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A successful business plan: Pitching to win

A winning pitch must be strategic, insightful and well rehearsed, but this can be difficult to achieve

Essential part of business planNew business is an agency's lifeblood. It's also its sweat and tears, to quote the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA).

Everyone involved wants a positive outcome from any agency pitch process and, like any successful project, pitches need to be well planned to avoid wasting time and money. But, is this process as mutually rewarding as it might be?

From a client's perspective, the reason to pitch is often the result of something going wrong and the urgent necessity to change and improve. From an agency perspective, the pitch process can be disruptive as it creates additional work and takes staff away from servicing their existing accounts.

Pitches are a huge investment for any agency with a one in 3 to 4 chance of winning. To have a chance of winning we need to conduct research, become experts in the brand we are pitching for and come up with strategic and tactical ideas in 3 to 4 weeks, without much client involvement.

The work would normally take months to do properly when working with a brand team. An average pitch costs about £3,000 in outside costs if we do the research in-house and about £25,000 in terms of time costs, according to Louisa Pau, chair of the IPA Healthcare Group and managing director of Woolley Pau.

In essence, the effort to pitch versus reward available has to be weighed up by both the agency and client. Clients are generally driven to pitch for a number of reasons:

  • Poor existing sales
  • Poor brand differentiation
  • New marketing personnel wanting to make their mark
  • To keep the incumbent agency on their toes
  • To meet corporate guidelines about re-pitching for business every couple of years.

If not apparent, the agency should try to uncover the underlying motivation for the pitch. This allows them to anticipate the needs of their potential client and target their pitch accordingly.

The success of the pitch process comes down to good planning and strong communication, in addition to clarity of thought, transparency and trust. Dialogue is vitally important when appointing a new agency to gain top-line credentials and ensure that conflicts of interest are identified at the earliest stage. It is also a good opportunity to explore the likelihood that people will gel.

Companies used to working with agencies usually have standard operating procedures and should communicate these to the agencies involved. That said, winning agencies tend to identify themselves early by asking about these processes upfront. This enables the agency to plan their next steps and meet those fundamental needs in an agreed framework.

Why are you there?

Agencies that stand out are those that ask how they got invited on to the pitch list. Was it down to what the client has read about them in advertising directories or on the internet? Was it from a recommendation - if so from whom and when? Was it from past experience? Was it that enjoyable beer at the last PM Society Awards or the funky mailing that landed, at an opportune moment, on the client's desk?

Agencies should also endeavour to understand who drew up the pitch list - was it a team or individual decision? This could influence how and who they liaise with on the client side.

Winning agencies also strive to find out who they are pitching against - knowing this, they can better differentiate themselves on pitch day.

Impress at every opportunity

Every opportunity in front of a client is one to impress, but when does an 'informal conversation' turn into a 'formal pitch'? As soon as they know they are on the pitch list, winning agencies tend to ask why, how and who put them there. By asking intelligent and pertinent questions agencies demonstrate that they want to understand and satisfy their (potential) client's needs.

Creativity and business skills should not be mutually exclusive and as much as the pitch process facilitates the agency illustrating their creative ability, there are massive opportunities for them to substantiate how good their business skills are as well. If agencies approach their own business in a professional and competent manner, it provides huge reassurance to the client that their account will be serviced to the same exacting standards.

Understanding the process

Agencies should expect a written brief of what is required for the pitch, detailing what the agencies will be measured on and what elements they will need to demonstrate to win the pitch.

This insight will allow them to emphasise the right examples (ie, purchasing triggers) at the pitch. Phil Bartlett, group account director at Saatchi & Saatchi Healthcare, notes: You can't start a journey until you're clear where you want to end up. As a result, a written pitch brief should be as clear and concise as possible about the problem or opportunity (point A) and the desired outcome (point B). The successful agency will be the one that works out the best way of getting between the two.

Different clients run their pitch processes in different ways but there are common elements that every written brief should contain. The IPA suggests the following key headings for a best practice client brief:

1. Project management

2. Where are we now?

3. Where do we want to be?

4. What are we doing to get there?

5. Who do we need to talk to?

6. How will we know when we have arrived

7. Practicalities

8. Approvals.

Agencies should be told how long the process is and how long they have to prepare. If the timings are too short for an agency to do their best, they should let the client know - otherwise the process could be perceived as a waste of time for both parties. Granted, clients may want to test how potential agencies can operate under pressure, but it needs to be realistic. Rushing a pitch through does not necessarily demonstrate the ability to operate under pressure any better than an agency's ability to confidently and successfully negotiate a more suitable timeline that is mutually acceptable.

This all comes down to understanding who has the balance of power, which links back to whether the agency understands fully the reason why they were invited on the pitch list. Agencies tend to be there for a unique reason and winning agencies understand what that reason is.

