“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist …” were the last words of General John Sedgewick as he unwisely raised his head over the parapet during the US Civil War. I think we could all concur that he got it wrong. When we accept the challenge of a new pitch, we stand the chance of getting it wrong. But it’s not the getting it right or wrong that’s important, it’s the getting it. So here’s 20 ways not to get your head shot off.

[Sid Peimer is author of The Clear Win: pitching for new business – the strategies that work; the myths that don’t available on Amazon here]

  1. It’s a GAME. There is no way any rational human being can make a qualified decision in one hour whether you are the right person to work with or not. Our divorce rate is 50% – and that after an extended courtship. So don’t ever think a pitch is anything other than a game.
  2. This is still my personal favourite – start working for the client before the pitch. When you walk in the door on pitch day, you should already have a working relationship. It’s easy – just start working – no one’s going to sue you. 
  3. This is like poker, so you’re allowed to bluff. When you are asked if the presenters are the team that will work on the business say yes. It doesn’t matter if they do or don’t – the client will be lucky if the agency still has the same name in a month. And the time it takes some clients (especially government) to make a decision, half the team would probably have moved on. The half-life in advertising is usually a fraction of the clients’ business, so don’t bother to explain. Just say yes. It’s a game.
  4. The creative work cannot win a pitch, but it plays an important part in stimulating an emotional reaction. That’s handy, because the final decision is an emotional one. Don’t use the creative to show how creative you are – use it to leverage an emotional response. 
  5. When presenting past successes, share the kudos with the client you did the work for. Tell them how fantastic and brilliant and clever that client was. Don’t tell them how brave the client was to get you to do such great work. They will take your attitude of past relationships as an indicator of future relationships.
  6. Understand their business. This does not mean you have to know how to spot-weld a door on a car, but it does mean that you can speak as an insider. “They don’t understand our business” is often the reason the account went to pitch in the first place.
  7. Agencies that pride themselves on communicating well with consumers can be unsympathetic to the audience in the pitch. The consumer target market is important, but of more importance is the target market that the client actually deals with on a personal basis, such as key accounts and field staff. They know their names. Mention them. There’s nothing like saying “Well Barry in KZN felt he needed a greater emphasis on widget number 6, even though there was the O/S for June due to the power failure”.
  8. Present as a team. If you don’t like each other then don’t expect the client to.
  9. Don’t show the fancy proprietary models unless you can show that you practice what you preach. Someone once said there are only three rules to pitching: relevance, relevance and relevance. I’m not sure that’s totally relevant, but always remember to keep the frequency on ‘wii-FM’ – what’s in it for me.
  10. Don’t ever say “I know awards aren’t important, but …”. They aren’t important to the client – if they didn’t think you could do the work they would not have invited you. If you’re going to use a showreel that is emotionally moving, then use it just for that – move them to vote for you, but don’t ask them to cheer your creative brilliance – they don’t care.
  11. There is no such thing as ‘conditional enthusiasm’. You either want the account or you don’t.
  12. Few agencies can demonstrate that they have a real purpose beyond making money. And spare me the pro bono list. Maybe you don’t need a reason to work beyond the kid’s school fees and braces, but please don’t go for mission statement failure, which is a collection of words that no sober person could really salute. Just let the client get to know who you are as people.
  13. Please, please, please don’t waffle on about yourself and show that map of the world with all the dots on it. Rather talk about the client. The client cringes at the words “ … and now a little bit about ourselves”. They are not interested in your world rankings and how the hierarchy works. Don’t waste time on this at the expense of the main event. I won a pitch last week and realised I forgot to talk about us. Oh well, win some lose some.
  14. Don’t assume that the client has intelligence equal to yours. He may have more. If you’re going to go into great detail about the market, find out how much they know first. The 100-slide market appraisal is like pulling teeth.
  15. After several presentations, the client can’t remember who said what. They will remember a strong idea. And here’s the amazing truth; It doesn’t matter if it’s wrong, it just has to make an impression. You are not going to be employed for getting it right, you win because they think you can get it right.
  16. PowerPoint can force you into a linear presentation that then becomes a commitment to ‘get to the end of the deck. The client then enters a countdown to escape. They will hate you for reminding them of boring lectures or even worse – school.
  17. Assume that just answering the brief is something the other agencies will do. Answer the brief accurately, but that does not mean you have to accept some of the benign claims in the brief. On the contrary, if you feel you know enough to disagree with the brief, you’re already adding value.
  18. A presentation is like an ad – a bold proposition that promises a clear benefit. Then give them something definite – what you are going to deliver, when it will be completed and how much it will cost.
  19. People choose to work with people they like. We tend to like people who like us. Like the client. It’s easier to like someone when you’re in control, which depends on you doing three things before the pitch: rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.
  20. Sometimes the best new client is an old one – if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with. 
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