What it Really takes to Win the Pitch

The Basics

For agencies that need the “Basics”, create a simple-to-follow “New Business Architecture” game book.
All successful teams have them.

Then assign a person to ensure that this game book gets executed – team manager or product/traffic manager.

Their job is not the content, although they can certainly contribute. Their job is to make sure everything on a new business opportunity gets done in an efficient, timely and cost-effective manner.

Action: Ensure you get all people to do what they are supposed to do, when they are supposed to do it, and that all materials that are needed are developed and provided to the team.

Common Enemies – Form & Function

When Form & Function rule in new business, you lose sight of the real stuff of selling and persuasion.

For decades, agencies have successfully won business without having scripts or the right preliminary set-up or following a strict time frame or even rehearsing correctly.

That’s not to say that these things are not helpful – they are.

About as helpful as making sure you have a saddle on a horse before you ride. Doesn’t mean you have to have a saddle to ride though.

However Innovation will always trump form and function in the selling game.

Therefore we start with:

  •  “What will it take to win this business?” Then…
  •  “How do we convince them that we are the right agency versus all their other options?” And finally…
  •  “What do we need to know about their business, issues, needs, wants, marketing communications, competition landscape, branding architecture, marketing and business strategies that will help us become their marketing communications solution?”

Now you have raised the bar to a level where winning the business becomes highly achievable.

Now the team has direction. Now you can do what the agency does best.

Solve marketing problems and capitalize on unfulfilled opportunities, instead of wondering how long the presentation should be, if you have the right credentials or if the room’s walls are high enough to accommodate the boards.

Again, these are important only if they do not reduce the effectiveness of the team’s innovations.

 Action: Come up with the ideas that will accomplish the client’s goals then worry about the rest of the form and function activities.

Innovation’s true place in persuasion

There is nothing like working with a crack team of solution mongers dying to get their claws into a client’s business and come up with innovative solutions to solve the world’s woes.

We all know this is exactly what it feels like when we get it right.

But! Credentials you say – “Heck, without them we wouldn’t be who we are today!”


So you were founded in 1986, have 50 employees with 3 offices, bill $50 million and have a really blue chip client roster. Impressive!

However, ask this question: Is it more about what the agency is proud of – or – what the potential client is interested in, that sells them.

What about sending that information ahead, in hard copy, CD, links to FTP sites, e-mail, placing it on UTube, on Blogs or even on social sites like business Facebook, using their calendar to layout the agency’s history from its inception.

This way your focus is on getting on with solving the prospect’s problems and not on what makes you who you are.

And just in case they don’t read it, find places in the presentation to sprinkle in these facts, making sure that when you do, each is positioned as a benefit and of value to the prospective client.

 Action: Sprinkle credentials throughout a presentation as “evidence” your ideas have a solid foundation and that you can deliver upon them.

The essence of selling – having the right bait.

Selling is not about function or form. They are tactical elements of a well-rounded sales effort.

True, selling is about knowing what ails the prospect, rolling up one’s sleeves and coming up with innovative solutions that make the prospect think: “Where have these people been all my life?”

But then it’s about making these solutions come alive before, during and after the final presentation – over the net, by illustration, by physical examples, by showing real life occasions of your ideas in play, by immersing the prospect into the ideas (physically and mentally).

Then, while they are reeling with pleasure, wondering why they stayed with the incumbent for so long, slide in impressive facts and figures (these are your credentials) that bolster a prospect’s confidence in your ability to deliver upon these promised solutions.

Think of buying a car.

You know that if you go to a Ford or Chrysler dealership, you are going to get something that has 4 wheels, engine, a 36-month, 40,000 mile warranty.

The last thing you need is the salesman pointing out these facts. Heck you wouldn’t be there if they didn’t have these things to begin with.

You then examine the vehicle by research and test drive to see if it actually fulfills what you are looking for and if it gives you that something beyond what you were expecting, the bonus lucky strike extras that “wows” you, this vehicle moves to your top picks.

While doing this, you are constantly comparing your options.

