Domination, Intimidation -- and Winning Against the Big Boys

Lessons for the Underdog

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It's happening again. We're in a pitch against two much bigger, well-known agencies. I wish I could trash them and say that they don't deserve the business, but I admire them both and they've done some beautiful campaigns. That, however, doesn't mean that they are the best choice. OK, I'm biased, but we might be the right size, the right fit and maybe even know the market better. Unfortunately, it doesn't matter what I think, because I'm not part of the review committee.

No matter how much bravado we bring to the table, competing against much bigger agencies comes with its own set of challenges. A couple of months ago, we lost a pitch to a big New York agency that starts with the letter O. In that case we might have been trying to punch above our weight. I later heard that the CEO had been impressed that said agency had an office in Mumbai, where the client already had a major presence. To give the competition its due credit, it brought in an impressive team that truly dazzled everyone. We had a good debriefing call after the fact, and the client said a lot of nice things. But reading between the lines I knew that we just got smoked.

So, I took a moment to reflect before mixing it up with another set of agency legends. There are no guarantees, and I wanted some confidence that we had a level playing field. Otherwise, why bother? I was also hoping that in some areas we might have an edge.

Watching the PJA team prepare for a big pitch can still get my blood pumping. I always know that when the stars align around what we do well we're capable of pulling off a victory. Two reasons fuel my confidence. I believe in our approach. We don't develop a pitch so much as launch a process that keeps evolving right through the final meeting. The best pitches are not a performance, but the continuation of our creative exploration with the client in the room. If we do it right, the work and the thinking gets better during the presentation.

I also believe in the chemistry of our team. A successful pitch reveals a group of people who genuinely enjoy each other. Their respect and appreciation for one another becomes clear, building a kind of confidence that isn't easily toppled. You can't manufacture it and you can't fake it. I almost like it when someone screws up, because you see how the team comes in to support that person. That's why we never bring in someone to participate at the last minute. The lack of connection is obvious.

So, why should I care whether we're up against a couple of big boys or not? The truth is they're formidable competitors. They're good. They probably have a deeper bench in some areas. Hell, they have a lot of successes. While I'm not going to open an office in India to impress the CEO, I do think there are measures we can all take to strengthen our positions no matter what the odds -- or size of the competition.

  1. Play within yourself, to use a favorite expression from my golf pro. Meaning, I think, that every agency is the right size for somebody. For every client that wants a global behemoth, there's another client looking for something that 's the perfect scale for them. Don't waste your time creating the illusion of size. No one will fall for it.

  2. Study the competition in order to strengthen your own story. While you've got to play your own game, and honor your own strengths, don't ignore the competition. It's easy to try to minimize their strengths in order to build up your own confidence, but that does you a disservice. Study them and find out why they're successful and why they might be appealing to the client.

  3. Look deeper within the client organization. Don't limit your decisions based on the marketing people in the room who might tell you they want some break-through work to shake up the market category. When you pitch, you're selling your story to an entire corporate culture. You need to look at the complete management team, including the board. Are they risk-takers? Historically, what investments have they made in marketing?

  4. No one corners the market on insight. The agency that sees more clearly into the business and the psychology of the consumer has the advantage. Don't mistake mere information for insight. Good insight has three essential qualities: It sheds light on the unknown. It's knowledge that no else possesses. It delivers competitive value to the client. When you've got insight, strategy and creativity will follow.

  5. Big ideas don't cost any more than small ideas. It has become a cliche to say that great ideas can come from anywhere. While that 's true, I've watched many people shrink their concepts to match their comfort zone or their production capabilities. It doesn't cost any more to share a big idea than a small one.
A great pitch is its own reward. It's a laboratory for fresh thinking. It sharpens your positioning. It drives fresh ideas through the agency. Ultimately, it's what helps make an agency better. Over time, I've learned -- sometimes reluctantly -- that it's often the losses that lead to the breakthroughs that push us to the next level. Not an easy lesson. But as I often remind myself, if it was that easy everyone would do it.

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