My name is Bill Baker, and I am a recovering advertising executive.
Before diving into the world of strategic storytelling, I spent 18 years navigating through the always-stimulating, sometimes soul-sucking seas of advertising, working for multinational agencies such as Grey, Saatchi & Saatchi and DDB. During my tenure in advertising, I was regularly involved in pitching new business, which elicited some of the highest highs and lowest lows of my career.
More recently, in some bizarre twist of fate, I have had the opportunity to sit on the other side of the table for agency pitches as we’ve helped several clients find the right agency to build off of our StoryFinding work and bring it to life in communications. Watching an agency team go through a pitch process instead of being part of that team has been incredibly illuminating. In particular, I have been struck by how a much the little things can add up to make a big difference in how an agency is perceived and, ultimately, judged.
With this in mind, and in the spirit of giving some friendly advice to my former comrades in arms, I offer up the following tips on the smaller but important things that agencies (or professional service firms of any kind) too often overlook in the pitch process.
- Remember, most people don’t like to read — When you’re putting together a written submission, remember that yours will be keeping company with eight to twelve other ones. And while the totality of all those submissions represents a lot of great talent and thinking, it also represents a whole whack of reading for the clients to go through. Accordingly, make your submission a pleasure to read by taking care of the person who’s reading it. Use less words that mean more. Have lots of headlines, text call-outs and pictures. Be philosophical and poetic in a few key spaces and more practical and succinct in others. And never forget that just because you’ve got a lot to say and can say it beautifully doesn’t mean everyone wants to read it.
- Make the tough calls when it comes to casting — A common mistake agencies make in pitch presentations is not being able to choose who should be in the room; so they end up choosing everyone. This happens when agencies are held hostage by internal politics or a few fragile egos instead of focusing on putting the right (and right-sized) team forward. When an agency brings too many people into the room, it is often too many senior people, who then tend to dominate the discussion, creating the impression that your agency is top heavy and expensive and that the mid-level folks who would actually be working on your business aren’t trusted to take on a larger role. One or two senior agency leaders in the room are appropriate to convey the importance of the opportunity; but more than that can quickly feel like overkill.
- Keep it simple — There is a great scene in the move “Amadeus” in which the somewhat simple-minded Emperor Joseph II, after sitting through the debut of Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” tries to articulate why he’s struggling with it. Looking to his many suck-up advisers for the right words, one offers, “too many notes, Sire?” “Yes, yes, exactly. Too many notes,” Emperor Joseph agrees, before explaining to a befuddled Mozart that, “there are only so many notes the ear can hear over the course of an evening.” Such can also be the case with pitch presentations. So as you’re preparing it, ask yourself, “If they remembered only one thing from this presentation, what should it be? What if they remembered three?” Instead of throwing a dozen different notes at them and risking them hearing none, decide on the few you want them to hear, build your presentation around them and then make them sing.
- Be good hosts — In a recent search, the winning agency won because the clients truly felt they had the best pitch and would be the best fit for them. But their warm hospitality also did not go unnoticed. They sent thank-you emails after the first meeting. They sent welcome emails prior to the pitch meeting with instructions on where to park and how to find the office. They were waiting for us, outside, when we pulled up. Everyone on their team said hello to everyone on ours. They took our coats, offered coffee and refreshments and told us where the bathrooms were. They sent us on our way with a little nosh for the road. And they followed-up the next day with another thank-you email. These smaller gestures on their own will not win a pitch for an agency, but they certainly make a difference in how a client feels about the agency.
Pitching for new business is part of the business of any professional services firm, ad agencies included. It requires a lot of time, energy and effort; but it also requires humanity, common sense and an ability to look at yourselves from the outside in and ask, “How will this read? How will it feel? How will it resonate?” Look at the big picture, yes, but don’t forget the smaller details. Because in a business of people hiring people, these little things can add up to make all the difference.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: If you are part of an agency or professional services firm that has to regularly pitch for business, and you feel you could a better job of putting your best foot forward during those pitches, you should consider the Better Pitching Workshop conducted by myself and my colleague, Linda Oglov. Please get in touch with me if you want more details.
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