How to Avoid the Bait-and-Switch Pitch

Options to Make Your Approach More Effective (and Honorable)

By Published on .

Mike Wolfsohn
Mike Wolfsohn
Over the course of my ad career, I've had the pleasure (and displeasure) of being actively involved in nearly 100 pitches. They have taken all shapes and sizes, some managed by search consultants, others led by the client. Some were protracted, others had a super-quick turnaround. Some were focused on creative, others emphasized media.

But nearly all of them shared one thing in common: At some point in the process, the prospective client asked, "Are you just the pitch team, or will you actually be working on our business?"

I remember one client was so concerned about the "bait-and-switch" that after our final presentation, the chief marketing officer used most of the Q&A session to discuss the exact percentage of time each of us would commit to his business. Later, when we were requested to return for an additional meeting, we were told our president wasn't welcome unless he intended to spend at least 50% of each week working on the account.

So what's an agency to do? After all, isn't new business a function too important to an agency's lifeblood to entrust to anyone but the most-polished presenters? And aren't the senior managers who possess the showmanship skills too valuable to focus on just one or two accounts?

Here are some options.

You could stick with the bait-and-switch.

Of course, now that the jig is up, it'll take a lot more convincing. But if a client wants 50% of senior management's time, promise them 50% of senior management's time. Then, once the contract is signed, break out the smoke and mirrors: an e-mail here, a conference call there, even the occasional in-person appearance to make it seem like senior management is intimately involved (when, in fact, they're out courting new clients to whom they're promising their undivided attention).

Overpromising and under-delivering is surely not the best approach, but it's nevertheless the course many agencies will continue to choose. Why? Because it's a proven way to win business. The problem, however, is that it's also a proven way to lose business.

So let's consider a more radical tack: honesty.

If you choose to cast your pitch team with senior managers who won't be involved in the day-to-day operations of the account, how about just saying so? Rather than apologizing for it, try to explain it.

Tell the client that the senior managers set the tone for the agency: They assemble and direct the team assigned to each account; they establish the strategy and expectations; and they hold every employee accountable. And while they won't be on every phone call or in every meeting, they will ensure the account is well managed. You might find clients can relate to this sort of operational structure because it mirrors the way many of their companies are organized.

Alternatively, and more effectively, you can build your pitch team of the people who will actually work on the business. And if they aren't the most experienced presenters in the agency, explain to the client why they're in the room.

Start the meeting by saying something like, "We're not here to show you how well we can perform in a two-hour presentation; we're here to show you how thoughtfully we will handle your business for the next 10 years. These are the talented, hardworking people who will be dedicated to your account every day. They aren't a SWAT team, or an 'A' team, or a pitch team ... they're your team." This approach will not only differentiate you from your competition, it will give your presentation authenticity while engaging more people at your agency in the business-development process.

Yet another option is to structure your agency in such a way that the senior staff members who pitch the business have the time to work on it if you win. At my agency, we've decided to only take on a number of clients that our senior people can personally manage. That might take some acrobatics at larger shops, but I know of at least one that's trying to implement this approach.

In the end, many agencies will continue pitching new business the same way they have for years. While it might be a bit harder, I'd wager that an honest approach will prove more effective -- and certainly viewed as more honorable by clients -- than baiting and switching.

Mike Wolfsohn is founder-chief creative officer at High Wide & Handsome.
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