Anatomy Of An Advertising Agency Pitch: Part Two
This is the second part of my interview with Tony Mikes, Founder of the Second Wind Network. It is his first-person perspective on how advertising agencies performed in an pitch for the National Aquarium in Baltimore. It is enlightening and instructive… to say the least.
The interview first appeared in my book, “The Levitan Pitch. Buy This Book. Win More Pitches.”
The interview is over three thousand words so I broke it into two parts. I urge you to read both – part one is here. At the end of the interview, I will give you my impressions on the lessons that every agency can learn from Tony’s experience and insights.
The Anatomy Of An Advertising Pitch Interview
PL: So to be clear, of the six agencies, how many wanted to know who from the client would be in the room?
Tony: Nobody else.
PL: That’s… crazy.
Tony: Yeah, I mean, I think that that’s a sin, maybe not mortal, but that’s certainly a sin. But nobody asked.
PL: Well that’s incredibly surprising considering the importance of making interpersonal connections. What else did the smart agency do that stood out?
Tony: There was a pitch leader, and he occupied the podium. The other three presenters sat on director’s chairs. The leader moderated the whole session. So anything that needed to be stopped or moved or changed or accelerated or decelerated – the leader had control. The leader read the room and controlled the flow.
PL: Did you have a sense that they were well rehearsed?
Tony: Yes. They certainly had rehearsed a lot. They started with a bang – without introductions. Dark room. Killer video. Which ended in a… here we are.
The video lasted about a couple minutes. It was really great.
PL: Was the video about them or about the client?
Tony: No, no. It was about something the Aquarium had said to every agency but not every agency picked up.
“We are not heavily funded by the United States government. We depend upon donations, mostly on admissions. Having said that, we’re not an attraction. We are very mission-driven. And the mission is sustainability of ocean life.”
So this agency started with a sustainability of ocean life video. It was a home run right at the beginning. You could see the Aquarium director get up and just fidget around in his chair a little bit because an agency finally had stopped talking about themselves first. The video talked about the Aquarium’s mission and the vision, which was more about sustainability than being an attraction.
When that video ended, I believed they had won.
They had done their homework, they had listened carefully to what the client had to say, and they had brought that back to the agency and finessed it in a way that only smart agencies can do.
Other than that video, they did not use PowerPoint. The agency director believed that PowerPoint is too linear and not personal enough. Everything they did was on boards, and the boards were passed around. So consequently, when they were passing the boards around, they were in the middle of everybody because they had reset the room to schoolroom style. They could go past us, could touch us on the sleeve, could joke with us just a bit, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Cool idea.
PL: What kind of boards did they use?
Tony: Typical size. They must’ve been 22” by 28”.
PL: It sounds like they made the pitch an intimate experience.
Tony: It was intimate, yes. Very quickly intimate, because they had begun to circulate.
The key point is to try to set the room up the way you want, and set it up for intimacy – so that you can roam around. Also, you know there’s certainly nothing wrong with the intimacy of boards.
PL: Did all the other agencies present using some form of PowerPoint?
Tony: Yes. Now some did have some boards that were passed around, but by and large, every other presentation was largely, profoundly, PowerPoint driven.
PL: And did the other agencies use video in any way? Customized video?
Tony: They did use customized video. Although, it was more of a “here’s us” than a “here’s your sustainability thing”. The agency videos were “here’s who we are.”
PL: So let me get this straight: some of the agencies showed you a video of themselves. Of what? Here’s our agency furniture?
Tony: Yeah. And the fact that we have a cool lobby, and we serve beer at 4 o’clock on Fridays. Fuck that, everybody does that. Excuse my French.
PL: It sounds to me like this agency made a three-part sandwich. Intimacy plus insights plus chemistry. Am I nailing that?
Tony: Well I would add surprise onto that. The dark room and the sustainability video were a surprise. We did not expect it.
PL: So they figured out the passion inherent in the client’s mission.
Tony: They did. This agency hit my big three rules: these guys know what they’re talking about, and I believe they can help us, and I like ‘em. And wow look what they just did.
PL: Was it clear to the group that there was a winner?
PL: Do you think that agency knew that they had won it when they walked out of the room?
