial game a little can have serious repercussions, as Rosie Mattio, founder of Mattio Communications, says she found out one morning. Trying to win one of the biggest pitches of her career, she says she decided to dress slightly more formally than usual. It turned out to be a big mistake.

"I was dropping my daughter off at school, and while getting her out of the car, I spilled blue Gatorade all over my white skirt," she says. It was 8:15 a.m. The pitch was set for 9 a.m. And, of course, there were no stores open on the way to the client’s office," she says.

"Luckily, I was able to call my intern who brought me an ill-fitting skirt (that did not match) in time," Mattio recalls. "But still, it throws you off the game and rattles you a little. The funny part is normally, I dress pretty casually. It was definitely a change. If I had been wearing what I normally wear, the stain wouldn’t have even shown."

Accidents aside, matching your look to a potential client’s expectations is much easier said than done, but sometimes making an educated guess can be good enough.

Kevin Lewis, partner at Seven Letter, notes that when it comes to the government and public affairs space, clients expect to see traditional business wear. On the other hand, if you’re in consumer PR and a client literally sells granola, you can safely leave a suit and tie at home.

"If you’re in a pitch and say they’re a food brand in the organic space, they’re going to be super-casual," says Michael Olguin, CEO of Havas Formula. "The likelihood of them being rigid is not great."

Still, sometimes it’s not so simple. Agency leaders note that as workplace dress codes become more casual, knowing what to wear to pitch for new business is getting more difficult.

"If you were in fashion and beauty, it would still be heels and lipstick," Mattio explains. "But today, even the guys in finance are dressing more casually."

Ricardo Baca is founder of Grasslands, a Denver-based agency that specializes in heavily regulated industries. He notes that his energy and legal clients tend to be "buttoned up in general." But in industries where you might expect clients to be laid back, like in its other speciality, cannabis, the dress can be surprisingly formal. "There are suits involved much more often now. Even ties," he says.

Some clients are completely unpredictable, Sparrer notes. "Being in Silicon Valley, the question of what to wear is pretty fraught," he says. "You never know what you’re going into, whether it’s a jeans-and-t-shirt place or if it’s super-buttoned-up."

This uncertainty means agencies need to do extra research on potential clients.

"You need to understand who the client is and what their personality is," says Olguin. "Are they a conservative culture where everybody wears a coat and tie? If so, you would never go in underdressed. You are in a creative business, so you can take some liberties, but you don’t want to be disrespectful. We try to understand who they are and then dress one layer above that."

Sometimes it’s less about the client’s dress code and more about what they expect from the agency, as one leader of a Midwestern office of a major PR firm who asked to remain anonymous found out. The morning of a pitch, the agency’s wild child creative director emailed to say he had lost his voice and couldn’t make the meeting. Because creativity was pivotal to the presentation, his absence was a big deal. However, a quick wardrobe change saved the day.

"I dressed like a creative director in leather pants with a graphic t-shirt under a blazer," she says. "I took over his role and channeled my best mad man creative personality -- and it worked. We won the account."

Baca, meanwhile, says he stresses authenticity from agency staff.

"We’re a small boutique firm with 10 full timers, and there’s a certain casual element to Grasslands that I think our clients appreciate and value," Baca says. "I never want to misrepresent that even when I’m walking into an energy client meeting where a suit and tie is the norm. In 2019, everything is about authenticity and misrepresenting yourself to get an account is not how we practice things around here."

Sparrer, meanwhile, recalls another instance of dressing up to be a team player with a client -- even in non-ideal circumstances.

"One time, I had an appointment with a client, and he wanted to meet in New York, during July," he says. "His assistant told me that he was going to wear a three-piece suit including the tie, the vest and jacket -- everything just short of bowler hat. And because he was going to be dressed up like that, I decided I was going to suffer with him. Still, I made a point of finding clothes that hid the sweat the best."

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