A guide to better pitching for agencies and brands
Pitches are a necessary part of the business cycle, but they’re becoming a grind. With so many special projects, boutiques, and emerging channels, agencies and brands alike can become locked in a perpetual cycle of proposals and evaluations. It’s grueling for agencies and counterproductive for clients.
“When pitch processes drag on for months, it’s incredibly draining on agency resources and morale, and the brand’s C-suite ends up wavering on what the deliverable is,” says Roger Camp, chief creative officer and founder of Camp + King.
No one is going to wave a wand and reform the pitch process, so it’s up to the players to make meaningful changes. Here are some ideas to make pitching less brutal and more productive.
Protect your relationships
The best way to stay out of pitch cycles is to earn your way into the fast lanes. That means delivering on promises, staying with clients in thin times, and taking opportunities to move when key clients migrate to new brands.
“We’ve invested in building relationships, so when clients move on they will often reach out to us and we won’t have to pitch, or at least make the short list,” says Lare Arra, VP and creative director at Sandbox Agency Chicago.
Less sizzle, more substance
If you’re physically, mentally, and/or financially exhausted at the end of a pitch, you may be working too hard on the wrong problem. Rather than getting involved in arms races to dazzle everybody in the room, spend more time on being believable and credible. Developing the story around your track record, vertical-oriented excellence, and verifiable expertise is more durable and reusable, and speaks more directly to what most clients really need: a capable, trustworthy partner.
“Your work is going to speak for you. What clients need now more than ever is to know how qualified you are to help them with their issues,” says Ed St. Peter, director of integrated production at AnswersMedia.
Find a common goal
Agencies and brands alike can lose sight of the real goal of the pitch process. It’s not for agencies to compete with one another and win, and it’s not for brands to extract the most work for the least cost. It’s to find a compatible match and focus on the shared goal of bringing a better message to market.
In the short term, stakeholders on both sides of the table should think about the choices they can make that will sell ideas to the rest of the business. “You want to get to the point where the CMO wants to believe in you, but has to prove your capabilities to the CEO,” Camp says.
Follow up on missed opportunities
Making a conscious choice to skip some RFPs, and accepting that you’re going to lose more competitive bids than you would like, are both important survival skills.
“If we don’t know anybody at a particular client and it looks like a cattle call, many times we’ll bow out,” Arra says.
Don’t make the mistake of completely ignoring the misses once they happen, however. Follow up, quietly, on the outcomes of those processes. If you bypassed an RFP because it smelled like a cattle call but in the long run only a few agencies pitched the business, your sniffer might be out of alignment. If clients are consistently choosing lookalike agencies over yours, there may be a serious perception problem that needs adjusting.
Get specialized help
Let people who live and breathe pitching do the heavy lifting. Internally, you can build a focused pitch team made up of people who really enjoy the work at the top of the funnel. This puts practiced, enthusiastic representatives at the table, instead of a band whose mind is on other projects.
“The team knows the routine and how to deal with RFPs and strategic planning. You get focused results, without pulling in a lot of people from other parts of the agency,” Arra says. “And you have people in the presentation who have really honed their skills on the pitch team.”
Externally, find out what pitch consultants and agency search companies can do for you. Like agencies, pitch consultants are facing structural shifts and margin pressures, making this an excellent time to find new ways to align with them and help them look smarter and more resourceful in front of their brand clients.
“Matchmakers can be invaluable, because they understand the agency candidates they put forward to the client,” Camp says.
Get used to it
Agencies and brands can refine and streamline the process, but the basic audition is here to stay. Learn to love the work that comes from it, even if you can’t love every moment of the meeting to set the meeting. “Pitches can be a drain on resources, and they’re certainly a drain on time, but they’re a solid part of what you sign up for when you get into this business,” St. Peter says.