Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Clear all hurdles to win the pitch

During the pitch process, clients are not just looking for the agency they should hire. More importantly, they are looking at the agencies they should not hire. An agency needs to clear a number of hurdles in order to win the business. Some of the hurdles are obvious: creative, strategy, capabilities. But some of the hurdles are more difficult to see coming: charisma, likability, chemistry.
First let’s take a look at the obvious hurdles. When it comes to creative, clients are not only looking for good creative (and you can define good however you like), but they are looking very closely to make sure that the creative is on strategy. In both pharma and consumer pitches, I have seen creative presented that was not completely on strategy. There are typically a number of reasons for this. One is that it was politically not a good move to kill the concept. Perhaps the creative person had another concept killed and the team did not want to kill two concepts from the same person. Another reason could be that the concept was really exciting and sexy. While agencies will frequently argue that clients can’t spot great creative (this may or may not be true), clients can absolutely spot concepts that are off strategy. Present them at your own peril.
Another hurdle that the agency needs to clear is strategy. Unfortunately, sometimes the strategy to market a drug is pretty clear, and numerous agencies will wind up on the same strategy. If the strategy from agency to agency is the same, the winning agency frequently is the one that either did the most compelling research or did the best presentation of the strategy.
Research is the piece that establishes that the strategy is solid and not just your team’s opinion. Presentation skill is the component that develops the necessary excitement around your strategy. Do not think for a moment that presentation skill can’t be the difference between winning and losing. A better presentation of similar content can push your agency across the finish line first.
Capabilities is a different kind of hurdle. One would expect that if you make it to the pitch, you have made it over the capabilities hurdle. If you are a smaller agency and made it into the finals against larger competition, have you ever lost because the client wound up wanting a bigger, more established agency? If so, did you really make it over the capabilities hurdle? There is nothing you can do to make your agency bigger overnight, but it does make you question pitching a product when you know that you are at a disadvantage. A competitor three times your size is three times as likely to have someone on staff that is an expert in the therapeutic area being pitched, and their new business budget could be five times the size of your new business budget. I am not suggesting that you never pitch against larger competition; I am suggesting that you recognize when the cards are stacked against you and choose your battles wisely.
Charisma, likeability and chemistry come from a combination of factors, some of which are in your control, some not so much. Some people are naturally more charismatic as presenters. In many ways chemistry is a crap shoot. That being said, rehearsal can help to improve those areas. Once you are confident in what you are going to say, you can start to concentrate on connecting with the audience and being more personable. As rehearsals progress, presenters tend to spend less time worrying about the words and more time focusing on the audience.
When the strategy and creative are similar from agency to agency, presentation skill plays a larger and larger role. Two of our clients pitched a major retailer a few years ago. The agency fee (not including media) was well over $30 million per year. While each agency had its advantages, the winning agency was simply more likeable. Even the losing agency admits that they are not particularly warm in a pitch. The winning agency views warmth and charm as an important part of their presentation and works hard to dial it up. The other agency is also very smart, but they present the facts as they see them and make little attempt to connect with the audience. It is difficult to say that charm was the deciding factor, but connecting with the audience is in every agency’s control and is not something that should be ignored. It is not just the words but how you say the words. This is the last hurdle that you have to clear in order to win.

Mark Schnurman
President - Filament Inc.
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