If the salesman is smart, and sees you are an entrepreneurial speed freak on a budget he says:

 “This 6 cylinder has as much acceleration as the V8, yet gets an additional 10 mpg. At $3.50 a gallon @ 20 gallons a week over 52 weeks you just saved about $1,200 a year. That’s about $100 a month, which pays almost  1/3 of your monthly lease payments, which are, as an independent, fully tax deductible in the first year.”

Now, what about the prospective client.

What prospect goes to an agency not knowing they are going to an agency?

There are basic core competencies that are just plain “price of entry expected’s”.

The more time you spend on selling these, the more leery becomes the prospect of the agency’s ability to actually deliver these expected’s.

As with all buying scenarios, the prospect examines the agency, constantly comparing notes with others on their team and evaluating you against your peers (including the incumbent) thinking to themselves: (if you are doing your job selling)

It’s obvious they have smart people – listen to those great ideas,

They obviously know something about my business – how could they come up with such smart ideas if they didn’t,

Wonder if they have sufficient production capabilities to deliver these ideas to all our franchises nationwide?

Then they pop their first question:

 “Do you folks have a national capability in terms of a field force to deliver these ideas to our 6 regions?”

And so the dance continues!

But you have them on the “solutions hook”.

If you want parity, follow form and function.

Everyone and their Uncle’s in love with this approach.

Unfortunately but typically, the more the agency team talks about their history, their strengths and their experiences, the more comfortable the agency team members become.

Who likes talking about others anyway – it’s far more interesting to talk about oneself. This is a subject you know a lot about and can talk about with absolute confidence.

It’s easy. You slap together a standard power-point, agency reel and DVD, throwing up all your great credentials in the hope that something you say will sufficiently impress the prospect into either hiring you or moving you ahead to the assignment/spec stage.

It takes almost no preparation since it’s an off-the-shelf canned approach that allows the agency to volume pitch, with the occasional “formulaic tweak” to give the appearance of a customized response to the RFP, RFI or pitch.

However prospects are no fools. All they need to see are three of these to immediately recognize that, closing his eyes and listening carefully, all agencies are basically saying the same thing, just the names, dates and places are different.

 Action: Always talk Issues and Solutions before agency credentials, customized to the prospect.

 The real answers

Be radically Innovative. Do not follow convention. It is a loser’s game.

With an average closure rate in the agency business (according to the AAAA) hovering at about 33%, it’s no wonder many consider their involvement in new business as a “necessary evil”.

Contrary to popular belief, winning can be one of the greatest highs of all times, a feeling that does not need to be experienced only one out of every 3 – 5 times.

Do what any salesperson will tell you.

First provide the bait – Solutions (Ideas). This gets them onto the dance floor.

Then worry about the functions – do we have it well structured, planned, casted right, politicized well, competitively appealing, etc. This is the strategic positioning.

Then worry about the form – is it well choreographed, visualized, timed, etc. This is the product management or pitch architecture as some like to call it.

Think:  70 – 20 – 10

70% solving their issues

20% putting it all together – function

10% getting it packaged and ready for delivery – form

So if you are going to err in something err in reverse order.

Err first in form, then in function but never in Solutions (Ideas).

This is why they come. This is why they stay.

This too is why they leave – when the agency doesn’t have them.

 What about chemistry?

Of course chemistry plays a major part but you will be amazed at how many corporate clients have privately admitted that they really thought their agency counterparts were; “Some of the most egotistical, arrogant, self-centered geniuses I have ever met. And thank God for that!”

Yet there are those new business “experts” who will consistently support the proposition that it’s All About Chemistry.

It’s also the easiest thing to sell an agency and sound like you are knowledgeable – who in their right mind would disagree that chemistry is critical to winning business?

I contend that it’s a component of winning but not the be all and end all.

The true answer to building great chemistry is to first give the client what they are expecting from the agency and then some.

Great ideas that solve their marketing problems, beyond their expectations. This will make people love you.

Remember the old adage:

 “People do not care about how much you know until they know how much you care”

Then worry about the schmoozing and boozing. That’s the icing on the cake.

