Pitch Addiction

Pitching. It isn’t so bad. After all, you’d be crazy to pass up fuzzy direction from prospects, undisclosed budgets, pounding through six months of work in six weeks, working nights and weekends, and being distracted from properly servicing those clients that actually pay the bills. But there must be some kind of royal prize for all this joy. For most, it’s being crowned “second.” But that’s OK, the client didn’t really know what they wanted anyway, right?

Pitching is a necessary evil. However, it saps many a good shop. By sucking up time and energy with no ROI, good agencies hemorrhage cash and morale. The famous few that consistently win the best pitches are the aberration. They are certainly not reflective of the other 76,000 marketing services agencies that now exist in the U.S.

Most agencies are in fact caught in a nonstop rut of loss after pitch loss. Why? Because pitching is far more exciting than stopping to examine and address the core business issues behind the losses. Pitching is more exciting than creating a real business plan, firing all the wrong people and hiring the right ones, or understanding what the agency’s distinct positioning should be.

Pitching has actually become the ultimate denial drug. Agencies love the rush, the intensity, even the compressed time lines. The adrenaline rush combined with the financial and creative possibilities are almost hypnotic. This is the reason agencies falsely believe the fastest path to a good win is through a pitch. Add in some desperation and you have a real problem. To be pitching is to feel like the agency is moving forward. However, the reality for most is that pitching fosters a state of denial. We see this often in our new business consulting work.

Many agencies would be further ahead if they didn’t pitch at all and just saved their money.

Consider what the winning agencies do. Rather than reactively scrambling from pitch to pitch, consider proactively organizing your forces and mounting an attack against a focused group of highly qualified prospects.

Instead of pitching, poach. Efficiently generate qualified leads and spend far less than on costly pitches. And here’s a thought—see a return on your investment. A good one.

This, however, does require proactive work. But the bulk is at the outset. Spend a month or two preparing for a prospecting program that will allow you to go after 10 prospects. Or, spend two or three months preparing for one big competitive pitch that you’re likely to lose.

Start by evaluating where your easiest wins lie in waiting. As you’d advise your clients, you cannot be everything to everyone. So focus.

At our CMO event series with Harvard Business Review, marketers tell us they prefer agencies with a depth of experience in their specific category. Sensible. If you were seeking medical care, would you want a specialist or a GP? If you were getting your BMW serviced, would you prefer BMW or Sears?

To determine your best target category, consider some criteria: categories where the agency has the most case studies and creative (and therefore more credibility), categories with a smaller number of conflict issues, and categories that allow for profitable and creative work. The category that passes a logical litmus test is where your easiest wins await.

Then, develop your calling card. With your renewed credibility, add a door-opening point of view. Emulate management consulting firms that develop a strategic point of view on a particular category and then drill down further to the client level. Take the time to develop insightful category-specific research: What is trending up? What is trending down? Why? Most importantly, what does this mean to a prospect’s business?

Armed with a genuine point a view, you can now forgo the desperate plea for a prospect to meet with you. Offer the prospect something he can use to improve his business. Now, be able to contact a prospect with an idea something like, “We just completed our latest marketing and communications study on your category. We also dug into your business and your brand. We identified three elements that we believe are holding back your sales. We have four ideas to resolve those issues and jump-start your business. Would love to share those ideas over a coffee.” Marketing chiefs tell us those are the kind of calls that get returned. And yet, they rarely get them.

Stop selling the agency. Start solving clients’ business problems.

Get in with a project and then grow the business. All with no competition, except the sleepy incumbent who is off losing his next pitch.