The Joy Of Pitching And Where It Can All Go Wrong

The pitch process: it separates the wheat from the chaff; the winners from the also rans; the successful from the just plain shambolic.

It’s both the bane and the boon of agency life – and undoubtedly no walk in the park for our friends on client-side. As David Kean comments in his fine tome Pitching to Win: “Pitching for business is the last bastion of amateurism in an otherwise wholly professionalised business economy.” The truth is – he’s not wrong.

To put this into context, most good agencies win one in three pitches. Okay, sounds good. But look at it this way, they also lose two in three. Enough in a football game to put you firmly at the bottom of the table. It also means clients are kissing a lot of frogs along the way.

So where do we all go wrong? Here’s the Earnest take on the good, the bad and the ugly of the pitch process – for agencies and clients alike:

The long and the short of the brief.

Writing a brief is a definite art. And client mindsets seem to vary considerable from the 4 page beauty – concise, crisp and to the point – to the 48 page equivalent of War & Peace. We often get asked what works best for us in agency land. Well it depends. In short, we need to know where you are now and where you want to be. Who you need to be talking, the reasons why and what you’ve got to offer them that’s so compelling. Let us know what you’re looking for from an agency – but try not to be too prescriptive. If you feel more comfortable giving us volumes of detail fair dues. Better to capture everything you think important than leave out those nuggets that leave your agency guessing. And don’t mess with our heads, by failing to include something which the whole caboodle depends on but you just didn’t think was appropriate.

It’s good to talk.

So what happens when the brief has been flung over the wall to the agency? This is the really important bit. The agencies worth their salt should be straight on the phone to the client setting up a session to talk it through. It provides us with an opportunity to really get to grips with the brief – and eliminates room for misunderstanding (one of the biggest reasons agencies lose the pitch). Importantly, it’s the start of the selling process. It gives clients a feel for the way the agency thinks – and a sense of the chemistry between the two parties. For agencies,  if a client won’t spare the time for this, walk away fast. For clients, if an agency doesn’t come back to you with any questions – mark them down. Seriously.

No excuse for not doing your homework.

So brief understood – off some agencies pop into their dark rooms for lots of caffeine driven creative huddles. Whilst the brief may be clear, a good agency will first go out of their way to immerse themselves in the client’s business and market – talking to customers, prospects and influencers. Don’t know anyone? Get down and dirty with some media monitoring and social media listening tools to get some insights. It’s amazing the revelations that follow – and it turns your pitch from ‘we think’ to ‘we know’. And when you share it with the client – you can be sure they’ll sit up and listen. Only by uncovering what really matters – call it the fundamental truths – can you get to the right answer, strategically and creatively.

The creative magic.

What happens next, if the brief demands it, is the stuff of myth and folklore – the creative process. The truth is that great ideas can come from anywhere and anyone – and when you least expect it. The search for the right answer can eat away at you for days, consuming your thoughts while you’re bathing the baby or depriving you of sleep at 4am in the morning. There’s the magic when a creative team just works – and a germ of an idea turns into a gem. There are also times when there are blazing rows, fierce debate and bloodied noses. Yep, we’ve seen it all. As an aside, should a pitch always involve creative? Creative thinking yes but not always creative concepts. Fortunately, most experienced clients know when it’s right and when’s wrong to ask for creative. But you always get some chancers, expecting five agencies to pitch multiple creative concepts to secure a tactical campaign for a shoestring budget.

Preparing for the big day.

Agencies, take time to know who you’re going to be pitching to: the team, their individual roles, and drivers, so you can be fully prepared. Read the brief again and triple check you’ve got all the bases covered. And rehearse the hell out of your presentation – rather than writing it on the train (oh the naivety of youth).  Clients, think carefully about who needs to be involved and make sure they’re there on the day. Also, it pays to use a scoring system of some kind – where each of your team can mark the agency on a number of key criteria. It’s fairer that way and means you don’t end up with an agency that showed you some nice pictures in the pitch, but on further scrutiny lack the resources or the understanding to serve your business.

The big performance.

There’s nothing better than the thrill of the pitch day. The eagerness to show you’re the agency that really gets it. The horror when you realise you left the creative concepts back in the office. One thing to remember, the performance is everything. Ever seen the Carousel pitch in MadMen? You’ll know what we mean. Now clients beware. The oldest trick in the book is for the agency to wheel out the big guns who will charm you with their illuminous teeth, designer suits and world-weary anecdotes. Who will tell you they’ll look after your business as seasoned pros, guiding you safely through seas rough and calm. Funny how by week two of the relationship some spotty 20 something will be directing your account with the aplomb of a novice driver, while the big guns will be onto their next charm offensive elsewhere. Beware the pitch-and-switch at your peril.

Forget the pitch, the pitch-off is here.

Finally, the pitch as we know it may be changing. One technology behemoth now appoints its agencies via an X-Factor style pitch process. Following an initial response for info, agencies are shortlisted based on a number of criteria and then asked to attend a pitch off. Three agencies arrive on the day, are sat round a table together and all given the same brief. They’re then sent off for several hours to develop a response before pitching in front of each other. The client scores them on a number of criteria – and before making the final decision calls each agency into a room and asks them for their best and final offer price wise. The winner heads home exhausted, war torn and hacked off they’ve agreed to cut their fees by 40%. The losers leave with their tail between their legs promising never to participate in such a harrowing and demeaning experience again.


Love it or hate it. It remains a necessary evil. But we can surely all play a part in making it a little fairer, more disciplined and bearable for agencies and clients alike. And if you’ve never seen it, check out the Truth In Advertising video – talk about debunking the whole process, not for the faint-hearted mind.

Whether you’re a client or an agency, we’re sure you’ve got your own war stories, opinions and top tips for success. Go on share yours…

By earnest agency 19 November 2011

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