Don’t make the mistake and think the icing is the cake – the innovative solutions are.

Clients find nothing more disturbing and wasteful of their time than a really nice fellow who has nothing between his ears.

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4 Powerful ways to Differentiate an Agency

This Blog addresses the age old question asked by agencies worldwide:

“How do we differentiate ourselves from our competition?”

The answer lies in 4 areas in which to immediately focus the agency’s attention and resources.

Decide which will be most appealing to your specific prospective buyer and then do your homework.

Here are the 4 areas to investigate:

1. Direct competitors’ products and services;
2. Indirect competitors’ products and services;
3. The Consumer;
4. The Media being used.

This is how you ensure your agency brings Value Added Ideas to a prospective client.

The Direct Competitor

If you are Dell, then it’s LG or Apple. If you are Target, then it’s Wal-Mart and K-Mart.

“What competitive behavior or situation can we help the prospective client take advantage of?”

Example 1:

Before the advent of Starbucks, who owned 6:00 a.m. – 8:00 a.m. in a 24 hour period?


Who owned 8:01 a.m. – 5:59 p.m.?

No One.

Knowing this, Starbucks set about doing so.

Example 2:

In the early ‘80’s who owned the space between Ford, Chrysler & GM and the premium auto manufacturers – BMW, Mercedes, Jag?

No One.

Along came Lexus and Infiniti “the affordable luxury” which in the crash of ’87 was a blessing for both, especially for Lexus who rolled out in ’89.

Even today, look at Kia Optima or Hyundai Sonata, a fully-equipped mid ranged vehicle for $20,000. Who’s smiling all the way to the bank?

So look closely at the prospect’s direct competitive landscape. Find out where they could be leveraging themselves or how they can take advantage of another’s weakness or lack of distribution and the like.

Is it possible to find a direct competitive opportunity for all companies?

Unlikely, however, with companies being so close to their own business and limited by their own tunnel vision, you’d be surprised how many times what is obvious to you is downright amazing to them.

The Indirect Competitor

This is the least likely to be investigated when trying to learn a client’s business.
However, this is one of the most fruitful areas to investigate for an agency looking to differentiate itself from competitors.

Example 1:

Scott’s Lawn Care is about making lawns look beautiful. The weather (indirect competitor) plays havoc on people’s decisions as to when to buy and apply the product.

How can you help them with this dilemma?

Example 2:

iPod’s direct competitor is HP. However, you don’t see Apple’s iPod positioning itself against HP.

What does iPod focus on? Style, cool, white, scarce. Each of these is a tangential, intangible and hidden competitor that HP never looked in on.

They (HP) went on price and storage.

Yet who rules the portable music storage waves?

Example 3:

Possibly one of the most remarkable cases of addressing indirect competition came from the Spritzer category.

Wine was boring, beer fattening and blue collar, and hard liquor was just “out”.

The hidden competitor?

Social stigma – hello Spritzer.

Look at the Food Network – part of the recipe’s world. “Fragrant Rose Wine Spritzer – by Rachael Ray.”

Look for the not obvious, hidden, unfrequented or just plain “out there” competitor that would give your prospective client a possible competitive advantage.

The Consumer

As with most analysis of a prospective client’s customer, we’re after key insights (motivations) that if addressed would produce a positive response to our communication.

Focus groups, 1-1 interviews, mall intercepts certainly have a role, however, I’d not be wasting my money on them.

Think about it. As so eloquently pointed out about focus groups by Rick Stone, partner at Lindsay, Stone & Briggs, their strategic and branding “guru”, “people say what they believe you want to hear”.

Example 1:

The Wonderful iPod:

♦ 6 megabytes of memory

♦ 1000+ songs

♦ 6 hours on 1 battery

But who cares?

Maybe those who regard music as sacred as the sacraments.

But, for the average Joe and Jane, will it make me look like I’m “current”, “hip”, “part of the in crowd”?

Example 2:

McKinney, the agency who led Audi to a dramatic rebound through the 90’s and onwards, had a remarkable planner.

