We always think we're ready, that we will get through it and everything will be fine. And just like staring at an empty medicine cabinet shelf where the cold meds used to be, we find ourselves editing pitches until the early morning hours, wondering how we got there when we KNEW how it usually plays out.
Well, consider this column as a flu shot for pitch season.
According to current estimates, the volume of pitches coming down the pipes will be intense in early 2020.
Media and marketing consultancy ID Comms is forecasting at least a half dozen multibillion-dollar media pitches in the first quarter alone. As strategist and business development leads, we have been there -- many times -- and have gathered together our prescription for thriving through these challenging times.
First, are we really going to pitch this?
Ha. It's like asking, “Am I going to get a cold this winter?”
It's rare that an agency turns down a pitch that looks attractive. We have heard many times how important it is to turn down a pitch, and that's excellent advice. It just doesn't reflect the reality. The fact is that agencies have to fill their pipeline, and for a variety of reasons -- incumbency, a gap in their client roster, a transformational client -- we end up pitching when the odds of closing are lower than we like.
There are two big preventative measures agencies can take to stack the odds in their favour.
Invest in an expert opinion
Many agencies track the politics behind the pitch, and if they're lucky, they have some friendlies on the inside.
But what's your own perspective on the strategy to help your client's business to succeed? Digging into analyst and investor reports can only take you so far. A better option is investing in expert interviews. Whether it's a “Deep Throat” within the category, a former CMO who knows the client, or an industry analyst, a relatively small investment can garner critical insight that will give you the edge from the start.
Build a deep, healthy bench
One of the most common pitch challenges is not having enough people. While there is real synergy in a tight pitch team, they WILL get burnt out. The gift of the gig economy is that there is a substantial amount of talent who can step into pitches -- if not to front, to at least lend expertise and give the core team a breather, including your hardworking business development team.
Claire Telling, CEO of Grace Blue Partnership, concurs. “As more agencies downsize or merge, there is a growing pool of account and planning talent who are on the market and available to work on pitches. We are increasingly being asked to staff senior SWAT teams of category experts to help come in and win pitches—for 3-6 month contracts.”
Second, have more than one line of defence
You've rolled out the work streams. You've got all the plates spinning. One of the variables you can't control is whether the ideas are good enough for the sizzle you need.
One wise strategy is to run a “B” team -- an ideation team who will give you more ideas from which to choose. Selecting and briefing this team, whether it's a group of ambitious juniors in your company or an outside think tank, will stack your deck to come up with the pitch-winning idea. Think of it as taking echinacea, vitamin C AND your Zicam.
Third, are we there yet?
Getting through those last few days before a pitch can feel like trying to get out of bed with a raging chest cold. Agencies are often juggling multiple work streams, deliverables and people to pull together a sharp compelling story. That's the ambition.
So often the reality is a Frankenstein-esque 194-page deck and a team of presenters who more resemble strangers in a waiting room than the first-string pitch team.
Here's how agencies can work through these trying times.
Know when to call the Script Doctor
If you find yourself with a ton of slides and no clear story, it's time to call a script doctor to prescribe a way to tell the story shorter, sharper, with the cast that you have. Meghan McDonnell, president of Pile and Company, agrees. "Agencies need to keep in mind that clients are so smart and don't need to be shown every single piece of creative to get the idea across. In fact, showing too much creative can work against you!”
A clear theme, a merciless edit and punchy signposting can be done quickly and painlessly -- and sometimes an outside perspective is exactly what's needed.
Know when to bring in a Pitch Coach
New business directors -- even the brilliant ones -- are challenged to effectively lead the rehearsals AND coach the individual players.
Most agencies have a general reticence to bringing in an outsider to work with the team -- there is not enough time, this isn't Cirque du Soleil, we just need it to make sense. However, we also know that chemistry is the number one reason why pitch presentations succeed.
As Dipti Bramhandkar, executive planning director of North America, Iris Worldwide, outlines, that chemistry can be enhanced with the right resource. “Pitch rehearsals are rarely observed because everyone thinks they present well. Bringing in vetted and recommended experts -- not “outsiders” -- has only helped in my experience.”
Not everyone who is a subject matter expert is a brilliant presenter, but with timely one-on-one work, different personalities can shine when we need them to the most.
From prep to the finish line (and to the well-deserved post-pitch celebrations) we believe there is a smarter way to ensure pitch season goes successfully. Just don't forget to pack the vitamin C, just in case.