Let’s start with one of the worst pitches of my career. It was not the worst in terms of work conditions or general human suffering -- it wasn’t “Showgirls”.
This pitch was bad because it could’ve been so good.
It had all the signs of being perfect pitch:
- The client was a non-traditional CPG – a small, nimble, innovative and entrepreneurial company
- Our pipeline was clear, so we had time to focus on the pitch
- We genuinely liked the products and the brand
- We had someone – their former client CMO – giving us specific insights into the account
A good pitch turned bad
We took initiative to know everything about the company: their competitive landscape, their consumers, their brand identity. And the cherry on top was their former client CMO, an Emissary. He shared details about the company culture, team dynamics, and internal priorities. From him, we learned:
- The team’s energy was more creative start-up than CPG. They were informal and they preferred work sessions – suits and formal Powerpoint presentations were not welcome
- The head client considered himself a celebrity, and expected to be treated like one.
This was provocative and specific advice from a very senior insider. And do you know what we did?
We ignored it. Can you guess what we showed up with to the meeting?
- A full blown Powerpoint presentation
- A sea of suits
- A formal presentation with little input (90% agency 10% client)
- Lots of smart people, but no celebrity handlers
A few days later, we received word that we did not advance to the next round. The reasons they cited were:
- Lack of cultural fit – too formal and traditional
- Our team did not align enough with theirs.
- Smart agency, but not for them.
What I learned from losing
A big part of pitch prep is learning about the clients as people and as a group. But an equally critical part is using that learning and applying it to your pitch.
Our advisor told us the company preferred discussions over Powerpoint, that informal presentation was key, and that we needed someone who was good with a star client.
So what went wrong? Three things:
1. We didn’t adjust to the personality of the key decision maker.
We had a client who wanted to be treated like a star; we didn’t put that at the forefront.
2. We ignored the #1 reason pitches are won: chemistry.
In this business, people buy people. More specifically, they buy people who are like them. It may be hard to ignore the voice that says dressing formally indicates your respect for the client. But, if the client is casual and you are formal, the message is they’re not like you. And they won’t close with you.
3. We second-guessed the advice from the Emissary.
One of our team members believed our advisor had an axe to grind. “Hadn’t he been dismissed from the client for the new CMO?” They thought we should put a very polished and professional foot forward and create a show, rather than promote a collaborative work session. In their mind, we should not kowtow to a client based on advice from his predecessor.
3 rules when walking into a pitch
I have three rules to ensure our team aligns with the client:
1. Be their people.
The quickest way to build rapport with a client is to be like them. People like people who are like them. And don’t just mirror their personalities, complement them. In the case of the star client – don’t bring a star from the agency unless he or she can puff up the feathers of the client.
2. Have a conversation.
If you treat the presentation like a conversation, you will avoid the hazard of talking ad infinitim.The entire goal of the presentation is not to get your points across to the client – it’s to start a real conversation.
3. Wait. Speak.
The pitch room is an exciting place and everyone is eager to speak. The 3-second rule means no one responds to a question until 3 seconds have passed. This might seem like an eternity but in truth it is just enough time to allow the client to close his mouth after finishing the last word of his question. This time also helps you to listen to what they’re really asking you.
And finally: if you ask for advice from someone who was there, listen to it, add a grain of salt, and follow it.
Come prepared on your next pitch with the help of a recent insider.