Agencies Must Learn the Art of Self-Selection

Ask the Right Questions to Know if a Pitch Is Worth Your Shop's Time

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To pitch or not to pitch -- that is the question. But it's not the only one. What other questions should an agency ask itself, a search consultant, procurement and (most important) the prospective client in order to make a truly informed decision? What red flags should be considered before committing your team's time, energy and passion to a pitch that might have already be a "done deal" before you've even agreed to participate?

We've all been there: It's easy to get carried away with the lure of an exciting opportunity. But agencies must learn the art of self-restraint and self-selection. Even more critical is putting that behavior into practice.

Recently, we've experienced pitches in which it felt like the prospective client wanted us to participate in a review even though he or she was predisposed toward another shop in the pitch. So, we have begun asking questions. Getting it out in the open is the only way to really determine whether a pitch is worth your time. Addressing these issues listed below with your prospective client can offer the insight you need to decide whether or not to take on the pitch. It'll save time not just for you, but also potentially prevent a match that isn't quite the right fit.

Ask who and why
Don't be afraid to dig deeper. Probe. Knowing how many agencies are included and who they are is useful -- but that only tells you so much. Go one step further and ask why each agency was invited to pitch, and why you were chosen. Consider asking what the client finds relevant about each agency's work. The answer often lends a surprising insight into your odds.

We recently turned down a pitch for a hot new retail brand based on the client's response to this very question. The revelation wasn't in what the client said about each agency, but how he said it (his body language, enthusiasm, intonation). It quickly became clear that an obvious favorite was in the mix. We declined to pitch. Not because we weren't enthusiastic about the project or that we didn't believe in the work we could produce, but because our gut told us this wasn't the pitch for us. In the end, we were right: The "favorite" won the pitch, and we were glad we trusted our intuition.

Understand your client's internal dynamics
How is the client team aligned, and where do you fit into the picture? We once met with a luxury brand with an inspiring heritage that was looking for a facelift to make it once again relevant. It provided a strategic brief, a timeline and a clear scope of work -- a potential dream project. However, a closer look at the brief brought up questions and contradictions about the business strategy that indicated that the internal team might not be on the same page. We declined, and learned several months later that we had dodged a bullet. The pitch went nowhere.

Remember that first impressions are lasting ones
We all know that during the pitch process the "chemistry check" is a key deciding factor. Cultural alignment on both the client and agency sides are key. But what happens when the initial meeting isn't great? Rather than hoping that it could turn into a fruitful relationship, think of it as a first date -- it's probably an indication of how the relationship will be moving forward. After all, how many awful first dates turn into happy marriages?

Handling client predispositions
The reality is that clients sometimes approach a pitch favoring one agency. Here are four tips that can help you navigate the situation when there's a predisposition toward an agency (even if it's toward your own):

1. Ask for criticism and tout your strengths. It seems counterintuitive, but it can actually be beneficial to discuss concerns about hiring your agency over another. It's exactly the type of question that a client might be uncomfortable asking -- so ask it for them. Then over-deliver in that area, to reassure them the concern is unfounded. Similarly, identify what the client sees as your competitive strengths. These are great to maximize as key message points to highlight throughout the pitch process. Clearly defined positioning can help clients get past confusing comparisons between agencies. Take a cue from the political debates: Stick to two or three attributes, then hammer them home.

2. Find your champion. Midlevel team members who sit just below the decision makers are often more willing to have candid discussions. If you take the time to develop these relationships, you can get a better idea of who the client might be leaning toward and for what reasons. Middle managers can also be great cheerleaders for your team during internal reviews.

3. Don't believe your own hype. If you're the strong favorite, don't get lulled into a false sense of security. Instead, use this momentum to over-deliver and blow the client away.

4. Second-guess your second-guessing. It isn't easy to turn down a pitch. By definition, they're rich with imagination and opportunity, both for creative fulfillment and for business goals. When your instinct tells you to decline a pitch, trust your gut and don't second-guess your decision. While the desire to go for it anyway can be powerful, it's often also irresponsible.

Ultimately, winning a pitch is one part ideas, two parts perception. Agencies are brands in the same way that products are brands. Clients purchase an agency first on the emotional connection, and then on the promise and passion of the team.

The real beauty of pitches -- and what agencies often thrive on -- is the intense, adrenaline-inducing "chase" of a brand that you're just dying to get your hands on. But your team's passion is an important resource. So protect it by choosing your pitches wisely, and by placing all your power behind those with true promise and potential.

Ruth Bernstein is co-founder and chief strategic officer at Yard in New York City, a shop with a focus on beauty, fashion and luxury-lifestyle brands.
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