A Better Way to Pitch

Time to Trash the Old Way of Doing Capabilities Presentations

By Published on .

Phil Johnson
Phil Johnson
I took an oath when I started an agency that I wasn't going to whine about clients, spec work, and unfair pitch practices. As my grandfather, a carpenter, used to tell the grandkids, "It's indoor work with heat. What's the problem?" I've always gone on the assumption that every business has its own peculiar miseries, and overall we've got it pretty good. Still, being grateful for all the positive parts of our industry doesn't stop me from thinking about how we could make some changes for the better.

Robert Davis, the VP of digital strategy at PJA, recently made an interesting observation. He pointed out that the traditional agency capabilities presentation has gotten out of sync with the times and the current realities of the business. Clients want very different relationships and services from agencies than they used to, but in many cases they are still requesting capabilities presentations based on old models, like agency-of-record relationships. It's always easy to keep doing what you've always done until you stop and ask why.

Over the years I've noticed one big flaw with both the expectations for the capabilities presentation and its delivery. It often reflects an outdated, or unrealistic view, of what's really going to happen if the agency gets hired. Both clients and agencies contribute to this dilemma. Often the client wants the agency to address topics and challenges that go well beyond the realm of what they will ever work on together. For example: Does it make sense to ask an agency to show how they will develop a global brand campaign, when the immediate challenge is a North American product launch? Agencies, on the other hand (including mine), create a set of promises built on abstract assumptions, or ideal circumstances, that may never be tested.

I think it's time for both clients and agencies to rethink their expectations for that first meeting. Clients need to get a realistic sense of what it will be like to work with an agency under real-world circumstances. Agencies need to honestly address how they operate in the new-business environment. If the capabilities presentation doesn't speak to these realities, you can bet that some bad decisions and disillusionment will follow.

A good place to start is to look at some of the significant ways that the marketing landscape has changed and to rethink what clients and agencies need to learn about each other. Here's my list of four big industry changes that should get attention during the capabilities presentation.

1. Monogamy is out. There's a trend for clients to assemble a roster of agencies, and as mentioned, fewer clients pursue agency of record relationships. Under this arrangement, it doesn't make sense for agencies to place themselves at the center of the client's marketing universe and present a vision where they control the brand from end-to-end.

2. Increasingly, purchasing people are an important audience at the capability presentation. They might not always be seduced by the magic of creativity, but they need to be addressed.

3. Everybody needs to acknowledge that exciting ideas come from many sources other than the advertising agency. Just like you can buy your milk at the gas station, Target , or the supermarket, clients can also get innovative thinking from the whole range of consultancies that might be thinking about and working on their brand.

4. It's getting harder to separate great marketing and technology. Whether you're talking about mobile campaigns, CRM systems, or measurement platforms, success depends on an agency that can balance between creativity and technology.

Given these changes, here are a few ideas for how both clients and agencies can get more value out of a capabilities presentation:

  • Agencies should address how they develop and sustain ongoing relationships in a project environment. How will they provide continuity between team members and build a knowledge base that can serve the client over time, even between engagements?

  • They should illustrate how they collaborate with other agencies working on the same account. They should be willing to show how they have worked with ideas from other agencies and how they have supported other agencies working with their ideas.

  • When presenting staffing models, agencies should emphasize the internal resources a client will realistically need to successfully implement social media programs, and distribute branded content.

  • Beyond showing great work they have done for other companies, they should focus on how their process and culture increase the probability that they will consistently generate ground-breaking ideas for this client.

  • Just a thought, but when agencies know that purchasing people will be in the room, maybe they should consider bringing someone from the finance department who speaks their language and shares their values. I will be the first to admit that I sound like a moron when I try to explain our estimating and billing practices to a finance or purchasing person.

I'd still leave time for carefully selected work, your best case studies, an approach to measurement, and especially insights about the client's business. And don't forget the importance of chemistry. Some stuff never changes.

Phil Johnson is CEO of PJA Advertising & Marketing with offices in Cambridge and San Francisco. Follow Phil on Twitter: @philjohnson
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