Winning a pitch is, unfortunately, pretty much everything in advertising these days. If you win, other people—clients, talent, consultants—will believe in you and, thus, you will win more pitches.
If you win and your work is undistinguished, people will nonetheless think it's great, based on your victory. However, If you lose even though your work may be great, people will think it's too wacky or second-rate.
If you win and your strategies are solid but not great, people will still think you're brilliant. If you lose, people will think that your strategies, no matter how brilliant, are uninspiring and unconvincing. This is, alas, a matter of perception, not necessarily results.
Because winning a pitch is the final arbiter of quality these days, here's how to make yours great again:
The most important word in new business
Often, agencies mistake their own conviction for the client's. However, to get hired, the client has to come to the conclusion that your agency is the one they want. Learning when you can't win and saying "no" at the right time can transform an agency's conversion rate. Saying "no" is an art form and learning to use it will make your agency much more attractive.
If you think you have a fifty-fifty chance of losing for reasons you are not aware of, smoke them out by saying "no" provisionally. You will gain critical intelligence and become aware of your perceived weaknesses. At worst, you will substitute a polite withdrawal for a harsher judgment, thereby saving your team's confidence, your public standing as a competitive agency, and your new business budget for another fight.
Saying "no" requires discipline and confidence. It is a powerful and subtle word. Agencies that want to change their new business fortunes must learn how to use it.
Clients almost always lose passion for their current advertising before their customers do and appreciate agencies that bring back energy and genuine enthusiasm. When you pitch, don't be cool and professional. Be a powerhouse! Be emotional! Let your beliefs and excitement show. Passion is an enormous asset in a pitch, surpassed only by confidence and reputation.
Clients who make agency decisions live in a world of career consequences. Fear of negative consequences is why bad agencies win pitches. When an agency comes across as fearless it becomes an emotional leader, and for a client who is changing agencies, this is an enormously appealing characteristic.
Clients can sense insecurity the way dogs can smell fear. It's the last emotion that they want to associate with. Conversely, clients hire confidence. So, pitch with people that radiate that they think competition is fun. Don't just act confident, pitch with people that are truly confident.
Exclude dissenters and doubters from the pitch team. They may mean well, but they'll poison the air. The new business team must be truly good friends who genuinely like each other, believe in each other, and are willing to stand behind each other's performance. When the people in a pitch are genuine friends and respect each other, and the client is aware of it, the client will think more of all the people involved. Better to remove a disruptive brilliant contributor from the team than to have dissention in the pitch.
Clients can quickly tell when the people they meet are on edge together and will run away from this. Sometimes you can tell that the team is not together as soon as they walk through the door of the conference room. When the people disagree or even silently disapprove of one other's performance, or the body language is not right, it will scare off the client. This means the agency doesn't even have its own act together. It suggests the agency will be a bad, dysfunctional partner for the client. You can't win this way.
Through the looking glass
Right and wrong are different in new business than they are with your day-to-day clients. You never win new business by winning the academic competition of a pitch. You win by being the people and the agency that the client wants to see win, and then delivering your product.
Therefore, study and learn the pitch dynamics. If you can't predict who on the client side will make the decision and how, you can't win except by luck. Study the decision makers' careers, the advertising they have done in the past, the advertising they covet. Find out what they think about you and why they are talking to you in the first place. Find out what concerns they have about your agency and what they hope you'll do for them.
Reality in a pitch is arbitrary and it's not something that is entirely in your control. It is determined by the client's perception of it. Plan to win with that in mind, rather than your internal convictions. And keep refining along the way. The plan will only be as good as your knowledge of what is required to win. If you're doing the pitch right, your plan will have to be flexible enough to change so as to adapt to the data.
Enjoy the pitch process and find a way to really like and respect the client. Put the client at ease from the outset. Make sure they know you genuinely like them and make sure they enjoy your presentation and the people who make it.
Avi Dan is founder-president of Avidan Strategies, a marketing consulting firm specializing in client-agency relationships, agency search and selection, benchmarking and compensation.