Shiv Sethuraman
Guest Article

Top four 'pitch screw-ups'...

... and what agencies can do to avoid them.

In the early days of my career, my then agency was participating in a prestigious pitch for a global personal computer brand. On the day of the pitch we walked into the conference room with more than a little hope in our hearts. The strategy was sound, the work sparkled and we had enjoyed good "pre-presentation" chemistry with the clients.

Top four 'pitch screw-ups'...

Shiv Sethuraman

As subsequent events showed, our optimism was clearly premature. To our absolute horror and dismay, five slides into the presentation our lead presenter referred to the client's brand by the name of their principal competitor. In spite of our best efforts to correct him (and make feeble jokes about the faux pas), he did it at least another five times. Needless to say, there was no applause at the end of our presentation. And that evening we received a terse note to say we hadn't made it to the second round of the pitch.

When advertising veterans meet there is always a hilarious pitch screw-up story waiting to be told - usually that of a competing agency. The laughter masks, however, the painful mistakes we have all made or been witness to, over the course of hundreds of pitches.

While nothing may be able to save you from the kind of gaffe I described in the opening paragraph, here is a list of the most common things to watch out for. After all, it will cost you far lesser to learn from my mistakes than making our own.

Mistake #1: Believing the brief

Every agency in the pitch gets the written brief. Often times, the winning agency is able to deduce what I call "the brief behind the brief". What is that? This is the hidden brief that was lost when the CEO told the CMO who told the category manager who then instructed the brand manager to write the brief. As you can well imagine, huge transmission losses occur in the process.

The smart agency spends a lot of time infiltrating the client organisation and meeting the real stakeholders. (Pro-tip alert: Heads of sales and CFOs are great sources for understanding the real business issues.) If you simply take the written brief and walk away, chances are pretty high you're working on the wrong problem.

Mistake #2: Spending 70 per cent of available time writing the brief

The client gives you 20 days to get back with your presentation. "Reasonable", you say! Here's what then happens... the kick off meeting happens on Day 3 because everyone on the team is not available before that. The planner requires at least a week to write the brief. On Day 10, you meet to discuss the brief. The creatives don't like it so the planners go back to writing the brief. They are ready on Day 12 but unfortunately the creative director is at a shoot. The brief finally takes place on Day 15 and the creative team is up in arms, as they rightfully should be, over the amount of time available. This is a chronic problem in many agencies.

Here's what you should be doing instead. Think of the "brief" as a 5-day process instead of an hour-long meeting. Meet right after the client brief and discuss it with the pitch team. Talk, discuss, assign tasks and disband. Meet again the next day. Refine the previous day's thinking. Rinse. Repeat. Keep up the intensity and at the end of a few days everyone will have a clear understanding of what needs to get done. More importantly, everybody on the team owns the brief now as opposed to just the poor planner. And you have 15 days to work on the idea - the real hero of any pitch presentation.

Mistake #3: Not rehearsing!

In my book, this one's the most cardinal of all the sins. Nobody, but nobody, I have met can pull off today's complex, multidisciplinary pitch without a team rehearsal. Or two. An agency presentation is a massive team effort and you absolutely cannot afford to not rehearse together. (Pro tip alert: Get two "problem spotters" who have nothing to do with the pitch to attend your rehearsals. They'll see stuff the pitch team doesn't.) This is where you see if it all stitches together beautifully, if the transitions from one presenter to another are seamless, if the story telling is tight and energetic and, if you are contradicting or reinforcing one another. Trust me, the average presentation becomes at least twice as better when you rehearse together.

Mistake #4: Not learning from a lost pitch!

The most invaluable lessons are often gained from defeat, as the cliché goes. Unfortunately though, not too many agencies spend enough time interrogating the prospective client after they learn they have lost. I use the word "interrogating" very deliberately because this is often a difficult conversation for the would-be client and he or she is understandably, polite. You have to persevere and dig deep to understand what went wrong. I have heard many painful things in 'post-pitch-loss' conversations. Things that have hurt and angered me. Things that have made me want to scream about the unfairness of perception or process. But invariably, they have helped make the next pitch ever so slightly better.

Implementing these lessons the next time you go into pitch may not result in a win. But I guarantee, you will have a better outcome than your last pitch. And over a period of time, you will certainly see far better conversion rates.

(The author is the founder of 'The New Business', a business acquisition service for communication agencies)

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