The 7 essentials of a successful agency pitch

Many thousands of years ago, when mastodons walked the earth and I started in the ad biz, winning clients was tough. But now, tough only begins to describe it. More competition, combined with blurring categories of marketing solutions providers, means that an agency has longer odds than ever when it comes to garnering new clients. Here are some thoughts on what it takes to win these days. Some of the thoughts are mine, and many are those of friends who have recently gone through the process of selecting a new agency.

1. Make your pitch about “fit” instead of “best”

Your goal in a pitch isn’t to prove you are the best agency. There is no best agency. But there is a best fit agency for that client. Being the best fit agency means that you align perfectly with their challenges and organization. That you bring something critical to them — something that they don’t get from their other agencies (if they have them) or from internal teams. Give this real thought, from the perspective of both IQ and EQ.

2. Be clear on what is your reason for being

There are literally thousands of agencies available to brands. Setting your agency apart in that sort of environment is critical. All agencies try to do this, but you might be surprised by how many deliver virtually the same stories under the misconception that they are saying something unique.

In one of his very popular TED talks, Simon Sinek posits that people buy why you do something even more than how you do it. Doubtless there are lots of great things about your agency — people, experience, past work, channel expertise, etc. But that’s true of lots of agencies out there. To make yourself memorable, you need something bigger than a bunch of unverifiable attributes.

Why did you create your agency? Why did you join? What are you on a mission to do or upend or change? The best “why” I ever heard was years ago, from The Richards Group. They said that they existed to fill a key gap in the industry — that they were all about persuading consumers “who lived between the I-5 and I-95.”

Now that’s a why! It built on an idea that was already in prospects’ heads: that agencies can be too focused on what will play with hipsters that work at ad agencies and awards show judges. It also celebrated what other shops might disdainfully call the “flyover” customers. What TRG said was, “We don’t disdain them, we celebrate them.”

3. Tell them what you’re really good at

One friend currently in the middle of a review told me that when he asked prospective agencies what they are really great at, they all said “everything,” or words to that effect. C’mon. Emphasizing that you can do everything is different than explaining where your true expertise lies.

No one expects you’ll be great at everything, and when you say you are, you lose credibility. Explain your core strengths in the context of what is most important — now and in the future. This is the high-level “what” that flows from your “why.” It needn’t be focused on a channel or device, though it could be.

Here are a few examples that impress me:

Anomaly’s focus on creating “IP that changes the game”
Traction’s focus on creating participatory marketing
OgilvyOne’s focus on using data to give more than just lip service to understanding and shaping customer engagements.

4. Engage the customer in a discussion

You will never be as interesting to anyone as they are to themselves. So put some tight limits on the “about us” slides. I once worked for an agency that had more than 40 slides devoted to itself and how great it was. You need clients to get to know you, not revere you.

Over and over, clients have told me that the best pitches evolve into conversations about their business issues. And what’s most interesting is that while some clients seem reluctant to reveal their issues, the most successful agencies figure out ways to get those conversations going.

Even when clients aren’t forthcoming with business information, your teams should be able to make educated inferences about a brand’s business issues. If you think high level, most brands have one of three business challenges — awareness, trial, or repeat purchase.

And even if you are wrong, 99.9 percent of companies will appreciate your effort to make your pitch about them. This is one of the core ideas behind The Challenger Sale, Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson’s bestseller on successful selling strategies. Providing a thought-through opinion changes the nature of a sales pitch so that the client speaks to you like a partner, instead of one of four interchangeable vendors.

5. View every communication as an opportunity

Usually, clients know little about you when they RFP. Therefore, it’s natural that they use every communication as a heuristic to understand what it’s like to work with you. When you respond rapidly to every request, when you meet that no-later-than-5-p.m.-Eastern-on-the-12 deadline without begging for an extension, when you submit pitches that don’t bounce back because of file size, when you show up early for phone calls and meetings, you tell the client a great deal about yourselves and what working with you will be like.

6. Build bridges, not walls

In many agency searches, there are a handful of people who collectively have the power to choose you. But lots of agencies forget that there are others in the company that can strongly influence the decision makers to say no (or yes).

One such situation is when there is an internal creative or media team, and you are being considered because the marketing team is dissatisfied with that team’s work. They may even denigrate that team in your discussions with them.

What’s your move? You may think it’s to distance yourself from that team as much as you can, and to ice them out of conversations. Nope. The marketing team wants more creative firepower, but won’t pick you if it increases the internal political mess they experience every day.

Whatever they say, what they really want is for you to find ways to collaborate with that internal team and make it better. Having the internal creative team feel good about the decision to hire you will go a long way toward ensuring you get the assignment.

Similarly, in large orgs, one group or division might hire you to help them elbow another division. The key in situations like this is to figure out a way to give your clients what they want while creating greater harmony between groups. Many times, all that requires are ears that work and a will to do the right thing.

7. Don’t forget the relatability

There are lots of intangibles in a pitch process, and one of the most important is the extent to which you can build immediate rapport with client decision-makers. Sounds sort of elementary, I suppose. But I cannot tell you how many pitches I witnessed in which one or several of the agency people were so busy massaging their own egos and proving their superiority that they forgot that people like to work with people they like.

Here’s an example of what not to do: A friend of mine, part of an all-female brand team at a paper company, was part of the search committee for a new agency for a line of feminine protection products. A male creative director presented a campaign that — the mind reels — had a tagline that included a raunchy double entendre about “seeing red.” When the brand team lead questioned whether dark humor was the way to sell tampons, the creative director explained to them that he had an instinctive understanding of what women wanted, and that working with him would be a “great learning exercise for them.”

Beyond leaving the condescension at home, do a little homework. If you know who’s going to be in the room when you pitch, research them. Look at their LinkedIn, follow their Twitter feed, and scan their Pinterest images. Look for points of common interest that break the ice and turn a stiff presentation into a rich conversation.

And never, under any circumstances, pitch a tampon brand with a raunchy double entendre. ‘Nuff read.