This article is a reprint from my Pitch Therapy column in MedAd News (July 09)
By Mark Schnurman, Pitch Consultant and founder of Filament Inc.
Think back to your agency’s last, unsuccessful new business pitch. Think about the feedback you received from the client. I’ve got news for you. Your agency did not come in second place.
Think about it. With typically four agencies pitching, the law of averages says that 25% of the time you will win (hopefully more if your agency plans on growing), and 25% of the time you will come in forth. Yet agencies never hear back from the client that they were the forth horse in a four horse race. Why is that?
The client has just two goals for that dreaded “you lost” phone call: make you feel good about the agency’s effort so that if there is another pitch in the future, the agency will be a willing participant, and get you off the phone as quickly as possible. The client’s decision is made, and the client has no interest in discussing it with the agency. Agencies have a history of trying to resuscitate a dead sale during these phone calls, which is the very last thing that the client wants to do.
Notice that “giving the agency useful, constructive feedback so that they can do a better job next time” was not one of the two client goals. Instead, they’ll deflect blame and come up with an excuse that you cannot argue with, like the creative was too edgy, they wanted a smaller agency, or they wanted an agency with initials in its name.
The reason that it is so important for an agency to recognize when it is getting false feedback is that the agency does not want to be making changes to the way it conducts a pitch simply because it heard something from a client who was trying to get off the telephone. Think about the implications on the creative department if the agency starts to endlessly shift creative because of this feedback.
If the agency can’t rely on client feedback from a new business pitch, then how can the agency get better at pitching? There are two things that agencies can do. First, listen for trends in feedback. If you get the same feedback repeatedly, there may be an opportunity to improve. Changing an agency’s pitch process or direction based on feedback from one pitch (no matter how important a pitch) can be dangerous. When you start to hear the same feedback repeatedly, it is time to make a change.
The second way to improve the pitch process is to review your own pitches. Your agency has pitched enough to know the difference between your best work and something that falls short of your best work. Here are some hints on how to do an effective review of your agency’s new business pitches.
Gather the entire pitch team in one location for a 30-60 meeting. The meeting needs to be a few days after the pitch (to let the euphoria of the pitch subside) but before you hear from the client. It is important to hold the pitch review prior to getting any client feedback because once the agency hears from the client, agency staff feedback will simply parrot what the client had to say.
Have each team member give feedback starting with the most junior staff. The reason to start with the most junior staff is that once an executive speaks, most staff will simply give feedback that somehow supports the executive’s feedback. Starting at the most junior staff gives the best opportunity for honest, unbiased feedback. The questions to answer are “what worked” and “what could we do better.”
If possible, videotape your dress rehearsal so that you can witness what your client is sitting through. While this is a scary step -- so scary that many agencies are unwilling to do it -- but it may be the difference between winning and “coming in second.”
If you are genuinely interested in improving your agency’s pitch win rate, the single biggest tool for improvement is a scorecard. Create a very simple spreadsheet that records each pitch and whether you won or lost. No excuses (i.e., the decision was made before we pitched). You either win or lose. If you are winning at least 50%, the agency is growing. If you are winning 25% of the time, you are probably treading water. If you are winning less than 25% of the time, recognize that it is time to make some changes to the process.
Ultimately, it is the agency’s responsibility to improve its new business pitch process, not the client’s responsibility. When you look at it that way, it is easy to see where the client is coming from with the “you came in second place” phone call.
Editor’s note: Pitch Therapy is part of a series of guest articles written Mark Schnurman, Pitch Consultant and founder of Filament Inc., a new business consulting and communication skills training firm working exclusively with pharma and consumer advertising agencies. Post your comments here or feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org