Winning Pitches That Lose

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Pitching new business in advertising and public relations is insanely fun. Anyone who’s been on a new business team knows getting in the room for “the big pitch” is one of the most energizing parts of agency life. 

A winning pitch is a funky cocktail. It’s one part performance, one part chemistry assessment, and one part knowledge test. And one of the consistent problems I see with many agencies I work with is they over-focus on demonstrating their team’s knowledge and experience.

I’m often asked, “How did we lose that pitch?” I hear this from agency’s that could (and should) have closed the deal. Right team. Right qualifications. Smart presentation. 

They had a winning pitch that lost.

I recently advised an advertising agency on a pitch for a significant piece of business (read: multi-million dollar, multi-year contract). They were well-positioned as one of three finalists. They knew their stuff and do very reputable work.

We started with a table read of their initial outline. I listened. I watched. It was really sharp for a first take. It checked all the boxes the client was looking for. Yet as I listened to them, I couldn’t help feeling this was a winning pitch that stands a good chance of losing.

Here’s why: I didn’t feel anything for what I was listening to. It all sounded right. But that seemed to be part of the problem. It was so technically spot on it lacked any moments where a person listening could feel this was the team, that they had it.

Sounding right versus feeling right is often the difference between signing a contract and your team sitting at the nearest bar licking post-loss wounds. 

Watching this agency’s initial approach, I made note of common pitch trends I’ve witnessed over years of designing new business presentations. They’re fairly easy mistakes to avoid if you’re willing to rethink – and ultimately redesign – your approach to pitching.

Mistake #5: Focusing on doing the work. Yes, the work is important. And every agency will hit these talking points. (Cue the speeches about your agency’s “quality service,” “unique process,” and “client collaboration.”) Client’s inevitably ask your pitch team to address work components. But that’s not necessarily what they are listening for. In fact, if you’re asked to present a Proposed Work Plan, most likely you’re being asked to demonstrate how you’d work with them to create one. The campaign you’re pitching will have a target audience. But your target audience in a pitch are those judges sitting across from you. If you don’t speak to them about them, you’ll risk losing no matter how sharp that Proposed Work Plan sounds. 

Mistake #4: Not knowing who’s across the table. This is more than knowing titles and your two “shared connections” on LinkedIn. You must truly understand each person scoring your team and design a presentation that fits the psychology of those decision-makers. I see pitch teams reading corporate bios or analyzing judges’ resumes. Not enough. That’s “Price of Entry Knowledge,” the stuff every other agency will know going in. Your job is to understand what makes these people tick. Where did they grow up? What are they involved in outside the office? Do they read The Wall Street Journal or watch MSNBC? Leveraging these complex personal attributes can influence the outcome of a pitch. They are looking for clues about how well you’re going to fit into their view of the world.

Mistake #3: Being the smartest people in the room. Agencies tend to shift into a hyper-competitive mode going into a pitch. They want to win, so they pitch based on two interconnected fears: 1) We have to look smarter than the competition; and 2) The client needs to see how great we are at what we do. I’ve seen great agencies lose an easy win by coming across as too smart. The people who invited you in aren’t devoid of ideas and opinions. No matter what the RFP says, they’re not necessarily looking for you to showcase expertise or tell them what they should do. They are trying to take stock on whether they want to work with you and your team. 

Mistake #2: Sending in the wrong people. Too often, senior leadership is sent in to pitch. This often includes an agency founder or CEO – who either dominates the presentation or is left playing Cheerleader-in-Chief for the agency’s track record of greatness. I recently asked a team why their founder was going to be in the room. Their response: “They’re the founder.” In other words: We don’t know but no one wants to tell them they shouldn’t be there. This creates a football team with people in ill-defined roles talking for no reason. It becomes confusing. Every single person in that room must have a clearly defined role and reason for being there. Treat a pitch like your kick-off meeting with that client – and don’t be afraid to communicate that’s your intention.

Mistake #1: Failing to connect. Every agency needs to ponder this: At what point standing in front of that panel do you establish a true connection with the people in front of you? I just worked on a pitch where everyone (a team of four) did a rapid-fire introductory slideshow of pictures from defining moments in their life. The client later confessed it was that simple, singular moment that tipped it in our favor. They felt they knew what made us us. Connect. Break the wall between you and the judges. This can be demonstrating you understand a unique challenge of the client's department. Maybe it’s not answering every question with a ready answer, but instead asking them why the underlying issue has been problematic in the past. 

Most wins happen in a grey space often difficult to see or articulate. Clients struggle to explain it, but decisions are made by weighing factors outside the details of a media strategy or that slide you slipped in at the last minute.

An ace sharp shooter will tell you the best way to hit your target is to aim at the area just outside it. I call this the “Grey Space of Success” – a zone of business development filled with intangibles agencies often ignore. It’s a melding of personality, tone, self-awareness, style, and psychoanalysis. Your qualifications will get you in the room. But closing the deal is rooted in considering whether standing or sitting sets the best tone (and yes, I’ve been on teams that won because of that very decision).

There is one additional mistake worth mentioning. It’s not embracing every loss as an opportunity. 

The adage about gaining more from your failures than successes is enormously important. I see agencies lose and pour their energy into obsessing over the flaws of the winning team. I once worked at an agency that handled a loss by never discussing or acknowledging it happened. (Tip: Don’t do this.) I’ve also heard from the client side some agencies will dispute a loss or demand explanations. (Tip: Don’t do this either.)

Win or lose, talk to the prospective client after decisions are made. What did you like about our presentation? What could we have done differently? What was the biggest factor in your decision in the end? How do you see us working together going forward? 

People hire people. They rarely hire that "big idea" or your suite of services. No matter what they say, most clients never hire on qualifications, expertise, and experience alone.

Remember that agency I mentioned earlier with the big multi-million dollar pitch? It took a week of long days and nights to research, rebuild, and redesign that presentation. It took five hour-long dry runs before the old way of doing things finally purged itself from their traditional talking points. 

The night before the big day, every member of that team said it was a hard shift in their traditional way of pitching.

They won.