The pitch process is a journey and different passengers will get involved at different times. All agencies (at least I hope it's not just us) lose more pitches than they win. The likelihood of rejection always outweighs the alluring prospect of vindication. It's exciting but mostly it's bruising on the ego. And it's rarely a pure battle of ideas with the best concept declared champion. There are always other factors - existing relationships, political issues - involved in the decision. This, oddly, helps to keep me sane. Knowing it's 'not fair' when we lose and 'not fair' when we win puts both outcomes in perspective, says Dean Woolley, creative director at Woolley Pau.

On balance, I'd prefer never to have to pitch. It's a distorted version of the client-agency working relationship - and if the competitive set-up is somehow intended to make us lift our game, it's not necessary. If anything, I am more on my mettle presenting new campaigns to existing clients; the fear of letting down people with whom I have built a relationship is more of a spur for me than the fear of coming second in a four-ticket lottery.

Winning agencies strive to understand who it is that they are pitching to, why those people are there (their place in the
organisation) and what role they have in the pitch process. Will they have a medical or a sales hat on, a purchasing remit or be part of the marketing team? Who is brand savvy and who is less conversant with marketing jargon? Who in the team can say yes, how many of the team can say no. Who wants to be there and who is just there for the ride? What kind of questions will they ask at the pitch and why? More importantly for the agency, who from their side is best placed to answer them?

Assessment process

Different firms have different ways of assessing the agency pitch: some are very rigid and well proven, some more nebulous and evolving. The client should be as transparent as possible about what thought process will be used to assess the creative, and the agency should not be afraid to explore this early in the process.

You don't want to give the answers before the test so it is unlikely that any client will be that transparent (they may not even know what it is in their own mind), but winning agencies may have second-guessed what the client wants.

Any agency will tell you that the winning 'big idea' is based on sound strategic insight, but how often does the winning pitch actually end up as the final campaign? Once the medical department, the customer insight department and marketing have reflected upon it, it is a very different incarnation of what won the account. This is the true strategic insight - which takes time to attain - that leads to the approved campaign.

Emotional intelligence

Back to the pitch: the creative is only one element - it is tangible and the marketing team can interrogate and critique it, but often it is the more emotive reasons that lead to one agency being selected over another. The reputation, the people, the slickness of their overall offering, the way they managed the purchasing department, the recommendation from the boss, and yes, even that beer at last year's PM Society awards.

However, the creative product is often the most prominent and is vulnerable to post-rationalisation; hijacked as the basis for the win/lose decision rather than the more emotional reasons for wanting to work with a particular team. Winning agencies need to tap into this and the better they anticipate it, the easier they may find it to influence the pitch process.

Pitch days must be nerve-wracking for agencies, but they can also be nerve-wracking for clients. Like any appraisal, there should be few surprises. In the lead up to pitch, the client and agency should have liaised when appropriate and both parties should be familiar with each other, and have a fairly good understanding of what the other wants and will provide. According to VÈronique Walsh, deputy managing director at Sanofi Pasteur MSD: Agencies that stand out for me are those that demonstrate they can bring added value to the strategic thinking and adapt their campaign to answer the specific needs of the final customer.

What will win it?

Winning agencies stand out on pitch day as they know what they want to say and how they plan to say it - they have asked themselves the right questions after reading the brief and have asked specific, insightful questions of the client in the days running up to pitch. They have brought in the right people to be the face of the agency and potentially service the account. Whoever the most senior person from the agency is, the client is sure that, if needed, that person will address issues surrounding the account even though they will not service it daily.

Successful agencies also stand out because they have rehearsed. This preparation goes a long way in convincing potential clients that the agency takes pride in its work and considers this pitch win an important one. Winning agencies have prepared a presentation that tells a congruent story based on intelligence, where all attending agency people contribute at the right time and at an appropriate level; above all everyone appears to be singing confidently and clearly from the same text - this clarity and belief counts for a lot.

Winning agencies have made a choice to either sell one big idea or bring a whole range of creative executions. While this is somewhat dependant on the brief, it is always impressive to see an agency pitch one big idea with such enthusiasm and lucidity. After all, it is easier for a client to remember one thing than many - this can help agencies stand out.

Finally, winning agencies consider the use of gimmicks and props to illustrate their pitch: would agency branding items and gimmicks support the pitch and the positioning of the agency? Does the agency need to rely on give-aways for the audience to remember them?

Feedback is a gift

At the end of pitch, the client will make their decisions in a multitude of ways, formally or informally, emotionally or (post)-rationally, quickly or slowly. Whatever the outcome, every agency - whether successful or not - should expect thanks and feedback. It is always intriguing to see whether the non-appointed agencies learn from the process and change as a result of what was fed back to them. Equally, it is just as interesting to see whether the winning agency enquires as to what it did that was right, so that it can replicate this in the future.

The Author
Tim Warren is group product manager at Sanofi Pasteur MSD (

10th September 2007


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