When to Break a Few Rules of the Pitch

By Laurie Coots, Mirren

Each new business pitch is a complex game, complete with strategic and creative challenges as well as the opportunity for an ongoing negotiation. The object is to keep the volley going – to exhaust the potential of each play without creating fatigue or branding your agency annoying and problematic.

While playing this game, I always felt that it was my job to make the field as unlevel as possible. The trick is to learn exactly how to break the rules by offering something better and more in line with the client’s best interest. Granted, there is risk involved, but when you play to win, there always is.

Be Remarkable, Or You’ll Be Invisible

“Congratulations you’ve been selected to make a capabilities presentation.” Your invitation to participate in a pitch usually goes something like this. And it’s followed by the most basic and boring meeting agenda ever imagined. Some agencies believe the objective of this phase is to not to be eliminated. This makes them cling to the rules like a baby’s security blanket.

The object of this stage of the game is actually to move into the lead position. You can do this if you decode the agenda and then choreograph a visit in which you cover the territory in the most disruptive, engaging and memorable way.

Take a page out of the playbook we used during my time as CMO of TBWA\ Worldwide. Use a tour of the agency space to tell the story of a couple of relevant case histories. Introduce key team members and department heads in situ, eliminating the need to fill the conference room with people. Visit environments in which teams are actually collaborating. And then bring them into the perfect room to discuss their business. We usually built out a “war room” of sorts, creating an unplugged version of our interrogation of their business on the walls around the room. The environment stimulated discussion, and they immediately began to ask questions and to share.

In the end, we would get 2 hours or more of engagement, direction and answers that the other agencies didn’t get, and the client left whistling the Sesame Street song, “One of These Things is Not Like The Others.” The takeaway: Don’t talk about differentiation. Be Different.

Cast Your Pitch Team to Win, Not to Check A Box

You’ll always hear that “we would like the team that will run this business to conduct the presentation.” Do you think the client would ever send you a request to meet your most nervous and tenuous presenters? No. Clients don’t mean this in the way that you think. They do actually want to meet the team that will work on their business, but mostly because they don’t trust us to ‘bait and switch’ the team. There are a variety of ways to break this rule. Agree that it’s critical and arrange for the team be interviewed more in-depth. Invite the client to attend a work session about their business with the team. Submit a videography of each member of the team. Or one of my favorites, create a livestream of a working session that the client can eavesdrop on.

The takeaway: They ultimately want to know who will work on their business, but that is not who will sell them on the merits of buying the agency.

Get Access and Answers or be Willing to Walk

“To keep things fair, you will not have access to the decision makers.” Again, the premise of a level playing field is to keep things fair. What one person asks, is shared with all and requests for access are usually denied because, “If we give you access then we will have to give everyone access.” Infiltration is one of the killer apps of winning new business pitches. Sometimes having access to the decision maker is as simple as asking not once but on every possible occasion –two, three or even four times. Sometimes it is a matter of asking a business minded question that is simply above the paygrade of the level-playing-field-caretakers and can only be answered by the senior decision maker.

The key here is that when you get the access you’re seeking, you must add value with new insights, thinking and assets, and this value must be enough to justify the client making an exception for your agency. Always frame a need for access that is grounded in a question or approval that will drive their business or KPIs and be prepared to demonstrate the benefit when you do get access.

The takeaway: Don’t be afraid to ask (and keep asking) if you believe it is key to your work, and be prepared to walk away from the pitch if you don’t get the access you need.

All Rules Aren’t Made to Be Broken

On the other hand, there are some rules that are meant to be adhered to and that I never break:

  • Adhere to the time allowed – enough said.
  • Answer the brief – even if you reject it, reframe it and rewrite it. Make sure that the client knows it has been thoroughly answered and not just scuttled.
  • And my personal rule for any new business pitch – make sure the client feels better about their brand after meeting your team than when they arrived.

Strategically breaking a few rules of the pitch with killer content, high energy, and brilliant, well-rehearsed pitch theater will differentiate your agency and help you connect personally with the human being hidden inside the client — which in the end, is who you really want to work for.