Finding The Perfect Pitch

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Pitching new business is never easy.

I was deeply moved by the book, The Art Of The Pitch, by Peter Coughter (you can hear my conversation with Coughter over here: SPOS #296 – The Art Of The Pitch With Peter Coughter). While I have been pitching new business in the marketing and communications space for nearly two decades, it’s always surprisingly when you win the business and when you lose the business. After years of building teams and pitching new business, you come to realize how subjective and arbitrary the process is. In short, it’s not a science. It comes down to ideas, relationships, chemistry, how everything is presented and a host of other hard-to-define feelings and intuitions. With that, the marketing industry has changed as the corporate world has evolved. Now, it’s increasingly more common to have both search consultants and procurement as a part of the process. It can be a good thing and it can be a bad thing. That all being said, there are certain things that could make the request for proposal or request for information process that much more streamlined and fair from both the agency and client side. While the 4A has their own pitching guideline (which you can see here: Best Practice Guidance: Ownership of Agency Ideas, Plans and Work Developed During the New Business Process), here are some of my own thoughts…

How to get the right fit from a perfect pitch: 

  1. Create realistic timelines. If you’re asking an agency partner to deliver an entire marketing platform to present in one week’s time, have an expectation that you’re going to get only a few days of work and not something that would normally take four to six weeks to complete. If you’re in a rush to choose an agency, offer up a smaller proposal so that the agency can truly demonstrate what they’re capable of within the time you are allotting.
  2. Define the deliverables. It’s shocking to see how many brands don’t explain (using explicit words) what they would like delivered as the net output of the first stage. Is it a presentation, a document, a meet and greet, etc…?
  3. Give the true budget. The budget isn’t just about how much money the agency stands to gain should they win the business. The budget is also very indicative of the client’s level of experience. It sends a message that you understand what the work is and what the value is. On top of that, budget is also an indicator of fit. Not all agencies are created equally. Some work better on smaller budgets while others are scaled for more significant dollars.
  4. Box in your weight class. I’ve seen small shops attempt to work with massive agencies and I’ve seen massive brands attempt to work with boutique agencies. A lot of these relationships work because it’s not about size… it’s about the weight class. You have to make sure that the agencies you’re looking to work with can compete with you (and your competitors) at the levels that you expect. Yes, size can be a factor here, but it can be overcome by experience, knowledge of the industry and more. Lastly, if you’re a smaller brand looking to grow, ensure that you have the resources within your company to not only manage this bigger relationship but that you have the time, energy and finances to work with an agency partner that has, traditionally, worked with bigger clients. Sometimes the brand has to fight to fit the agency (and not the other way around).
  5. Inform everyone of the competition. I’ve heard brands tell me that there are fifteen agencies pitching for the business and that they are not saying who those agencies are. There is no value in hiding this information. In fact, the brand will get a better response from each agency if there is full disclosure of the competition. Why? Agencies are hyper-competitive and so is the pitching process. The advantage to the brand is that they’ll now see not only what the agency knows about their business, but how to beat the other agencies – which is what you really want. Nike and can say that they want to beat Converse in the marketplace, but what’s really happening is that the agencies are trying outwit one another.
  6. Bail if there are too many agencies. There is no reason for any brand to request that fifteen agencies take part in a RFP process. Brands should meet as many agencies as they like and then choose a small few to compete for the business. It’s a waste of time and resources on both the brand and agency side to do anything else.
  7. Clear scoring. While pitching is always a subjective process, it should be clear to all parties what the score card will be: everything from weight of the response to when agencies will be notified of outcomes.
  8. Don’t share all of the information. Almost all formal RFP processes have a Q&A session where agencies can submit questions and the brand responds. To keep things "fair" all questions and answers are shared with all competing agencies. I don’t like this. If one agency asks a very smart question, because the other agencies didn’t think of it, they should be rewarded with having that tidbit of information. The RFP process is about finding the smartest partner. This process of sharing everything makes no sense.
  9. Ownership of ideas. Most RFPs are filled with legal jargon. A more common practice is for all brands to retain the intellectual and creative property of anything shown in the pitch. This is not only a stupid practice, but it’s unfair. I understand the legal reasons (what if the brand chooses another agency partner and a similar idea goes to market, could the agency that didn’t win the business not sue?), but it’s not ethically sound. An agency is their ideas. Ideas live and ideas die. If one client doesn’t like an idea, it should be the agency’s prerogative to hold on to that idea, tweak it and try to sell it to a client that may want it. From the agency’s perspective, there is a feeling that brands use the RFP process to see a lot of creative and strategic work for free, so while they only chose one agency, they have a handful of agency ideas and thinking. Brands should not have a right to own that. If they want to own the ideas, they should either pay for them or hire the agency.
  10. Commit to the process. If you’re looking to hire an agency commit to the process. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in pitches and had members of the brand team not show up, cancel, have some people there (while others went missing), not pay attention because they’re busy on their smartphones, start having discussions amongst themselves while someone is presenting, etc…. Most agencies put everything they have into the pitch (and they’re doing it on their own dime). The least the brand can do it commit to it and be respectful of it. Sure, some agencies blow the pitch (it happens), but more often than not, I see brands behaving badly in the process.
  11. Pricing. Prior to the formal pitch and being chosen as one of the three agencies that make it down to the finals, there is usually a quick RFI phase where the brand can better understand the agency. This includes, history, client work, size, revenue and pricing models. While pricing can be negotiated, the pricing structure should be defined in the primary phase of the RFI, I’ve heard of agencies walking away from a pitch win because suddenly the compensation became an issue when the brand had already known their pricing structure on the up front.
  12. Moving forward. Before moving forward and signing contracts, there should be two tissue sessions – one at the brand’s location and one at the agency’s office. Sit down, meet the people and truly spend time talking about the business – outside of the RFP process. This will give everyone a much better feel for the people, the thinking and what it will be like to work together going forward.

