Quit Whining About the Pitch Process

It's Part of the Landscape and It's Valuable R&D

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Phil Johnson Phil Johnson
Marlene lives directly behind my house, and I can see her third-floor study from my kitchen. The light burns well after midnight, and it's on when I start the coffee at 6:30. It has been like this for three years. Marlene is launching her third successful health-care software company, and to date she's hasn't sold a single license. Across town, my buddy Jonathan imports high-end paper products from Europe and the Asia-Pacific realm. He risks millions of dollars to fill warehouses with products that he has to sell by June, or he misses the holiday market and loses his shirt.

Every business requires some significant risk, whether it's cash or years of product development. For the agency business that risk comes in the form of the pitch. And for most of us it's a love/hate relationship. The adrenalin flows when we get the call. Teams get mobilized. Some people even say things like "let's roll." We imbibe champagne when the voice on the phone says, "I've got good news." When rejection strikes, we become deflated and morose. How dare someone judge us? If only they gave us another three days. The other guys had an inside track.

Don't even mention spec work, that unspeakable violation of the body, spirit and profit margin. Nicole, our controller, loves to wave a spreadsheet under my nose after the pitch is over and show me the "real costs." She particularly likes to circle the meals-and-entertainment line.

Someone could write a country-western song about all the heartbreak and tears spawned by the pitch. I've celebrated and cried with the best of them. But rather than complain, we should embrace it as a necessary and valuable part of the agency business. It's our version of developing software or buying inventory. It's the arena where we demonstrate whether we really believe in the value of our product. At its best, it serves as an R&D laboratory for testing new ideas and agency strategy.

Given the inevitability of the pitch, I say let's focus on strategies to mitigate the risk and ways to extract some value from the process.

For example, most technology companies allocate a percentage of revenue for R&D or product development. We too should identify the target investment for speculative reviews and stay within it. You can drive yourself into the ground pursuing every piece of business that comes your way.

We should also measure our success. If we're not winning 60% to 70% of the pitches we enter, we should recalibrate what opportunities we're pursuing. My philosophy is to bring in all the invitations we can, but then cherry pick the ones we accept. We balance opportunities that we absolutely believe we can win against opportunities that will stretch us and push us to the edge of our comfort zone.

If you do it right, lots of good things come out of the pitch. In Darwinian fashion, pitches weed out the weak and feeble. They force strong agencies to sharpen their message and thinking. We get to find out how good we are and whether other people will drink our Kool-Aid.

You can make the same argument for spec work. It's our version of R&D, and we should use the opportunity to create innovative ideas that have a shelf life long beyond the pitch. Spec work gives us the opportunity to work in an environment with the fewest restrictions, to take risks that we might not take when we've become part of a client's bureaucracy. Ultimately, it's the chance to show our better selves and express the collective vision of an agency.

Maybe what people hate most is the capricious behavior of some clients. You know, people who change the rules, present an uneven playing field and share incomplete information. Why would any one of us compete for a piece of business when we don't know the names of our competition, or the true extent of the contract, or the size of the budget? Probably we do it because everyone else does, and it's too hard to say no. Just like it's too hard to cash in your chips and walk away from the blackjack table, even though we know we'll eventually give those chips back to the house.

Sometimes, I just wish I could follow my own advice. Every once in a while I just have to chase an audacious account that we have no business winning. It's part of the thrill of the business. Who can resist? And sometimes you win.

P.S.: I know someone is going to write a comment about how they have never had to pitch to win new business. Let me say in advance, "God bless you."
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