How To Run An Advertising Agency New Business Pitch
A high school teacher friend asked me to help her with a study plan about how an advertising agency manages the advertising agency new business pitch process. She is asking her students to run their own sales pitch for an imaginary client. I thought, what the heck, I’ll share some of my thinking with you.
Why me? Well, I did write the definitive book on ad agency new business pitching which included a detailed look at the advertising agency pitch process. What to do and what not to do and how doing the what not to do will cost your agency money, time, staff pain, and heartbreak. Somehow this teacher found my book. I guess Google works.
A Very Simplified Look At The Advertising Agency Pitch Process
Before I start, I have to say that the current way many clients select an agency, as in having multiple agencies pitch against each other, is too time-consuming and costly for both the client and the agencies. I’ve seen large pitches drag on for weeks and months. One would think that a savvy client should be able to look hard at the agency’s expertise, past work, case histories, culture plus a couple of conversations to make a decision. Of course, pricing is also a factor, especially if the pitch is partially run by the client’s procurement department. A department focussed on costs – not necessarily an assessment of agency skill-sets.
OK, nuff said about the inefficiency of many pitches.
There is no such thing as a ‘standard’ pitch. Some clients are large and others small. Some large theoretically sophisticated clients have no process, and some small clients are super organized. Here is a look at what is often the process.
Some clients are looking for the whole enchilada (an agency that will do everything from branding to social media) and some clients are just looking for one specific need – often a project. For example, a new name, and logo. Some clients want to work with category experts (as in needing a healthcare specialist) and some are looking for a great ‘creative’ agency.
How Does The Client Find Agencies?
Here is my master list on getting found and contacted:
You get a referral from a happy current or past client. Hopefully, your agency has a referral strategy to help make this happen.
You get a referral from a friend or family member. For example, my nephew was once the publisher of Men’s Vogue – he introduced me to someone who became a great client. Maybe your mother plays bridge with the mother of New Balance’s marketing director.
Word of mouth (WOM). People have heard of you inside the general marketing universe. Somehow, you’ve gotten people talking.
Your agency has won a prestigious marketing award. The right third-party recognition is a good thing. No, do not enter every ward show.
The press writes about you, your agency or asks for your expert opinion. I have a friend at Adweek who occasionally asks for a quote. This has been a good thing for my brand awareness.
You know how to use social media to get the good word out and make connections. That means you use one or just a couple of blogging, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, TikTok; Facebook, you podcast: or utilize whatever the latest social media platform that makes sense for your audience.
You advertise your services. Yes, imagine an agency that actually uses advertising.
You wrote a well-targeted advertising or marketing book that gains industry fame – like my: The Levitan Pitch. Buy This Book. Win More Pitches.
You are an expert and the specific categories that you rule (tactical or business categories) know about you.
You speak at the right conference, were in that smart podcast or write for trade publications. I used to write for HubSpot and ‘borrowed’ their enormous audience.
You know how to do what is often called Account Based Marketing. This means that you have created a list of the type of clients that your agency ‘should have’ and you contact them directly. Intelligently and gently. Often you will send them hard to resist, I call it unignorable, insights.
A professional advertising agency search consultant put you on the prospective client’s list. This is a very good thing. It should not be an accident that the consultant knows about you.
Note: I’ve put some links to relevant blog posts below.
The Pitch Process. From RFI To RFP To The Invitation To Pitch.
The Request For Information – The RFI
A request for information (the RFI) is often the first step in the pitch process. The client is requesting information on the agency that goes beyond what they find on the agency website or in other forms of standardized information like brochures. The RFI is used to help the client create a shortlist of agencies that fit their criteria.
The Request For Proposal – The RFP
If you pass the RFI test, receiving a Request For Proposal (RFP) is a very good thing (usually). This means that a prospective client has sent you a document/questionnaire that asks you for your thinking, agency and client history, category knowledge, technical prowess, and other related facts that will help them decide that you should be in the pitch. Answer every question in the order asked. A hidden benefit of receiving an RFP is that you can decide if the client is right for your agency or if they have their act together. I have received a few unprofessional, fishing expedition-like, RFPs that I have declined to deal with.
