Notes to Self: From the Other Side of the Table

What We Learned About Pitching By Sitting in the Client's Seat

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Lori Senecal
Lori Senecal
Like many big agencies, we have a training program in which our young stars prepare mock new-business pitches and present them to top executives, who pose as the clients. True to the law of unintended consequences, this exercise never fails to be a valuable learning experience for me and the rest of our agency leadership.

After all, we're usually on the other side of the table, delivering the pitch rather than receiving it, and times like these are a great reminder of just how different clients' view can be.

While watching the pitches, I busily collect two sets of notes. One set captures feedback for the presenting team, and a second set records lessons I've learned, some of which I'm sharing with you now.

Note to self No. 1: Avoid presentation introductions that put the clients on the spot.

Some of the pitch teams, in an effort to make a personal connection, put pictures of us "clients" up on a giant plasma screen. We all cringed seeing ourselves in 10-foot broadcast versions. Instead of creating a warm feeling, it reminded us of having either a bad hair day or the few pounds we need to lose.

Note to self No. 2: Start the presentation by telling the client something they don't know.

Inevitably, all the presentations began with a recap of the client's market situation and some analysis of the data from the brief. This was meant to demonstrate what good listeners they were. But after watching four presentations back-to-back, it became positively anesthetizing. One of the teams, though, chose to bypass this meaningless recap and started abruptly and directly with a provocative new insight. It was better than a Red Bull. Opening every presentation with something the client doesn't know is a great way to command attention.

Note to self No. 3: Flub ups in a presentation aren't necessarily the end of the world.

One terrific presenter had a blackout moment where her brain froze for a few uncomfortable seconds. But she composed herself quickly and came back to nail the rest of her presentation. Because of her stumble, we were all visibly pulling for her, and she didn't disappoint. Flubs don't have to be detrimental -- sometimes they bring out the humanity in the audience and a real connection is made.

Note to self No. 4: It's easy to think that your presentation was a winner.

When we ultimately announced the winner, I think all the teams thought they would be the victors. Why? Because pitches are so very intense, and you so badly want some kind of affirmation that you won over your audience that it's easy to interpret even the smallest positive sign as a huge vote of confidence. But the reality is that most audiences (as we did) will give some kind of encouragement for your efforts, making it easy to think you killed it, when maybe they were just being appreciative and decent.

Note to self No.m 5: Find even more opportunities to leverage emerging stars.

Although I point out a few missteps above to make some points, the presentations and our young talent were amazingly accomplished and professional. It was clear that we need to find even more ways to put them in the spotlight. Here are a couple of ways we're working on that. When we recently received an opportunity to pitch a smaller piece of business, we chose to assemble a team entirely composed of people who don't have EVP or SVP in their titles and gave them the charge of completely owning the pitch and bringing it home. We opened the door and gave them the chance to close the deal. At the half-way point, they are doing beautifully. Secondly, we plucked one of the young stars to play a lead role in a larger pitch to bring new energy and perspective to our seasoned team.

Lori Senecal is president of McCann Erickson, New York.