Tony: I don’t know if they knew. But we knew. The committee knew. I now believe that in most pitches the winner is known as soon as the last presenter presents. You know it. In other words, we didn’t have to go around and add all these crazy scorecards. We looked at each other and said “well, gosh, does everybody kinda feel the way I feel?” We followed the process, but we all knew the outcome. We still used the scorecards but it was more about keeping to our agreed process.
PL: Do you think an agency’s position in the rotation mattered? Is it better to be first or last?
Tony: I don’t know that, and that’s the question a lot of people ask. All I can say is I’d rather not be in the middle.
PL: So it’s like the middle child complex.
Tony: Yeah it’s the middle child complex. First you get a chance to really knock ‘em off their feet, and then people have to kinda live up to you at that point. But last agency gets the chance to close strong. However, they risk that the client is tired as hell because they’ve just gone through two days of presentations. That’s three agencies a day. And so they’re really, really tired. But last still outweighs being in the middle.
PL: And how long before the presentation did the agency know what position they were in?
Tony: They knew it when we formally wrote them and told them when the presentations would take place.
PL: Knowing that, a savvy agency would be saying to themselves: okay, this client is going to be tired, they’ve just heard a whole bunch of agencies say the same thing over and over again, we better lead with a good right hook.
Tony: Yeah, I think that’s exactly it.
PL: I have to admit I’m surprised that agencies are always making the kinds of mistakes that you would think a grown-up marketing communications company would not make. That’s very hard to understand.
Tony: I never cease to be amazed at what agencies stumble on. Not just in the business of pitching. But in everyday agency life. But, that’s another story. There were some other things that worked: after this great opening and because of the room, the agency kept their team involved. Also, they stated the marketing problem and solved it. That’s a practical piece of advice – solve the problem. Actually say that you’ve solved it.
PL: So let me understand. When the agency showed their thinking, it was their best strategic guess at how they were going to help the client.
Tony: Yeah, they guessed. I think a lot of agencies would be shy to say “well this is just speculation”, but listen, the whole damn thing is speculation. So you might as well spec the results.
PL: Got it.
Tony: Another thing that came up was that since this was a media account, the winner was very adamant about showing their media capabilities: the number of markets they were in, the capabilities they had with software, the backgrounds of their media staff, even though there was no media person on site with them. And I didn’t know why. They did tell me after the fact that their media director was just an intellectual guru and not a great presenter.
PL: Well, I always recommend that agencies don’t bring poor presenters.
Tony: That’s right. Don’t bring poor presenters. And I think it’s fantastic that the agency was upfront about their media director and said she’s brilliant. What a brain. A brainiac. But she’s a nerd and doesn’t do well in front of people, in a presentation. But you’ll love working with her.
Get this, she wrote the client a personal note that was read in the meeting.
PL: Smart. I’ve never heard of this one.
Tony: They closed strong by asking for the business, which goes back all the way to a classic sales technique – ask for the order.
To recap: they had a positive attitude, they got into their ideas rather quickly, they made the experience interactive, they listened and looked for buying signs, and they knew who we were before they got into the room. Sounds basic, right? But, it clearly isn’t.
PL: I mean, you know that you don’t have to do everything that the sales gurus tell you. But asking for the order is a very good move.
Tony: Yes. Asking for the order is a good thing.
PL: A great move. And how did the agencies follow up after presentations?
Tony: Several didn’t say a word. Others were very pesky. But the Aquarium director was very good at writing emails that assured the agencies that the process was moving forward. We did not solicit any more topics from them after the presentations.
PL: Did every agency have a leave behind?
Tony: No. Not even the winning agency.
PL: Did anyone do a particularly good job to close the experience?
Tony: Well, there were some stupid things. One agency asked us at the end to get together with them and put together a puzzle that they had made, that eventually said “well, give us the business.”
PL: They sent that after the meeting?
Tony: No, no they actually invited people to put it together with them right there in the room. I didn’t think it was a bad approach. I just thought it was too cute.
PL: Would a leave behind have helped any of the agencies score more points? Like they say in the play, Glengarry Glen Ross… “Always be selling.”
Tony: Probably. But it should really be in the form of something that is memorable. Not just “Here’s the brochure of our presentation.”
Four of the six directed people to a landing page that they had built for questions and further investigations, which I thought was a good idea.
PL: We are at the end and this has been enlightening. A final, final question: what was the biggest mistake an agency made.
Tony: One agency did nothing but show their previous work. That’s all they did.
