Life's a Pitch: Six Rules From My New-Business Playbook

An Agency CEO's Lessons from Business Wins -- and Losses

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In the agency world, there is nothing more equally thrilling and frustrating than working on new-business pitches. Done well, it can bring fame and riches to the agency. No question a pitch can bring out the very best -- and sadly, the very worst in an agency.

Agency CEOs rarely share their secret ingredients, but now that I am leaving the agency business after more than 20 years of running pitches, I'd like to share some of the wisdom I've learned -- from the wins ($2.5 billion in new-business billings), and even more from my numerous losses. Here are six rules out of my pitching playbook:

1. Pitch to what the client really wants, not what you do. Agencies can often be evangelical about their mission and want to convert the world. But my first rule is to really understand what the client is looking for and just give it to them. There's a delightful story -- shared with me by a friend who headed a London agency -- about when the agency was at the height of its creative fame and it pitched a retail account. In its first meeting, the head of marketing proceeded to tell the agency how he didn't see any difference between ad agencies, and was looking to get the work done as cheaply as possible. So instead of painstakingly preparing a presentation loaded with market insights, creative concepts and media plans, the agency presented just one slide. All that was on it was"'8%." Guess what? They won the account.

2. Pay attention to casting talent. No matter what rational reasons a client will tell you as motive for its decision, I've learned that in the end one of the most important things is that the client wants an agency team that it is going to like working with. At a creds meeting, I sensed that the New York account lead we put forward was just going to be too harsh for this Midwestern client. So I changed out the lead for the final meeting, knowing it would be a little awkward to explain. But the client loved her and we were rewarded with the account win.

3. Know your story. Agencies sometimes fall into the trap of jamming presentations with plenty of reasons why clients should hire them, and often way too many ideas. What's lost is the bigger-picture reason to appoint you. Presentations need to have a story that links all the tactics and executions into a simple, central theme that is persuasive. When I was at Zenith Media in China, we suffered a devastating loss of the prized P&G media account, which at the time represented over half of our agency's total billings. Nearly two years later we were invited to repitch the account. Our story was, "How their firing us made us a stronger agency." They agreed and rehired us.

4. De-risk your sell. When I first came to the U.S. with Optimedia, I recall a pitch we made to Pernod Ricard. We could tell they really liked our team and loved the work we presented. We told them it was brave and new for the category. They agreed, but then hired the other agency, which was able to offer a more robust research database. I learned the hard way that clients hire agencies to take the risk and guesswork out of advertising. Ever since, I've made it a point to demonstrate how our recommendations will directly convert against the client's business goals.

5. Don't just check off boxes. There is a temptation to methodically prepare a response to every question in the RFI and then present it all. This creates two challenges. First, in an attempt to cover all the questions asked, the presentation either ends up running over time or being too rushed and not cohesive. And second, because every other agency is following the same instructions, your presentation becomes undifferentiated.

Many of the questions asked are just generic or what a client or consultant thinks they should ask. When Publicis/4D met with execs for the massive Disney pitch, we were asked to share our agency's credentials, relevant case studies and the agency planning process. Knowing we were an outside chance on this review, I made a call to completely ignore the brief. Instead, we only prepared four slides and we mostly talked about our personal experiences with the Disney brand. It was a slam dunk and we won the account. The client told us it was so refreshing that we did not present agency credentials, case studies or processes.

6. Rehearse the Q&A. In an agency beauty contest, all agencies are going to have well-rehearsed, polished presentations. But the Q&A can provide a more revealing and less varnished view of the agency. Clients can see how you respond if they question your strategy or idea. It becomes obvious if the team truly knows or worked on the case study presented. Is the CEO jumping in to answer all the questions versus trusting the day-to-day team to respond? Too often, the Q&A comes across half-baked. If you take the time to properly rehearse and anticipate questions, it will pay rich dividends.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Behind every pitch you learn something new. But these are six of my must-do's for any pitch -- big or small.

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