There’s a new TV show called “The Pitch” on AMC, the same network that airs “Mad Men” (which I’m obsessed with). I’ve managed to avoid watching “The Pitch” so far. I just haven’t been all that interested in watching it because I’ve been in so many pitches that I know what that world is all about. But that’s the same reason that a lot of my friends and colleagues are watching it: it’s a close-up look at what they do on a regular basis, thereby elevating that job up to documentary-worthy television. Or at least reality-series-worthy television. It takes the advertising business a bit closer to the other jobs that normally get reality TV time like chopper-building guy, celebrity housewife, or prison guard.
I’ve estimated that I’ve done 64 pitches. I think that at least gives me a bit of perspective on how these things usually go, and, since the advertising pitching process is getting its 15 minutes, I figure this is a good time to share some knowledge, if not some actual wisdom.
Generally speaking, there are only a handful of variables that can go into a pitch:
- New project or existing project
- You are the incumbent or an insurgent
- You are favored to win or you are a challenger
That works out to eight different possible scenarios. Going into any pitch, the first and best thing to do is to try to figure out which of the eight you are in, and from there create a plan that will enable you to navigate the pitch successfully. Note: I’m not saying “win the pitch.” Naturally that is the goal and what you should shoot for. But there’s a lot of value that can be generated simply by participating in the pitch, and you should have your eyes always open for that. Sometimes the big pitch is just the first step.
So here is a quick guide to the eight pitch scenarios, along with a few notes on how to handle the situation.
New Project, Incumbent, Favored to Win
In this situation, your main responsibility is to not screw up. Your existing client is launching a new product or promotion or something. The work is separate from the work you’re already doing, so another agency could potentially do it. But the client likes the way you do work and would rather you do it. However, they want to see what else is out there.
What to do: Demonstrate that, while you can easily execute this project with your current team, and can leverage all your resources to be efficient, you also see this as an opportunity to be fresh and creative. You have to bring them some new ideas to ensure that no one else will come in and be seen as the bright new thinkers. Your client is probably using this opportunity to keep you on your toes anyway, so rise to the occasion. Don’t be overconfident. Pitch this like you’re still an outsider.
New Project, Incumbent, Challenger
This is one of the most common situations for agencies, especially those who have long-standing “agency of record” relationships with clients. For some reason, the client has decided that some new project might possibly be better serviced by some other agency. They’re including you in the pitch sometimes almost as a courtesy. But they want new thinking on this and they’re determined to go find it.
What to do: Don’t freak out. Agencies have a strong desire for monogamous relationships with clients, but having another agency do a particular project is not necessarily a bad thing. They may actually bring in something new, which will keep your client satisfied, allowing you to keep on doing great work on your existing projects. Pitch with all your heart on this one, but also recognize that you may need to accept that another agency will come into the mix. Focus on the bigger picture of your relationship with the client.
Existing Project, Incumbent, Favored to Win
This situation is pretty much the same as above, but this one is pretty rare (and therefore odd). If you’re currently working on a project but the client wants to bring in another agency – and there are no real problems – something interesting is happening.
What to do: You should have a clear and honest conversation with your client about what she is looking for. This situation would only happen if there is some need or problem. It’s likely that this situation doesn’t exist and you may find yourself in a more difficult situation, such as the following:
Existing Project, Incumbent, Challenger
This is a bad spot. If this situation is a surprise to you, you simply haven’t been doing your job of taking care of your client. If your client is going to change agencies mid-stream, they must see a real problem. Changing teams during a project is almost guaranteed to run up costs and increase timelines. To undertake that hit, they must see you as a significant problem or risk.
What to do: The first thing to do is see if you can cut this off. This is a client’s nuclear option. Maybe if you go in and clearly identify the problems and lay out a good solution you can get back on track. If not, you need to do that as a part of the pitch. You need to hold back on any new ideas, because the client is in the position to ask “why are you showing us this now?” You’re fighting for your life and need to act like it.
New Project, Insurgent, Favored to Win
Good work. If you’ve found yourself in this situation, it’s because the work that you’ve done either for other clients or building your agency brand has been successful. You’re the hot new thing and you’ve been brought in because the client is excited about what you can do for their brand. This is a great place to be.
What to do: Live in the moment, but don’t forget that you still have to win. Talk just a tiny little bit about yourself. They already know who you are (that’s why you’re there). Instead, dive into some fresh (and hopefully exciting) new approaches to their business. Make sure they understand that they’ll get your great thinking; you’re not just recycling other ideas or coasting. You need to show that, even though you’re hot right now, you seriously want to work for this client.
Existing Project, Insurgent, Favored to Win
This is the flip side of that bad situation where someone has screwed things up and is probably going to get fired. You get to be the knight in shining armor. Most likely you’re being brought in because someone, somewhere believes that you’re going to be able to get things right again and get the project finished and finished well.
What to do: The single most important thing for you to do is to get as much understanding as possible of the project in question. Most likely, the client is going to be feeling a significant amount of pressure and will want to move quickly. During the pitch, show that you understand the project and what it takes to get it done. If you can, try to learn as much as you can about what the particular problems are with the project so you can be prepared to solve them. Remember: the incumbent agency is trying to stay alive and will tell the client that the risk of change outweighs the benefit of change. You need to minimize that risk to make their decision easier.
New Project, Insurgent, Challenger
This may be the single most fun pitch situation there is. There’s something new on the table and you’re on the outside. For some reason you got invited to the pitch, but no one expects much from you. This is your best chance to shine and make a name for yourself. You may be seen as a riskier, braver choice, so you need to take that position. Choosing you has to mean that someone on the client side is ready to do something new.
What to do: You have to find a champion. Of course, the most important thing to do is to take a risk with the creative or the approach. Be the outsider. If you go into this pitch with the same standard approach as everyone else, you’ll be easy to ignore. Take a stand and do something extraordinary. Hopefully you’ll connect with at least one person on their side who will become your champion. She will advocate on your behalf and hopefully convince everyone else to choose you.
Existing Project, Insurgent, Challenger
This is a difficult situation to win. If the client wants to make a change to an existing project it’s because there’s a problem. You need to go in and show that you can take on these responsibilities, but also bring something new to the table. There has to be a good reason for them to choose you over their existing group, above and beyond just your ability to take the reins. Honestly, the chances of winning in this situation are low but you can still demonstrate your abilities and make a good impression.
What to do: See if you can focus on a new solution. If you’re a challenger – that isn’t necessarily seen as an easy decision to make – you need to give the client a clear reason why you’re different and better equipped to perform the tasks than anyone else. Bring in your subject matter experts or possibly someone that has done this same job before. Let the client find a person they can connect to and let the relationship (and the trust) come from there.
OK, that’s all. Your job, of course, is not just to identify the situation that you’re in, but to perform brilliantly inside of it. I love new business pitches. It’s one of the few times in the work world where you know for sure if you won or lost. I’m always happy to share pitch war stories, and would be very happy to hear yours. Leave them in the comments below.
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