PL: So the ultimate sin, the cardinal sin, is to talk about yourself and not the client. And one of your finalists actually did that?
Tony: Yes, and with good reason. Because, they had premium work. The work was so funny, so much on target, so nicely done, that the agency leader said, “we don’t have anything to show you but what we’ve done for other folks.”
And that was the strategy. Unfortunately, it didn’t work, and they lost the pitch during their presentation. We needed more than faith to go on.
Advertising Agency Pitch Lessons Learned
As I mentioned in Part One, there are good and bad things that happened in the Baltimore pitch room. These ‘happenings’ are instructive lessons for all of us. If you read my book, you know that even the largest, brightest ad agencies make some serious pitch mistakes. I did at Saatchi & Saatchi.
1. RFP Management: Five of the twenty agency RFP responses were poor (20%!). “But the other 5 just threw stuff together like it was printed off of the printer; no binding, paper clips at the top – they were pretty easy to spot, and they were really easy to turn away.”
Lesson: Learn how to respond to an RFP. Answer all the questions, use this time to look sharp and strategic, act a bit hungry and use your design chops. I’ve seen RFP responses from dozens of agencies. Believe me, there is a wide spread fro the good to the ugly.
2. Ask Questions: The agencies were given the chance to ask questions between selected for the short-list and the final presentation. Only four of the six reached out.
Lesson: Use this very important opportunity to look very interested and passionate and smart. It is a major opportunity to begin to build all-important agency to client chemistry.
3. Pre-Pitch Prep: The winning agency managed the pitch room. “They stage-managed and asked us if they could come in the night before to change the setup to be in schoolroom style rather than conference style. We all felt obligated to oblige. So the tables had already been reset by them the night before the presentation so they could make their way through the room.”
Lesson: Take charge and look like a leader. I have a great story in the book on how Goodby Silverstein used some very serious stage management to totally outwit the other agencies to win the Sega account.
4. Know Who Will Be In The Room: According to Tony, only one agency (yes, one!) asked who would be in the room from the client side. “They had asked specifically who would attend, and they had asked all the proper questions about the computer connections and projectors. They were absolutely ready for the dance. My incredulous take: PL: So to be clear, of the six agencies, how many wanted to know who from the client would be in the room? Tony: Nobody else.”
Lesson: Dive into understanding who you are pitching to. Dig deep and develop personas for each client team member.
5. Rehearse: “PL: Did you have a sense that they were well rehearsed? Tony: Yes. They certainly had rehearsed a lot. They started with a bang – without introductions. Dark room. Killer video. Which ended in a… here we are.”
Lesson: Need I say more?
6. Open With A Memorable Bang: You will be up against other smart, cool agencies just like you. Act different. In the case of the Aquarium, the winning agency’s video nailed the presentation in the first couple of minutes.
Lesson: First impressions count – big.
It’s Not About You: The video was all about the client and its mission. Too many agencies are all about themselves.
Lesson: You have to prove to the client that you listen, understand their business goals and can deliver their marketing communications objectives. Clients want agencies that are dialed into the client’s business and requirements. This is a major mistake.
Intimacy Is A good Thing: From Tony, “It was intimate, yes. Very quickly intimate, because they had begun to circulate. The key point is to try to set the room up the way you want, and set it up for intimacy – so that you can roam around. Also, you know there’s certainly nothing wrong with the intimacy of boards.” (FYI: the client used boards vs. PowerPoint.)
Lesson: You are in the room to have a direct conversation; to build trust and to make sure that the client likes you. Interpersonal chemistry wins pitches.
The Biggest Mistake: We all make mistakes. Here is a very big one from a very savvy New York agency. “One agency did nothing but show their previous work. That’s all they did. Unfortunately, it didn’t work, and they lost the pitch during their presentation. We needed more than faith to go on.”
Lesson: Yes, I know, you’d like to ‘win without pitching.’ But, you are in a pitch… so pitch. Help the client pick you. In most cases, they will need a little help beyond your just saying, “trust us.” Here are some other mistakes plus a nice poster.
Many More Words On Pitching.
Buy my book. Why, because, like I say: “The Levitan Pitch. Buy This Book. Win More Pitches.” If you liked Tony’s interview, there are a couple of dozen additional interviews with experts including very experienced agency pitch consultants.