How to win at pitches.
There used to be something called advertising agencies. They were built on a rickety alliance of creative business messaging, on the back of media spend commissions. However, as the media-creative nexus crumbled, so did the traditional advertising agency. Yet, one relic from the old days has remained – an ancient ritual that continues to haunt us no matter what our creative niche may be. This is the pitch, an intensive, exciting and often frivolous exercise that has served as the circle of life for agency and client relationships across time.
Like a benevolent deity, pitches are supposed to be good for you. One expects them to kill complacency, become a rite of passage for new creative blood, and revitalise brand fortunes. However, more often than not, they have no bearing on the work produced by the brand and their agency. They are necessary evils that are loved by many, hated by few and ignored by none. They are the gateways all agency folk must walk through.
The question is, can there be some method to the madness?
First things first. Do you want to participate in the pitch? Be aware that pitches are tough, time-consuming and emotionally draining events. The first letter of the RFP (request for proposal) stands for request. And that is what it is, really; it is not a compulsion. This is something most agencies (at least in Pakistan) seem to miss – we have the option to decline. And it doesn’t mean that the doors of that brand will forever be closed to us, or that we will appear as quitters, or worse, as complacent snobs. Be brave with your time. Don’t give it up unless you are sure you want to go ahead with it.
My suggestion is to push for a pitching fee. No other industry relies so heavily on unpaid speculative work. However, if you are unable to secure funding for participating, then pick your arena carefully. If there are more than seven agencies involved, skip it. If the pitch brief is incomplete or shoddily put together, run the other way. If the client seems non-serious about this process, sit it out. You can’t afford to drain your team’s enthusiasm over weak prospects.
Once the battleground is set, choose your soldiers. In any confrontation, be it warfare, sport, or corporate, wisdom suggests that the talent should be equally matched. However, I think a counter-intuitive approach works better. Study your client and figure out what sort of people will be present. Is it going to be the seth and his cronies? A sycophant government officer who places no value on your time? Fancy FMCG types with an arrogant bounce in their step? An NGO with a foreigner pulling the strings? Or elderly corporate bigwigs in a daunting boardroom? Whoever the audience is, choose the opposite kind of people for your team.
"Agencies often forget their own tricks when it comes to pitches. Although we advocate this all the time, at pitches, we end up trying to sell our product (the work) rather than our brand (the process)."
In most cases, we put our youngest talent at the forefront. Because most of our pitches are in front of veteran marketers, we shake things up by matching their years of experience with the chaos of fresh and ambitious resources. The youngest members of a team are likely to be fiercely creative and unpredictable. This makes for an interesting presentation and can break the monotony of a full-day pitch session for clients used to me-too best practice style presentations. An empowered young creative team can help tip the scales in your favour. It has for us.
When all the elements are in place, prepare for D-Day. A classic mistake most advertising agencies make is the “we will bring-you-the-moon-if-you-give-us-enough-money approach.” There were reports of a local phone manufacturer using Angelina Jolie for their next ad. Why stop there? Ask Barack Obama to endorse your pan masala brand for all I care. It may work, but it is never going to be a well-developed campaign idea. A way to avoid this is to ask for a budget ballpark. In this pre-planned day and age, if a brand cannot tell you how much they have earmarked for their marketing and communication, they are either not being honest or are terribly disorganised. In either case, run! A budget indication can help set expectations at both ends, so that the pitch is more realistic and agencies do not handicap themselves at the altar of executional shashkas.
Many agencies, including ours, invest in some sort of dipstick research for the brand to build a somewhat solid foundation for the proposal. I have mixed feelings about this. For starters, most dipsticks are unrepresentative. Research is a complex field. You can spend millions of dollars and still not arrive at a foolproof formula for success. It adds flavour and value to a pitch presentation and makes you look like a thinking agency, but there should be no illusion about it. It’s a way to demonstrate your commitment to building on real insights, but take it with a pinch of salt. Does the brand really expect you to spend time and money in researching something they haven’t done themselves? Let’s call a spade a spade.
Now is the moment of truth. Are you ready for that fateful hour when you are under the spotlight in front of the powers that be? I recommend starting on a personal note. Ask the first person who is presenting to show some vulnerability. The most sure-fire way for you to differentiate yourself is to be different from the polished perfection they are expecting. Being completely honest works, if thrown in with a contextual joke or two. The goal is to throw them off track.
A pitch is like a championship final; there has to be one winner and that is the beauty of the system. You may have given it your best, but there could have been a number of circumstances beyond your control that could have become the foundation of the decision.
Agencies often forget their own tricks when it comes to pitches. Although we advocate this all the time, at pitches, we end up trying to sell our product (the work) rather than our brand (the process). Clients are looking to enter into a relationship with you… they want to see you as an original thinker, not a robot who can process 20 jobs before COB (close of business). They are marrying into your company, so let them see your people and your processes; let these be the focus of your presentation. Show them your human side. Wow them with your story. Let them know about the diversity of thought that goes into every work that comes out of your agency. Admit that it is not perfect, that it has kinks that need to be ironed out. Express how excited you are about their brand. Build on a platform of humility and sell commitment to them, not just results.
Think of your pitch as a visual or auditory feast. They have invited you because they want to be wowed by your thoughts and your work. If they wanted to score you on strategy, they would have been content with the stack of papers you sent them as response to the RFP. But keep brevity and clarity in mind.
Taking this a step further has worked wonders for us. Whenever possible, put on a show. Dress up. Be dramatic. Treat them to a little theatre. Entertain them for that one hour, so that they will remember you when they go back to their cubicles and corner offices.
We won one of Pakistan leading white goods client over an internationally affiliated network because we dressed up in matching kurta shalwars and gave the brand a thematic nationalistic appeal. For Johns Hopkins CCP’s pitch for their interior Sindh project, I started the presentation in Sindhi, dressed in a kalaf wale white shalwar kameez, a gold watch, and an ajrak! The point is sing, dance, or do whatever it takes to capture the attention of your audience. Because at the end of the day, this is what they are hiring you to do for them.
And when that hour is over and your adrenaline levels are back to normal, be magnanimous in victory or in defeat. A pitch is like a championship final; there has to be one winner and that is the beauty of the system. You may have given it your best, but there could have been a number of circumstances beyond your control that could have become the foundation of the decision. So whether you became the AOR (agency of record) or not, you should be able to look back and think you had fun.
Because even if you have won, you are only an agency review or pitch away from someone else coming and stealing it away.
As Don Draper said: “The day you sign on a client is the day you start losing them.” Despite my efforts at retaining our client base year after year, I am forced to agree with him.
Sometimes life’s a pitch.
Umair Kazi is Partner, Ishtehari. email@example.com