Archive for the ‘Pitching’ Category

I can remember exactly where I was as the 9/11 atrocity unfolded.

I was in Edinburgh then Brussels.

The Brussels trip was for a pan-European advertising pitch on 10/11.

As Gerry (creative director), Giles (bag carrier) and I dashed out of the agency, an account manager came dashing in saying, “A plane has crashed into the World Trade Centre.”

At the time we lacked the imagination to assume that it was anything other than a tragic accident involving a Cessna. Pilot and passenger dead and hopefully no-one hurt on the streets below.

At the time we also lacked the mobile wherewithal to investigate further en route to the airport.

Check-in and security at Edinburgh passed without incident.

However, once we were flight-side, things started to get more odd and slightly more disturbing.

British Airways was broadcasting announcements asking passengers travelling to Heathrow for connecting flights to the States to contact a member of staff.

Then my wife phoned and pretty much begged me not to fly.

I don’t remember her being aware of the full extent of what was happening in New York. She just knew that something terrible had happened involving aeroplanes. And she believed that I would be in grave danger if I boarded the plane to Brussels.

At this point we still had no idea what was going on. There was nothing on the public TV screens. Indeed there may not even have been public TV screens back then.

And it was a pan-European pitch for God’s sake. Those things don’t grow on trees.

No way were we not flying to Brussels.

As it happens I think we were pretty much the last flight to leave Edinburgh that day.

No announcements regarding the situation were made during the flight.

So we were unprepared  for the utter chaos that greeted us in Brussels Airport.

(Brussels Airport is more or less next door to NATO European HQ we discovered later).

It took hours to collect our bags and get through security.

And we were both white.

It was conspicuous that anyone with the slightest amount of non-Caucasian skin pigmentation was being shepherded into a separate queue, having their bags more or less ripped apart, and being subject to heated interrogation. We moved quickly by comparison.

It was only, finally, as we checked into our hotel in the early evening that we saw a commercial airliner fly into a skyscraper.

There was a throng of delayed latecomers in the reception area. And we collectively convinced ourselves that we had indeed seen what we had just seen.

When we left Edinburgh we lacked the imagination to envisage this. And, along with our fellow guests, we struggled to comprehend then recalibrate our notions of the possible.

We made contact with the potential client who confirmed that the pitch would be going ahead as planned the following morning.

Under normal circumstances we would have eaten a quick meal then rehearsed, rehearsed and rehearsed again before getting an early night.

Instead we huddled around the TV and drank into the early hours in a crowded bar full of dishevelled euro-businessmen, top shirt buttons undone and ties loosened.

The next day we half-heartedly pitched regardless.

Pan-European pitches don’t grow on trees.

But we should have walked away from this one.

We should have walked away when the potential client proudly told us that he had spent the evening recreating the attack on his flight simulator PC game.

Sick fuck.

My parents’ generation can all remember precisely where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news of Kennedy’s assassination, and when man first landed on the moon.

For me the death of Diana (taking coffee back to bed on a Sunday morning and remarking to my wife that it was odd for Radio 1 to be playing solemn classical music) and 9/11 assume the same significance.

I don’t think there’s any other day from the last decade that I could document in the same eidetic detail.



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Competitive agency X sent a bespoke new business mailer to Blonde client Y.

The creative thrust of said mailer was that Agency X would give its right arm to work on Client Y’s business.

And the mailer included a fake arm.

Only it wasn’t a right arm.

It was a left arm.

Client Y invited us to join in their department-wide laughter at Agency X’s expense.

Rude not to really.

And it’s too good a story not to share.

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Coffee with an ex-client turned into a conversation about “happening” agencies around the world.

And from there to a revealing, client-eye view of agency marketing, agency models, agency philosophies and the ™ packaging of agency processes.

Said client must have had thousands of cold calls, hundreds of chemistry meetings and dozens of pitches from agencies large and small, in all disciplines, from all around the world.

He likened agencies to religions.

All claiming to represent the one true God of marcoms expertise.

Follow the Shoe™!

Follow the Gourd™!

I have all sorts of mixed feelings about this.

There is never only “one true way” to approach a communications brief. And to suggest that there is only makes you look stupid.

So if you believe that a single approach, a single philosophy, a single positioning can be made to be right for every client, you are deluded.

