Pitching Do’s And Don’ts

Business development matters. It always has. But perhaps never more so than in today’s über-competitive ad world where growth is at the center of every CEO’s strategy. What makes business development especially challenging today is the layering on of other issues that complicate our collective drive for growth.

Budgets are under tighter scrutiny than ever before, and we’ve seen the rapid emergence of client financial management (yes, procurement) in our new- business reviews. While we frequently compete against the usual suspects, new challengers continue to emerge. New models are constantly in test—in the form of holding company reviews, global leadership, virtual models and more. An agency’s significance to its client continues to increase, putting more pressure on clients to make the right choice.

Ironically, new-business solicitations are frequently viewed as rational, process-driven engagements. In truth, they are fraught with emotional dimensions that are at the very heart of decision-making: confidence, chemistry, the fear of change and risk-aversion. After 15-plus years in business development, there are some lessons learned that I can share with others involved in building and growing business for their agency. Consider what follows as a list of do’s and don’ts that came the hard way—on the front lines, through mistakes and failures, followed by renewed energy and success.


• Become a student of the client you’re pursuing—read, listen, observe, study, learn.

• Remember that every encounter—every conference call, every Q&A, every written communication—is a test. Each is an opportunity to take the lead, or lose it.

• Involve the prospect in the process whenever possible.

• Focus on what’s unique and differentiated about your offering and your solution.

• Finish the presentation development early so you can spend the remaining time coalescing and practicing, not noodling and editing.

• Take a point of view and stick with it, from the earliest submission through the final meeting.

• Vet your approach with consultants, analysts, senior agency staffers—to disaster-check your thinking.

• Build trust by keeping the promises you make; deliver what you say when you say you will.

• Pace yourselves during the review and leave time for reflection. A little distance can be wonderful.

• Encourage multiple relationships between client and prospect at multiple levels across the organization; let the prospect get a feeling not just for top management or the pitch team, but for bench strength as well.

• Remember, the prospects’ careers—or at least reputations—may be riding on their decision.


• Forget that all human decision-making has a strong emotional component.

• Rely on gimmicks to stand out; the shtick will be remembered, not the substance.

• Chase everything in play; it dilutes your resources and reduces your chances of winning.

• Make speeches—but do cause conversations.

• Send untested presenters into a new-business pitch; there are better places for them to learn.

• Fall into the trap of believing that the agency always knows better than the prospect (or client); they are the experts in their business.

• Fall in love with your own process, tools and thinking. It’s never about the agency. It’s about the client and how to help them.

• Be unwilling to change your approach midstream; there may not be a second act.

• Create distance between yourself and your audience through too much PowerPoint or too many words on a slide.

• Stick so closely to prepared scripts that the meeting feels staged and remote.

• Consider a large number of requests and additional questions to be an annoyance; understand that major decisions are to be made and they need to be confirmed and justified by a diverse group of decision-makers and decision influencers.

New-business pitches are—on their face and by their nature—artificial. They showcase the agency in a way that is far removed from the everyday realities of business. Clients and prospects know this, and the more sophisticated ones are building into their reviews opportunities to get under the hood and see the reality. And when they aren’t, we need to. We’re not trying to persuade prospects that our relationship will be utopian; they know better. The pitch should be trying to persuade them that we care as much about their business as they do, and that we will do what it takes to help them meet their goals. That’s a much more genuine promise.

Successful business development is one of the most satisfying experiences in the agency world. It includes principles, process and people—a trio that, when correctly combined, has the power to create the kind of thinking and working partnership valued by clients. And then everybody wins.