Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Learning from agency pitching! Teamwork, critical thinking, communication and bravery

Rob Webster is Founder of Canton Marketing Solutions. He’s worked in the adtech industry since 2001 and is NDA’s monthly columnist.

My favourite part of agency land (and marketing services) has always been the experience of pitching. New business is the lifeblood of such companies and a happy and successful agency always has an effective new business capability.

Many agency and ex-agency folk will tell you that most of the most effective work, product development and innovation was born out of the new business process. The new business process is also the source of many of the best stories and legendary nights out.

When it’s done well, new business work is a real melting pot of ideas and talent that drive the industry forward. Teamwork, critical thinking, bravery and amazing communication are the hallmarks of a great pitch process. My own career has benefited hugely from these experiences and they have been the times I have learnt the most and fastest. These areas also give lessons in how to move forward in turbulent times. Any company that behaves like it is constantly pitching, is perfectly geared to emerge successfully from disruption and economic uncertainty. 

Teamwork

Unlike in adtech and media sales, new business at media service companies is not done by sales people, but a selection of talent from across the company (perhaps supported by a small new business specialist function). Teamwork is vital, and a new business pitch in marketing services is the nearest experience to playing for a sporting team that this industry has to offer. 

Teammates pulling together towards a big day (the final pitch) resulting in a win or lose situation. At big agencies particularly, a big pitch can bring together incredibly diverse characters from the commercial deal makers, strategists, creatives, operations and more. Private school, public school, comprehensive – Ivy League, Oxbridge, Red Brick and straight from school all work together. Age is no barrier if it aids the cause with the most experienced players in an agency working side by side with talented youngsters (it is a great time for talented young people to turbocharge their careers).

Whilst male and pale still dominates, these processes are usually far more egalitarian and diverse than the industry as a whole – partly because you ideally want the demographics of the pitch team to reflect the client and/or their customers. Seeing such different characters come together can be very funny with industry stereotypes playing in front of your eyes, the head in the clouds strategist arguing with the down-in-the-weeds operations person. Old and new media evangelists battle for air space.

Yet actually when all is said and done these processes knock down stereotypes and barriers. Despite some tension, when it’s well done you end up with real respect, camaraderie and most importantly a joined-up approach that goes across disciplines, channels, old and new media. 

So how can the industry learn from this? Well the first is in recognising that diverse skills, ages and backgrounds can come together and drive amazing marketing solutions. Combining the best skills from strategy, planning, commercial, creative, trading and more is the best route to a differentiated services product. We must all work on breaking down the silos to become more efficient. That also means everyone needs to learn more skills to add the generalist component to specialisms. 

Looking after people and recruiting and growing the right talent is an inherent part of building a great team. Sadly the industry has gotten into a situation where it only wants to hire unicorns, people in their mid to late 20s who can operate multiple buying platforms, talk to clients, strategise and assist on selling, all for a mid-range salary. Unicorns like this do exist but in my experience,  they are more likely to be trained and grown than hired (no one wants to let one go) and that looking to hire one can be a frustrating experience that often ends poorly.

One of strong agencies biggest successes has always been their ability to grow talent which is highlighted in their pitch team. By investing in people and bringing together people of different levels of experience and discipline combined with specific expertise is the way to go, particularly in a time when hiring will be so limited. This also highlights the need to invest in junior members of staff, always of course, but particularly now. It is these people who miss out the most with home working as they do not get the time in with the more experienced players that they might to both learn and show what they can do.

Companies need to really push contact, training and opportunity for the young. Even just scheduled catch ups, speed dating style if need be between different levels of the company could prove so effective in the mid to long term. It’s also where the more experienced players have an opportunity and a need to step up to supporting the youngsters and using their contact book, influence and experience to balance out the company.

A word on the experience too, there has been talk of ageism in our industry of late and as an industry we must remember to respect such talents as experience, influence and contacts. Mostly though it is the responsibility of those that have these assets (often with paychecks to match) to ensure these skills drive true value – if they don’t both the company and individual can be left behind. 

Ultimately though the lesson here is that teamwork is such a vital component of success and that it must be closely fostered even as current circumstance means we all work more remotely. 

Critical Thinking

When we are working on existing business or selling a set product, we can be blinded to what good truly looks like. Too many adtech vendors sell the product not the solution. In marketing services land there can be a temptation towards “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. The beauty of a pitch situation, particularly if you are new to the account is that you can take a step back to look at what good really looks like. This can be a truly liberating experience and actually is a vital component to the health of a brand’s marketing that it has fresh thinking injected from time to time (though incumbents can also do it if they are disciplined and smart). Many agencies know when they go to pitch that they are long odds and so they can really challenge the status quo. When it comes off the results can be spectacular.