If, on the other hand, you’re setting your stall out to only work with like-minded clients and brands for whom your philosophy is appropriate then that is not deluded. That is planning. That is targeting. That is segmentation.

Indeed the ideal model for growing an agency profitably and happily is a virtuous snowball. You do a certain type of work for a certain type of client. This attracts more of a certain type of client. For whom you do more of a certain type of work. Which attracts…

N.B. By “a certain type of work” I don’t mean a house style. I mean work that is based on a consistent philosophy. Like TBWA’s disruption model. Or the challenger theory of Eat Big Fish.

From the outside looking in, it always seemed that HHCL worked like this. It set out its stall to do radical work that broke sector rules and that spat in the face of received advertising wisdom. This in turn attracted clients that were looking for radical work. And so on.

But, in an over-supplied market, very few agencies seem to have the financial strength, moral fibre, or marketing nouse to deliberately exclude themselves from doing business with any kind of client.

They’ll happily (and correctly) advise clients that they can’t be all things to all men.

Then conveniently forget to take a dose of their own medicine when marketing themselves.

There’s a particular type of agency marketing about which I have the most mixed feelings.

It’s the ™ packaging of widespread best practice. Taking processes, tricks of the trade, or tools that are used in lots of agencies, giving them a fancy (Fancy™) name and then presenting them as unique Intellectual Property (IP).

The associated mixed feelings go something like this…

From the inside looking out I can’t believe that Packaging™ works. It is so transparently obvious what is going on. Surely clients can see straight through it?

But work it does.

Packaging™ gives agency salespeople something to sell.

Even though that something is actually “nothing special” repackaged as “That Special Something™”.

Packaging™ is practiced by agencies of all disciplines.

But a good friend of mine once illustrated the issue with a beautifully observed hypothetical media agency example.

Said media agency takes the client’s brief, objectives, audiences, market position, competitive set, brand values etc and feeds them into its Hypernichebespoketailoredplanning™ model.

The farm of mainframe computers that occupy the entire basement of the agency’s building start to run the multi-variable, artificially intelligent, highly complex algorithm that sits behind Hypernichebespoketailoredplanning™.

The machines suck power from the national grid to such an extent that lights are dimmed over a several block radius.

People make coffee, have meetings, have lunch, chew pencils, have meetings, and go home for the evening, leaving the model to crunch and run overnight.

In the morning the model presents its Hypernichebespoketailoredplanning™ answer…

“Television for reach. Radio and posters to build frequency.”

A hyper-niche, bespoke, tailored media plan that uniquely meets the need of that client.


This is a funny, made-up story to illustrate a point.

But it’s not hyperbole.

It isn’t “deliberate exaggeration for effect.”

Packaging™ really can be that bad and that brazen. I’ve seen it happen.

I’ve seen it happen. I don’t like it. But it works.

Hence the mixed feelings.

Packaging™ gives agency salespeople something to sell.

Steve Henry talked about the importance of creative people to agency start-ups in a recent Brand Republic blog post.

I think if I were to start an agency I’d want a natural salesperson on board.

Because it certainly wouldn’t be me.

I’ve got a decent track record when it comes to converting pitch opportunities.

And I’ll happily pick up the baton of a warm inbound approach.

Keywords : converting, warm, inbound.

But generating pitch opportunities is an entirely different skill.

Keywords : generating, cold, outbound.

And, in my experience, successful business development people (agencies hate the idea of “salespeople”) are a breed apart.

They are usually cultural misfits. Very important, but different.

Like goalkeepers.

Or hospital managers.

If you want recent evidence of how bad agencies can be at marketing themselves, check out the responses to this challenge from Fuel Lines, a US based new business consultancy.

Responding agencies had to describe themselves in 6 words or less.

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

“Not like every other ad agency.”

“Top quality marketing that gets results.”

“It all starts with a question.”

For me, the best of a bad bunch is the one that happens to be at the top of the list.

“Big agency vets for half cost.”

At least that statement makes a promise and includes at least two potential benefits to a prospective client. Even if I’m not sure about agencies that overtly position themselves on price.

Fuel Lines then ran a poll to see which statements were preferred by visitors to its site.

My favourite scored only 1% of the vote.