In his quest for finding the “real” motivation behind the purchase of premium vehicles, instead of using focus groups, he commissioned friends from around the nation to take pictures of “vanity plates” on Mercedes, Jags, BMWs, Audis, and the like.

Eureka. Albeit the words were different, it was very clear that BMW was about “performance, speed and edge”, Mercedes about “status, societal judgement and privilege”, whereas Audi was about “individuality, exploration and independence”.

Now think of a focus group of Mercedes’ owners being asked “what adjectives come to mind when you think of owning a Mercedes?”

“Privilege. Better than You? – Questionable at best.

Instead, German engineering! And there they threw their hat in the ring.

Just look at when the joint business of Daimler Chrysler introduced the 300C – 347 hp, well equipped, GPS and a slew of other amenities sedan.

Status? Unlikely, not against the likes of Porsche, BMW 7 Series, Rolls Royce. This is a $39,000 list priced automobile. Since when is status so cheap?

Yet, the salesman kept promoting; “Lots of Mercedes inside”.

Price it at $60,000, say the same thing, and you may get converts.

So look for the “real” motivations, not the cleaned up versions and you’ll have the key to stimulating consumer action and a very interested prospect.

The Media Used

One of the most telling things about a competitor’s advertising is the media they choose to communicate their sales messages.

And again, look for what they or the competition are missing.


A Media Director, David X (you’ll know who you are) who has spent years with big shops like DDB, working on accounts like Busch and having to sell to the irascible August Busch himself.

Recently his agency pitched a Blind manufacturer. Their largest competitor, Hunter Douglas, owns 80%+ of the market. TV, the principal medium used by the competing agency, was flat out not working. Why?

The key target (woman 25-55) only watched TV between 6:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. prime time. (that’s what the other agency bought) and 7:00 a.m. – 9:00 a.m. early morning (also bought).

However, no one at the competing agency dug into the real “Mary” (coined name for this customer) recognizing that she was watching very specific early morning and prime time programs, based on one motivation – “staying current”.

Therefore, it wasn’t the early news, it was Katie in the Morning. It wasn’t E.R., it was Oxygen.

Hand in hand with the media goes fully understanding the motivations behind the viewing habits of the consumer one is reaching, not just the day parts.

Also, look at placing a client where others won’t like Target’s agency – billboards outside of Wal-Mart; BET (instead of Vogue), TV Land instead of USA, Tech TV instead of Discovery Channel. All did wonders for Target’s traffic even though they did not initially line up with standard GRP criteria.

Also look at CPLs (cost per lead). In the case of TV Land the CPL is 30. Home & Garden is 100. This is what marketers want. Reduced CPL while ensuring efficiency and you have it made, for a while at least.

Final Commentary

The new model to marketing is not how much you can spend, it’s how strategically you spend it.

The big boys like Wal-mart, J&J, Ford are starting to realize this and are challenging their agencies to raise the “strategic” bar.

An agency’s real opportunity lies in thinking like the client, living a client’s life and demonstrating a keen understanding of what plagues and stimulates clients.

And possibly the best truism in the business of marketing is, “you’re only as good as your last performance”.

If the incumbent fails to live this lesson, opportunity knocks for all who bother to do so.

A true competitive advantage can be achieved by any agency taking a close look at how contemporary the incumbent’s thinking is in terms of the direct and indirect competition, the consumer, and their media choices.

And knowing a company’s real customer’s motivations will allow you to literally rip apart a competitor’s media plan – unless of course, they’ve also read this. Then, it’s two Olympians going head to head and may the best win.

Toni Louw
Louws – CEO & Founder

About the author:

Over the past 34 years, Toni Louw has trained, coached and consulted with over 480 Brand advertising, promotion, direct marketing, digital, interactive, social, media and public relations agencies worldwide. This has also included over 50 of the top 150 brands internationally.

Toni has recently re-constructed and updated, for 21st Century business application, 18 different business critical subjects that has made Louws one of the most ubiquitous leader of innovative performance based training, coaching and consulting services worldwide.

Click on the link provided: Agency New Business Acquisition© for more information on New Business Acquisition Consulting, Training and Coaching.

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