Hurray! Now Comes Your Advertising Agency New Business Pitch
Here is my core advice… Well, the first piece of advice: Be Distinctive and unignorable – it is too easy to look and sound like other ad agencies (on the left is one of 12 cartoons about agency mistakes that you cannot make that are in my pitch book). I like cartoons.
Have a leader who will manage the process. A pitch cannot be a free-for-all.
Read the RFP hard, again. Have more than one person read it, and make sure y’all know what the client is looking for (you may have to read a bit between the lines).
Understand the specific assignment, what kind of relationship the client wants, and what type of agency they really want. if you do not think that you fit their criteria, bail early. Pitching the wrong account is too expensive and could be a waste of time and money. Too many agencies pitch anything that looks like it might be a new client.
Consider doing a Creative Brief for the pitch itself. Here is an example of a CB I’ve used for multiple brands.
Pick your best presenters to be in the pitch. This is a ‘sales call’ after all.
Know who from the client’s side who will be in the room. You should be able to understand the motivations of each individual client. Use the client’s website and individual social media profiles to learn as much s you can. This is not a blind date.
Build the right team. On the simplest level, this includes the pitch manager/leader, a creative head, a strategist, and a production director. You will most likely employ the services of other agency people. But, you need a leadership team.
Create and prepare a presentation that makes the client the star. They already know a lot about you so make sure that you make them the star. Did I already say this? I mean it. Address their issues and make sure that you tell them why and how you can help them.
Most clients are looking for all of these things, well, most of these so be prepared to address: strategic prowess and guidance (this is a primary agency skill that the client might not have); creativity (that is what you are all about, isn’t it?); category or market expertise (learn it if you don’t have it); and finally, be lovable. Interpersonal chemistry – “gee, I want to work with these guys” – is often the deciding factor when competing agencies can look alike.
I always suggest that an agency should lead with a brilliant insight. Do some brand or category research that will grab the client’s attention right away. Ask me about the winning national Salvation Army pitch.
It is OK to use a couple of past client successes and cases if these relate to this specific client’s needs.
Be and sound strategic. Yes, I am repeating myself.
Try to know what other agencies are in the pitch and work around their expertise. No, do not mention them. Just keep their strengths in mind.
CRITICAL. Rehearse. Rehearse. Do this. This is particularly important if the clients asked for the people who will work on the business to be in the pitch. They might need a bit of training. My worst pitch ever included the Saatchi brothers and they did not want to rehearse. The pitch failed.
If this is a virtual pitch, know how to run a must-watch virtual pitch. Below are a couple of must-read and listen-to thoughts on how to win a virtual pitch. Trust me.
One of the biggest challenges facing agencies is the decision to show or not to show sample creative work. I always did that at Saatchi & Saatchi (unless we were just handed the account, which happened) and at my own agency where my executive director partner loved working his tail off and his work usually won us the business. Sorry, spec work kinda sucks, but show and demonstrate that you are brilliant. This includes ideas about how you will emply media.
Have a leave-behind book, or better yet, in the digital age, consider a dedicated post pitch entity like a client-specific website or Instagram platform. This will help the client remember what you said and will allow them to share your fabulous thinking with their colleagues.
Last point(s) here are some right-on cartoons to help you know WHAT NOT TO do.
Finally, this is an important one. Show the pitch to someone that isn’t in the pitch. Get their opinion and insights and actionable adjustments.
Some Links Re: Pitching
Hey, y’all. Call me up.
Bake me into your process as a guided-missile third-party analyst. I’ve pitched and won digital accounts, travel, food accounts, gaming and healthcare accounts, and, well, too many to name B2C and B2B accounts.