The top ranking statement in this opinion poll was “Fuelling brand activation”, which pulled 27% of the 139 votes at the time of writing.

So what do I know?

For what it’s worth, given how out of touch I am with with popular opinion on these things, my current favourite agency line is this…

It’s Gonna be Awesome is the bold, liberated, twinkle in its eye promise from The Barbarian Group.

I guess you’d have to be American to be entirely comfortable saying this about yourself.

But I love it as a cocksure (not cocky) promise of professionalism, and as an internal yardstick for assessing the company’s output, culture, people and processes. It’s a hard selling and hard working statement of intent.

And their work backs it up.


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The first rule of Pitch Club is that you most definitely DO want potential clients to talk about your presentation afterwards.

And they’re more likely to do so if they can actually remember what you said.

We’ve all been there.

You attend a presentation.

Someone who didn’t attend asks you to paraphrase later the same day.

And you can’t.

Or at best you struggle to piece it all back together.

Crystal clarity and an unmissable straight-line narrative thread go a long way towards winning pitches.

Not only do they make you more memorable, but the process of stripping things back, of straightening out the chicanes and removing interesting but unnecessary tangents actually invests your presentation with a much greater sense of conviction.

And that sense of conviction, allied with your clarity, only adds to your memorability.

One of the best pieces of training I ever had was when I blagged my way onto the judging panel for the media agency pitch process that one of my clients was conducting.

This story would be better if I could name names but I’d better not, even though with the passing of time I don’t think I’d be betraying any commercial confidences.

The pitch brief asked for media strategies on two brands in the client’s portfolio. Two brands with quite different issues.

It was a thorough brief and a fair process in terms of access to the client and opportunity to ask questions etc.

My abiding memory of three out of the four pitch presentations is the sheer level of work that had gone into them. The kitchen sink had been well and truly chucked. The thoroughness of the research and the quality of the presentation materials, including video content, were impressive.

My abiding memory of the fourth pitch is what they said.

They structured the presentation as a boxing card.

“Bout 1” for Brand X was billed as Boys versus Girls.

They framed the media planning issue as a straight decision of prioritising one gender over another.

“Bout 2” for Brand Y was billed as Safe versus Dangerous.

Brand Y had a reputation for high profile, ‘out there’, risky creative work. And agency 4 contended that this ‘dangerous’ creative work had historically run in very ‘safe’ places.

Agency 4 stripped their presentation back to ask these two questions and then emphatically answered them. No diversions. No temptation to pad things out with evidence of effort, unless it added to the narrative. Or if there was temptation it had been resisted.

Agency 4 won the pitch by a country mile. Less than half an hour after the other presentations we genuinely struggled to agree as a group on what had actually been recommended.

And, from memory, I don’t think the client actually agreed with Agency 4’s recommendation on one of the briefs.

But they’d seen enough to know that they wanted that team on their side.

And that’s the second rule of Pitch Club.

The second rule of Pitch Club is to remember what the client is looking to buy.

The pitch brief may ask you to present ideas, but the client is looking to buy an agency.

But that’s another blog post.

What would be your first rule of Pitch Club?

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I’m in two minds about this old giving-clients-what-they-need-not-what-they-want adage.

On the one hand it appeals to the image we agency types like to project of being top-table, C-Suite, trusted adviser consultant types.

On the other I shy away from the intellectual arrogance that it implies. I suspect that many clients shy away from its implicit (explicit?) intellectual arrogance too.

Nonetheless, here’s a story in which the adage could not have been more true.

Several years ago Honda briefed the Leith Agency to develop campaigns for two vehicles – the CR-V and the (then) brand new Jazz.

We came back with two absolute rip-snorters.

(If I say so myself).

There’s a phrase, favoured by literary reviewers, that goes something like “This is a tour de force by a writer at the peak of his powers.”

Looking back that’s how it felt at Leith working on those Honda briefs.

The planning was good and we had a group of young, hungry creatives who were in an incredibly fertile groove.

We had Dougal (Wilson – now a top international pop-promo and commercials director), Gareth (Howells – now Creative Partner at Newhaven) and Alex (Flint – now a senior creative at Goodby Silverstein in San Fransisco), all working into a fired up Gerry Farrell.

