It's Time To Defy Convention

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How many days have you sat around, stomach twisted, waiting to hear if you had won a new piece of business that you pitched for?

It’s a terrible feeling and the only thing that can alleviate it is getting the proverbial thumb’s up from the prospective client. The sad truth is that it doesn’t always work out in your favor. “You win some, you lose some,” is the common lament you’ll overhear business development professionals bellowing at the bar, while they nurse an extra dry martini. Pitching, selling and winning more business is one of the most complex pieces of the business puzzle. Why is it that some businesses seem to win every pitch, while others duke it out to only win some scraps and leftovers?

The issue of winning new business is the heart and soul of the marketing, advertising and communications industry.

As an agency owner, we duke it out weekly with our competitors for the opportunity to work with a brand and handle all of their digital marketing initiatives. It is, ultimately, a creative product that we deliver and this complicates the business development process because – as with anything creative – the reason we frequently win business (and sometimes lose) is very subjective. One client will think our pitch cleared the clouds and made cherry blossoms bloom; while another will think that we lack the basic skills necessarily to deliver on their business. No one knows these sides of the business better that Peter Coughter. For over twenty years, Coughter was President of Siddall, Matus & Coughter Inc., one of the most respected advertising and communications agencies in the Southeast. His agency won industry awards and recognition from places like the American Marketing Association, One Show, Clios, Communications Arts, and many others. Today, he is a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Brandcenter, and to support his teaching habit, he spends a lot of time on the road working with organizations – from all walks of life – helping them to learn how to sell their ideas better. Most recently, he released his first business book, The Art of the Pitch – Persuasion and Presentation Skills That Win Business (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). In The Art of the Pitch, Coughter deconstructs some of the most commonly held beliefs about how business is won, and what the book uncovers is both enlightening, entertaining and full of lessons no business leader should be without.

It’s not uncommon in the advertising world to hear an agency complain that the client killed their idea.

Coughter takes this perspective and turns it on its head in his book. It’s not that great ideas got killed by the client… it’s that agencies killed their own great ideas by not presenting them well. “People pitching ideas think they’re doing it in a way that the client wants to see it. It’s simply not true,” said Coughter via Skype last week. “The truth of the matter is that you have to have the guts to do it the right way… which is the way that you really and truly believe that the idea must be delivered. After five minutes of watching some of my client first present to me, I often stop them and ask if they would have enjoyed sitting through what just happened? They invariably say, ‘no.’ What we have to do is understand that the clients don’t really know our business. They make the shoes, we make the ads. So, let’s help them sell shoes by making terrific ads. We need to sell the idea of it before we sell whatever it is that we’re selling. I call it framing. We need to frame the conversation so that we eliminate all of the possible solutions, until the only solution possible is ours. When a business learns how to do this, they will markedly increase their win rate.”

Conventional wisdom will garner conventional results.

This is the bane of most business presentations and the presenters who give them. They don’t treat the pitch as a unique moment in time to make the potential client give pause. Pushing it further, they rarely take that opportunity to help the prospect fall back in love with the business that they’re in. “What I suggest is that we defy convention and try to create the exceptional,” continues Coughter. “The reason we are in the room is to win the business. We’re not there to sell a campaign or have people from within our organization demonstrate how intelligent they are. We observe convention and plug people into holes to fill the room and look big. There was one instance, early in my career, where we defied convention. We decided that I, alone, would present to the client. That’s what we did. I did an hour and a half alone with just some videos and creative to show. I left the stage after my pitch, looked out into the seats and saw that people were crying. When you can make them cry, you win,” he laughs.

The challenge is that most presentations make people cry, but for an entirely different reason (hint: boredom).

We all pitch business. We all want to win more business. Take a moment and think about your business.

Is your pitch pandering to convention or have you truly turned it into an art form and a sight to behold?

The above post is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business – Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:


  1. Mitch, my stomach has literally been in knots since Friday morning waiting to hear from a potential client…it’s definitely time to get unconventional…life is too short. cheers.

  2. The thing you keep alluding to but don’t directly say is that business is one when someone makes an emotional connection with the other party. No one buys on price, featuires or benefit. Rather, they buy based on whatever their #1 emotional driver is. The timing of this is funny – my last two posts have been about Patrick Lencioni’s “Getting Naked” which is a great read and primer for building lasting business relationships.

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