What do you think it takes to find the perfect pitch?


  1. I will be very interested to see how those in your industry respond to this post Mitch if it is directed at them at all. Many of your numbered points are issues every salesperson runs in to on a daily basis. I do understand that you have way less at bats than I do ( I am in retail) and this makes each strikeout much more painful.

  2. Nice one Mitch. Can I add one more point? Take the time to write a good RFP that is relevant to the task. We’ve seen RFPs that seem to be done by procurement depts. Change a few words and you’d swear they were looking for quotes on trucks. One little thing…. in point 5. Nike owns Converse, so they won’t be going hard at each other. Maybe Nike vs Puma.

  3. Great post. This is an issue I’ve been racking my brain over since I started doing freelance marketing. Completing a fully detailed, well researched and professionally written RFP and getting zero response can be rather discouraging.

  4. Mitch,
    How come you always manage to come up with something that is perfectly in line with what I have to deal with in the moment? This is not timing, it’s collective mind reading ;-). Looking forward to read your new book.

  5. Hmm, I guess I really am a buffoon for not knowing about your blog. At least that’s what I told Gini over at Spin Sucks! I’ve caught up with your last few posts and regret not reading this before, Mitch.
    You’re absolutely right about the process not being a science. That’s why, sometimes, I tell people I’m an artist or a story teller when they ask what I do. It sounds so much better than saying I’m in sales.

  6. Mitch, I think that there is mis-information on both sides of the client and agency divide when it comes to pitching. Mostly it involves poorly thought-through processes rather than out-and-out malicious intent.
    The client brand’s perspective is also worth a consideration, I’m guessing some of your readers must be client-side!
    And I’d love to be in a “tissue” session – sounds like mutual teary-eyed weeping in a Japanese movie!

  7. #8 – There may be times when working with a governmental agency that all communications will have to be shared (i.e. – gov’t in the sunshine), so there may be valid reasons for this type of sharing. However, in the private sector,your point is well taken

  8. I wish more agencies really gave the TRUE budget when pitching a project. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen. And the end result is that the agency can’t afford to hire new people and the people creating are overworked. Glad you put this out there and hope to see a change in this area.

  9. Magnificent site. A lot of useful information here.
    I’m sending it to several pals ans also sharing in delicious.
    And certainly, thank you to your effort!

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