The CR-V campaign was executed in the style of those Commando war comic books that came back into nostalgic fashion a couple of years ago. It turned everyday family situations into highly charged combat scenarios, allowing us to seamlessly show off the features of the car in the process.

The campaign line was ‘The Honda CR-V. Because it’s hell out there.’

A trip to the supermarket in the CR-V was treated like a helicopter insertion behind enemy lines. The carpark was the ‘L.Z.’ and one of the kids was discovered to be ‘M.I.A.’ as the shopping was unloaded into the (capacious) boot. ‘I’m going back in’ said the mother. ‘But that’s crazy talk’, replied one of her other siblings.

The print work was a highly distinctive combination of photography and all-action illustration, complete with speech bubbles and ‘Achtung Spitfeuer!’ style exclamations. It worked well in every format from small space press to dealership window stickers.

The Jazz campaign was a sure-fire award winner. I know this because it was almost identical to an award winning Toyota Corolla campaign that came out a few years later.

The Jazz strapline was “One Proud Owner”, a play on words on the phrase “One careful owner”, much beloved of second hand car classified advertisers. One of the print concepts featured one proud Jazz owner deliberately getting flashed by a speed camera to get the car’s photograph taken.

The later Corolla campaign carried the line ‘A car to be proud of’ and it won a stack of awards for several executions including one which featured a proud Corolla owner deliberately getting flashed by a speed camera etc. etc.

Our Jazz campaign also included some very funny radio ads.

I remember us killing ourselves laughing as Alex (I think it was Alex) phoned some local builders to get them to quote for building a rotating plinth in his driveway to showcase his new Honda Jazz.

We recorded several hilarious conversations with obviously bemused tradespeople as they attempted to define the scope of the project and put a cost to it.

These were great campaigns, presented to a client that was looking to buy stand-out work. They were exactly what the client wanted.

But neither campaign ever ran.

The two briefs were the basis of a pitch for the Honda UK account.

We were pitching against several agencies, one of which was Wieden & Kennedy London.

W & K didn’t give Honda what they wanted.

W & K’s pitch was based on what they thought the client needed.

They pitched that Honda shouldn’t be trying to sell cars in their ads.

They pitched that Honda should be building a brand.

They pitched that Honda was cool, but that not enough people realised it yet.

They pitched the basis of their famous Power of Dreams campaign.

So, although we presented two fantastic campaigns that I genuinely believe would have won nine out of ten pitches, we got blown away.

It was one of the most bitter, bruising but ultimately useful pieces of training I’ve ever had.

Many client briefs, particularly briefs to digital agencies, go beyond articulating the problem and suggest the approach to solving it.

The suggested approach may turn out to be the right approach, but you should always always go back to the base problem and think from there.

Clients don’t always like being told that there’s a better way than the one suggested in their brief. These can be difficult conversations.

But being blown away is worse.

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For anyone who bought what I wrote about not selling, this is a more narrowly focused follow-up about the implications of a not selling philosophy for the presentation of ideas to clients.

On the one hand how do you satisfy the pressure from the agency to sell do the idea justice?

And on the other what do you do about your sneaking suspicion that clients have a sneaking suspicion of preamble?

(If the idea’s that good, why does it need all this fluffing? Shouldn’t it sell itself?)

A client of mine once shared an anecdote about a creative presentation he’d attended early in his career.

The main object of that presentation was my client’s boss, a straight-talking American marketing director.

The hapless agency guy launched into some well-prepared, well-rehearsed but alas over-long eulogy for the as yet unshared idea.

After a while the marketing director leaned forward, touched the presenter on the wrist, looked him in the eye and said…

“Son. You’ve made me hard.”

(Dramatic pause).

“Now make me come.”

The hapless account guy in question would have done well to treat his client like a Jedi. As Yoda (allegedly) said…

“Foreplay, cuddling – a Jedi craves not these things.”

Clearly you need to say something about the idea. But what? And, just as importantly, when?

Here are some approaches that have repeatedly worked well for me over the years.

1) Resist the temptation to re-present or summarise the brief. Anyone in the meeting who does not know the brief inside out does not deserve to be there. Going over the brief is safe, head-still-below-the-parapet territory.  It is a crutch for the presenter who is nervous about his or her content and will be seen as such.

The exception to this rule is if the idea has come directly from a specific nugget within the brief. Then it is right and proper to draw the client’s attention to the source of the creative leap that you are about to share with them.