I recall one pitch focusing on dramatically changing the client’s core messaging to market, pointing out that highlighting price was destroying their brand reputation. Winning the argument led to an amazing and victorious process. On another pitch we challenged the client on measurement and attribution in a way that would be impossible as an incumbent. They had their planning around retargeting, prospecting, brand and generic search totally miscued due to an over reliance on web analytics. For a long time we were met with almost hostility, that we were challenging how they were running things and trying to make them commit to unprofitable media. Once the penny dropped however the rest of the process was easy.

Truly understanding what good looks like and what the theme of a pitch is is an art form that drives successful businesses. In the Brand space, the most famous exponent of knowing what amazing looks like and accepting no less being Steve Jobs and Apple. Others built laptops, MP3 players (remember the Ipod) and phones but it was Apple with their focus on (and this really hurts to say as a Windows/Android guy) excellence in product and design who have come from the brink of bankruptcy to the most valuable brand in the world. 

This critical thinking is vital to all business today. It starts with knowing what great looks like from a marketing delivery point of view but also goes so much deeper. Critical thinking needs to be applied to the products we sell, how we sell them, the messages we are using, the people that are selling them, how they are supported and on to truly every part of our business. Even more important, we need to apply critical thinking to ourselves.

Are we truly adding the value that we could to our businesses and careers? An interesting challenge is to write down what our talents are and how we use them to benefit our companies and clients. Just stating our job function is not enough we need to look deeper. When we apply critical thinking to ourselves, our companies and everything we do then we can truly understand where we are and what we need to do to succeed. 

For we are in a time of change, not that we need to be reminded. Even before the pandemic we were undergoing a revolution in privacy, browser technology, media consumption and more. Such changes are now so much more profound with dramatic shifts in user behavior, many of which will outlast the pandemic.

There is no point carrying on as we did before because that world has gone never to return. Instead we need to work out how the world has changed and continues to change then double down our efforts to adapt our core value propositions to that new world. We must never stop asking the question, why will our customers buy our products and services? How can we improve? 

Communication

The best thinking in the world with a great team means nothing if those ideas cannot be clearly communicated. The efforts made then at clear communication can be staggering and lead to some amazing pitch theatre. I have seen whole agencies decked out as airport terminals for aviation pitches. Beaches installed in foyers and meeting rooms for the travel sector.

In one infamous pitch from way back for British Rail, the client was made to wait in a disgusting cold room for over half an hour with cigarette butts and rubbish. The point being, this is the way you communicate with your customers and until you start to care about them, advertising on anything other than price is not going to be effective. Much effective theatre is far simpler.

In one pitch for a leading advertiser critical thinking had identified that the client’s activity did not have enough attention to the details of buying and optimisation. Not enough keywords, line items, copy, creative, structure. The question was how to communicate that as effectively as possible? The client was first given a small pamphlet and told that this represented how many keywords and line items they had today.

A huge King James Bible was then theatrically thrown on the table and, whilst pointing to the delivery team, the client was told “Work with this hugely talented team for 3 months and that’s how big your account will be. That is why I can confidently sign up for a dramatic improvement in performance.”

Theatre aside, the best communication comes from talented people who really know their craft, using their skills to deftly communicate the principles. Visual aids, videos and any theatre are only as good as the quality and conviction of the orator. 

Our industry today has so much to learn from the best pitch teams. Products and ideas are often poorly communicated. In a time of plenty with budgets to spare, this can be forgiven. However in a changing and turbulent time it is vital that ideas are clear. Is that not the point of good marketing after all?

At this time then, marketers need to double down on communication and ask themselves are their messages to their customers clear. Be that to customers through a marketing channel or simply internal communication on projects and priorities. Apple again is a clear example of a company that, at its best, is amazing at communicating the value of its products. Internal communications, either from a marketing team across a company or from a service provider are just as important.

We now need to communicate ideas to not only marketers (of all shapes and sizes) but across the business to finance, IT, legal and beyond to achieve true digital transformation. 

Bravery

The new business environment requires real bravery. Few if any pitches are won by playing it safe and those that are, are usually won on price (and so are of questionable value anyway). It takes real bravery though to make a bold pitch, jobs are literally on the line, particularly if you are an incumbent. Reputations are won and lost by how strong a pitch is.

Marketing services contracts tend to have a lifespan in the years and good relationships can last decades so the stakes are truly enormous. Yet the bravery to be different is what separates the best. The examples I gave in critical thinking require that bravery. Yet the bravest pitches of all are when an incumbent supplier has to protect one of their largest (or largest) pieces of business. 

It is bravery that brings together all of the previous elements. To have courage of your convictions and ideas. To back your team and communication. To take chances. I leave you with the motto of the SAS, adopted by a famous entrepreneur who did become a millionaire. 

“He who dares, wins.” Derek (Del) Trotter

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