Kevin Lynch, partner/writer at Chicago's newest ad agency, Hadrian's Wall, remembers making a presentation to the then-chairman of Frito-Lay, Roger Enrico, in his more junior days at DDB Needham/Chicago. "All the big guys were there," Lynch shudders. "Keith Reinhard, Bob Scarpelli, everyone. I was presenting a spot that required me to an imitation of Robin Williams." Embarrassed pause. "Unfortunately, I came off more like Scott Baio."
Then there's the moose story that Jeff Loeb, the former chairman/creative director at Katsin Loeb, San Francisco, likes to tell. It's about an agency asked to participate in a pitch to the head of a multinational company at his hunting lodge. In the middle of the presentation, a presumably bored junior member of the team looked up at the wall and asked, "Who shot the moose?" The meeting ended shortly thereafter. So did the kid's job.
In a Cold Sweat
What is it about pitching that makes some creatives break out in a cold sweat and commit frightening gaffes, while others feel comfortable performing an imitation of Robin Williams, however unsuccessful?
Lack of preparation and training is one factor. Truth be known, pitching is not something ad schools give a whole lot of attention to. While it's a rite of passage to pull all-nighters a week before a big client presention, recent Art Center graduates rarely expect they'll actually have to stand in front of a roomful of strangers and explain the rationale behind their genius. So, get real: Most creative directors want the creatives who come up with the best ideas to pitch it, no matter how soon that opportunity might come after graduation.
What starts as a possibility soon enters the realm of the probable; once creatives begin moving up the ladder, the chances increase that they'll be expected to, well, pitch in during a pitch.
"Taking part in pitches is a milestone in any creative's career, because it's a condensation of the entire process, from strategizing to actually putting the work together," says co-creative director Mike Shine, partner at Butler, Shine and Stern, Sausalito. "When you're 24, you're stupid and harmless and bound to stutter and sound enthusiastically goofy. Still, it's an honor to be part of the thinking-big process, especially if you're with an agency that's been around a long time and you're working with a lot of seasoned creatives. Coming up with good work isn't that hard. Selling is the hard part."
The good news, according to Arthur Einstein, president of Arthur Einstein Advertising, New York, is that there is more of a collaborative relationship between agencies and clients than there used to be. Agencies today are much more immersed in a client's business. As a result, many agency creatives now look at their clients as partners rather than bean-counting executives who who wouldn't know good advertising if it hammered down their door. That facilitates the pitching process, because clients, even prospective ones, can be a valuable sounding board.
Even if you establish just one contact on the other side with whom you can exchange e-mail and share ideas, it will make the eventual pitch that much easier. "You may not have everybody's approval in the room," says Carter Weitz, vice president and creative director at Bailey Lauerman and Associates, Omaha, "but laying the groundwork of communication goes a long way in creating at least one advocate for your work during the presentation."
"There's a lot more nurturing of these relationships, and new business and client presentations have also become more collegial," adds Einstein, who, among other things, counsels agencies on the protocols of pitching. "Before, presentations used to be the tomato surprise. You lifted the cover off the dish and everyone was supposed to be wowed by it."
Not anymore. These days, prospective clients already have an idea about what to expect. And if all goes well, they won't be shy about piping up. "During our presentations, clients get plenty of talk time because it shows that we, as the agency, are listening," says Lynch. "And to a client, listening is still a rare and wonderful thing."
A little interactivity, or pre-presentation pitching, can ensure that the client is hungry (and intrigued) when you lift the lid off your tomato surprise. According to Einstein, most agencies don't think their pitch starts before the actual presentation. In fact, he says, the pitch begins as soon as an agency is invited to present. Every contact (or lack thereof) between the client and the agency contributes to the final decision.
Pitching experts say it's wise to start off the presentation by showing prospective clients your portfolio. Remind them that this is the kind of work you do and that if they've suddenly decided they want plenty of product shots and a bigger logo, you're not a match made in heaven.
"The other thing to remember is that you're not just selling the work; you're also selling your agency," Shine points out. "If you want to make the work sound respectable and like something they'd want to run, you also have to sound intelligent, rational and reasonable, not like some artsy-fartsy bastard who'll freak out on them later on." Shine has had lots of practice. When he was at the beginning of his career, at Chiat/Day/New York, he and partner John Butler were asked to present a new product called Soho Soda to Seagram's Edgar Bronfman. Bronfman actually found the pair's bumbling and lack of slickness endearing, and he bought the campaign.
Still, no amount of good-natured oafishness can take the terror out of standing up in front of a group of strangers and laying your career (and maybe your agency's future) on the line. Before that big pitch to Bronfman, Shine didn't sleep a wink, anticipating every possible screw-up. Now he says he's lucky if he can stay awake to catch the 10 p.m. news the night before a pitch - and many of his peers express the same relaxed attitude. "After you've taken a few bullets, you start to learn how to dodge them," says Fred Hammerquist, creative director at DDB/Seattle. "Also, watch the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan over and over. Now that's terrifying shit compared to 20 minutes of selling your soul."
"Outside of golf, the more you do something, the better you get at it," adds Jim Schmidt, CD at McConnaughy Stein Schmidt Brown, Chicago.
Still, it takes a while to get better. And although confidence comes with age and experience, it also takes practice - lots of it. Sally Hogshead, a partner in Robaire and Hogshead, Venice, Calif., says she used to think it was better just to wing it in client pitches in order not to feel forced or stiff. But now she believes that the opposite is true, and always makes time for practice - even if it's in the car just prior to the pitch. She and her colleagues often spend gobs of time talking through a presentation in the days before zero hour, "mostly to nail down all the critical points and counter-arguments."
Says Fred Hammerquist: "Running through the presentation, no matter how embarrassing it might be, will expose flaws that can be repaired before you end up looking like a dolt in front of the person standing between you and your name in the back of the One Show annual."
Some creatives use people on their account team as sparring partners. Others, like Shine and Loeb, have hired presentation skills consultants to help train their creatives in the art of pitching. Shine, for example, took his staff to a three-day creative presentations seminar where they were videotaped. Watching a videotape, however hard at first, can be a big confidence-builder because it helps eliminate common presentation no-nos like stuttering, rocking and staring at the floor.
Most creatives agree that the only better way to build your belief in yourself is a genuine conviction about your work. The more you believe in what you're trying to sell, the less likely you are to screw up your lines or forget to look people in the eye.
T hen again, maybe some people shouldn't be allowed to pitch no matter what. Joe Milla, CD at Peterson Milla Hooks, Minneapolis, recalls working with a pathologically shy creative. "We thought that sticking him in front of a group would help him get over it," he says. "But when this guy attempted to speak, he sounded like he had a hairball."
Shine concurs. "Some creatives will never have the personality to present, and no amount of practice or conviction will change that," he says. But that's all right - you can still keep your job. "If you're a killer writer or art director, we can always find someone else to step in and pitch."