Which leads me onto point 2).

2) Preamble as sales pitch is bad. Preamble as insight into the creative thought process that led to the idea can be good.

To most clients, and to a lot of agency people, the creative process is a fascinating black box. And an occasional peek inside that box can be useful.

This approach is most compellingly utilised by the people that actually did the creative thinking, and for that reason creative people who can construct consecutive sentences, who can maintain eye contact, and who wash are worth their weight in gold.

Discuss how they initially approached the brief √

Share a few blind alleys and creative cul de sacs √

Maybe refer to the bit of the brief that most inspired them √

As well as being interesting, this approach has the added benefits of i) proving that the creatives actually read the brief and ii) hinting at some form of creative quality control process.

3) Articulate the idea.

It is blinding obvious that the whole point of the meeting you’re in is to answer the question in the client’s head – “What’s the big idea?”

But so often you see otherwise intelligent people go into creative presentations without a pre-prepared answer.

They have a script or an ad but not an articulation of the underlying idea.

Well articulated ideas are incredibly powerful.

Aim for under 25 words (an idea that you can hold in your hand as Steven Spielberg would describe it).

Ensure that the brand or product name is central to the definition. You won’t be able to do this unless the brand or product has an active role in the idea. And for this reason an idea definition that has the brand at its core is incredibly reassuring to clients.

And make it exciting and easy to remember.

Being able to articulate your ideas is a basic professional discipline that is easy to overlook.

It also has the practical benefit of making the idea more portable.

It is unfortunate that approval of an idea will often require clients in the room to present it on in your absence to clients not in the room. A properly packaged and defined idea is less prone to misrepresentation and/or misinterpretation.

4) Be prepared to explain why this is such a good idea.

Hopefully this will be intuitively obvious to all concerned, but life is not always like that.

I’d aim to keep this powder dry until after you’ve presented the idea. Hopefully you won’t need it.

5) Be prepared to explain how this idea will work.

This is a killer. It’s a disarmingly innocent question that I’ve seen pull the rug out from under many creative presentations. It doesn’t get asked that often but if you purport to be a communication expert your client has every right to expect a robust answer.

Just how will this idea work to help me achieve my objectives?

And “Because it’s funny” ain’t going to cut it.

6) Don’t leave the agency without an idea that you believe in.

This is the main thing and everything else flows from it. Do your hardest work and take the greatest pain within the agency. Do whatever it takes to make sure that you are genuinely excited about the idea(s) that you’re going to present. That excitement should automatically translate into the professional disciplines described above.

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In the name of “doing the right thing” many clients run their pitch processes on a “level playing field” basis.

It is good that they care about doing right by the pitching agencies – many don’t – but that care is misdirected.

A level playing field approach means that all pitching agencies get to see the questions asked by their competitors, along with the answers to those questions. The thinking behind this is that the pitching agencies are all given the best possible chance of having the right information to allow them to produce relevant responses to the brief.

In my experience, however, the approach actually has the opposite effect.

The client wants relevant responses to the brief.

Whereas the agencies want to win the pitch.

In my view not many clients fully appreciate the implications of this important difference in objectives between them and the pitching agencies.

A clever client will run a pitch process in such a way as to make sure that an agency’s objective of winning is as closely linked to presenting the most relevant response to the brief as possible.

A level playing field doesn’t do this.

The competitive instincts of the agencies mean that no-one will openly ask a question that might give a clue as to their strategic thinking.

Which means that questions that might lead to more relevant responses to the brief go unasked.

And unanswered.

How an agency interrogates a brief gives important clues as to how they think. It also gives important clues as to whether they are thinking harder or better than their competitors.

Most pitches are about buying an agency partner as well as, or rather than, buying an answer to a specific brief.

If you want to see the whites of an agency’s eyes in terms of how they approach a brief under pitch conditions, don’t operate a level playing field.

Operate an Equal Opportunities policy.

Give all the competing agencies an equal opportunity to meet you, to ask questions of you, to make suggestions for how they’d like to manage the process, to share interim thinking and ideas with you.

But don’t share that approach with the other agencies.

An Equal Opportunities approach will give you a much better idea of the right agency for your organisation than a Level Playing Field.

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