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Pitching for Success

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There are a number of things that successful agencies do to win a pitch and some will surprise you, writes Padraig Hyland.

There is a great quote from The Pitch, the US reality show that goes behind the scenes on America’s top creative ad agencies.

Tony Pace, CMO at Subway, has been pitched by WDCW and McKinny. WDCW have come up with the better overarching idea for the upcoming campaign – and as someone who talks a lot about the importance of the ‘big idea’, it seems fairly clear-cut which way this is going to go. Right?

Wrong. McKinny wins the business.

Tony explains: “Decisions like this are not just about one particular creative approach; it’s about which agency you can work with over the long term.” And crucially, he also highlights that strategy, passion and an ability to deliver on your ideas are every bit as important as the big idea.

I’ve seen time and time again that the agencies who win pitches understand these multiple forces at play, and make the most of them – while the ones who don’t will obsess over the creative ‘wow’, while forgetting the less glamorous but equally important aspects.

The best way to understand this is to understand the journey you need to take the brand on to win the pitch – I like to describe this journey in terms of what the client should be thinking at each stage of your pitch. This journey should look a little something like this:

  • ‘These Guys Understand My Business’
  • ‘That’s A Different Perspective Or Insight; We Hadn’t Thought Of It That Way’
  • ‘These Guys Understand My Problem’
  • ‘That’s A Great Idea’
  • ‘These Guys Know How To Make This Idea Happen’
  • ‘I Want To Work With These Guys’.

Too many agencies start their pitch at number three, opening with a demonstration of how well they understand the problem – something that can be blamed equally on brands for issuing highly tactical briefs (I have, on more than one occasion, had arguments with agencies to get them to spend more time on stages 1 and 2 but the pushback is that there is no point, as the brief is tactical).

But it comes down to a fairly simple truth: if the pitch has not been put in the context of the brands business strategy, no idea is going to deliver the impact you need to persuade a CMO or marketing manager to part with their cash.

So let’s look at the steps in a little more detail.

‘These Guys Understand My Business’

The purpose of this part of the pitch is to show your strategic capability, giving the brand marketing team the thinking and justification they need to sell your idea in to their respective higher-ups – in terms of growth, market challenges and opportunities in the field.

It is important to keep in mind who you’re pitching, and successful agencies don’t just pitch to those sitting before them – but also to the people not in the room. In particular, you pitch upward to the CEO, giving a strategic context for your pitch that the CMO can take directly to the board. While this context may only be a couple of minutes at the front of your pitch it can take quite a lot of time in terms of preparation.

Recently I was involved in a pitch where the agency team had researched the industry so thoroughly that they discovered this particular industry had a specific method for measuring performance. Being able to integrate this into the pitch and showing how their ideas would impact on this measure, helped enormously in making the brand feel that the work presented would have impact.

‘That’s A Different Perspective Or Insight, We Had Not Thought Of It That Way’

As many agencies realise, there is a need to bring insight to the pitch – a key truth underpinning the problem or challenge being faced that’s been arrived at via research and experience (as opposed to just stating the obvious).

This insight should set up that your idea is the right one – and if you get the insight right, the client will be more likely to buy into your read of the key challenge, and more likely to see your idea as a no-brainer.  This stage of the pitch is where the buying is done.  If you get it right the lient os already on board.

‘These Guys Understand My Problem’

This involves demonstrating some knowledge and understanding of the problem faced by key decision makers, as well as the context in which it sits.

It’s important to understand the problem from their perspective. This quite often involves reframing the brief, or stripping back the layers a bit to identify the ‘real’ problem. As clients can sometimes fail to see the wood for the trees, their briefs often outline a set of objectives without a clear view on the business problem they’re attempting to solve. For that reason, it’s always best if the agency identifies the problem in its own right, and challenges the brief where necessary.

‘That’s A Great Idea’

The idea is important to win business and sometimes you find an idea so good that the room lights up when you present it. However, in most cases, the idea on its own will not do this.

If you’ve done the first three steps, however, your idea will end up having a far greater impact on the audience (in fact, realistically, if you’ve nailed the first three steps then you’ve already won the business).

You are now presenting an idea that has a strategic context, is based on an insight and has a clear link to how it will deliver on the brief – not just the most awesome thing you came up with, the one you’re most excited to work on, or the one that will get business results.

‘These Guys Know How To Make This Idea Happen’

You’ve sold the dream. So now it’s time to sell the reality. Can you deliver on the incredible promise you’ve made throughout the first four stages?

You will have built credibility all through the pitch process, and so this might not be a major concern. However, if the plan involves a risk for them, then you need to work a little harder at this stage to alleviate any concerns. If you’re going to position something that is going to take the client team outside of their comfort zone, or something you have little experience in doing, then be sure to show how you’re managing the risk involved.

I’ve heard of many great ideas pitched but not bought, because the client was ‘not brave enough’. But that’s unfair – it’s up to the pitch team to persuade the client that they’ve got the chops to turn the idea into reality.

 ‘I Want To Work With These Guys’

So you’ve got the first five steps down to a tee, and it’s all looking good. Fantastic work!

However, a competing agency may have done all these things too – so now, it’s time to work on the marginal gains. The aspects that will make them look forward to picking up the phone to you on a day-to-day basis, or sitting down with you for quarterly strategy reviews.

Your passion, authenticity and teamwork will be key here. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard feedback given to a losing agency containing phrases like “low energy”, “lack of passion” or “not confident”. Of course, this is often driven by the culture at the agency – and the experience of the pitch preparation process.

If you get that down to a tee by following these steps, the rest should flow a whole lot more naturally.

Padraig Hyland is a Strategy Engagement Consultant and CEO of The Core Story www.thecorestory.com

First published in Irish Marketing Journal (IMJ September 2017)© to order back issues please call 016611660