Last week I found myself sitting through a series of presentations by agencies who were pitching for business with one of my clients. Those of you who have done this will know that these events are either a fascinating and learning experience or like a re-enactment of the torture scene from Marathon Man. This was better than most, but I still came away wondering how agencies that clearly know their stuff and have produced great work for their clients aren’t always so good at getting their own message across in a face-to-face meeting with a prospect.

I’m often the one making the presentation, so I sympathise with agencies who struggle with the challenges of pitching it just right. I’ve also mentored more pitches for agencies than I care to remember and my batting average is high. I’ve seen great ideas fail to gain traction because they have been presented poorly and I’ve also seen some crap ones get adopted because their presentation was superb. Both small details and bigger factors will influence the success of an event like this and I’m afraid there’s no getting away from it, it’s all about planning, I know agencies can spend ages agonising over the content of their pitch presentations, but they frequently forget that the solution is rarely the only thing your prospects are judging. Stuff like general expertise, processes, principles and that old chestnut, chemistry, are all in the spotlight. If you are going to cover all the bases, you need a plan.

By the time you reach the final pitch presentation you’ll usually have presented your credentials, but you still need to highlight how the factors that influenced your selection for the shortlist, come into play in developing your proposal. Two of our agencies appeared to have done this and two seemed to have turned up with a rough idea of what they wanted to say, but largely prepared to busk it, which is just not good enough.

Final pitch presentations are a story and as such divide into sections. The first of these, and the one that most presenters miss completely, is a summation of what you are going to do. I don’t mean an agenda (heaven forbid!). I mean a simple statement like “Hi, I’m Phil and in the next forty minutes I’m going to explain to you how, using our approach to campaign development, we’ll help you realise your objectives …”. Be direct, confident, but be sure to avoid sounding like a washing machine salesperson as one of our candidate agencies did. Its a pity because otherwise they did very well. Your opening is what gets your audience’s attention so don’t overlook this. Over the years there are agencies like the UK’s Allen Brady and Marsh, whose presentations have been the stuff of legend. Maybe you don’t have to go as far as they did, it was a different era, but you leave something other than a set of visuals to remind them why you came.

One reason why it’s dangerous to place all your emphasis on your solution, is because there are often people in the meeting who you haven’t already encountered. Newcomers to a judging panel, such as CEOs who haven’t been involved in the process to that point, may have a different idea of what the business needs and their influence means that your creative approach might not be liked. This will scupper most pitches, but it doesn’t have to. I’ve actually rescued more than one pitch from this situation and the trick is to present your solution as a product of your prescribed process. This way you place the process front and centre, if your solution rocks, it will cut through, but if they don’t like your outcome at least its credible for you to suggest that if they work with you using the process you will together arrive at a solution that everyone likes.

Process was the major differentiator of our candidates this week. Two agencies had a clearly defined process and expressed it well. You could see how it applied to what they did and it was reassuring to know that they were organised and efficient as well as creative. The remaining two may have had processes in place, but the theme didn’t run through their presentation. The two with processes also had clear principles that they explained and in the same way that their process was evident throughout, they were at pains to highlight where their principles had also guided their hand in the solutions they were offering. However, they could all still have done better.

On a more detailed note, one of our judging panel later passed an enlightening comment. “Nobody looked creative” he said “There were no funky suits or crazy haircuts”. I’ve heard this kind of comment in similar situations before, so it clearly matters. Which brings me to the question that I know many, more thoughtful agencies agonise over when they are considering their presentation. What constitutes suitable attire? It’s worth a few minutes of your planning time and it’s not difficult to cover all the angles. You should be taking at least a suit and a creative representative to your meeting anyway, but don’t think you have to make the creative dress like your client. Its not what he is looking for. I don’t mean let your creatives turn up looking like they have slept under a hedge either (we had one of those!), you can look cool and neat at the same time. Similarly, strategists and account handlers can be more business-like, but you can wear a suit without looking like a civil servant. Its also not a great idea to turn up with a team of twenty-somethings. Your prospect is talking to you because he needs advice on how to spend significant sums of money and he’s looking for someone who knows more about their subject than he does, not a college-leaver with a few years experience. Oh, and low cut dresses and push-you-up bras don’t work. One of our presenters was obviously trying desperately to conjure up a cleavage with insufficient raw material and it was a bit tasteless and embarrassing.

Don’t take people to a presentation who don’t have a clear role to play and make sure everyone understands their part. You need a leader to create a focus and you must decide who that is before you go in.  This doesn’t have to be the most senior member of the team, ideally it should be the best presenter. Don’t bring people who are nervous. It will do you more harm than good.  Remember, you have to exude expertise and authority and a sweaty shaker doesn’t cut it! I recently had a conversation about presentation nerves with a psychologist and apparently its back to our old flight-or-fight heritage. If you see your prospect as a threat this will always come into play and you’ll get nervous. I don’t suffer with nerves and its probably because I see my prospects as people with a shared interest. In primal instinct terms this makes them part of my group and therefore not a threat.

Think of your pitch as a performance. If your role is the front man (or woman) its your job to direct it. You need to be ready to manage those taking part even if that mens telling your boss what to do.  I know that all this stuff makes a difference and these days the marketplace is so competitive no agency can afford to go to battle with anything but the best show, so next time you get an invitation to pitch, make sure you milk it for all it’s worth!

Phil Darby
May 15, 2014

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