Pitching new business: In order to Win you’ve got to get In.

July 19, 2008

Rule #1: Getting in.

Half my job is about winning new business or trying to. In my opinion, it’s a hell of a lot harder than making good ads. Pitching. Sometimes it’s fun. Other times it can bring you, and your agency, to its knees. But it’s always exciting. The following is first of several posts about my experiences, good and bad, with regard to pitching…

I watch Sports Center almost every morning while jogging on my treadmill. There’s something inspirational about it, particularly on cold, dark mornings, particularly during playoffs. The playoffs (I don’t care which sport) are what I enjoy most. It’s sport taken to the highest level. The amplifier turned up to ‘11’. Winning and losing acquire new meaning, fraught with risk, always thrilling. In morbid preparation for these all-important games, athletes like to tell themselves: It’s do or die. Loser goes home.

Playoffs are no different than agency pitches. Lose a few and you’re forgotten. Win a few and you’re exalted. Don’t get in and, well, you’re screwed. After being mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, NFL football coach Jim Mora howled and swore and cried at a press conference. Promptly dismissed, he may never be hired again. Though losing in them, the also-fired Tony Dungee at least got his team (the Bucs) into the playoffs that year. Subsequently, the Indianapolis Colts –the very team, incidentally, that rid itself of Mr. Mora, quickly hired him. The rest is NFL history.

And that’s rule number 1. You absolutely, positively have got to get in to pitches. In order to survive (let alone thrive) an agency has to generate new revenues. Has to. Frankly, existing clients spend much of their time at an agency cutting back on spending, or so it seems. And then they leave! Exasperating the situation is the seemingly continuous dearth of new business activity. Paraphrasing Chief Executive David Beals of search firm Jones Lundin Beals: “There’s a lot more noise going on than business.” I take that to mean a lot of clients are window-shopping but few are opening their pocketbooks. Adding to the malaise, consider this: The average tenure of a client/agency relationship is only 3 or 4 years. And that number is only getting smaller. A while back, Revlon gave its new agency (Kirshenbaum & Bond) the boot just four months after hiring them. Like Hollywood divorces, splits happen all the time. It’s no longer even vaguely surprising.

Getting in to pitches is so critical agencies have new business departments, often comprising many individuals. At my former agency (Leo Burnett), the new business department was so big it had more than one leader. And planner. And account executive. And so on.

Getting in pitches is also vital to an agency’s reputation. Unlike the pre 2008 Chicago Cubs, you cannot suck year after year and be successful. If you’re reputation is bad the phone won’t ring. Employees will bail. Recruitment is impossible. Clients defect. Sea of pain. After all, an agency is in the business of creating image. It’s own had better be a good one. Doing great work and winning pitches are the only way an agency can improve its rep. The two are like the proverbial chicken and egg.

To be continued…


7 Responses to “Pitching new business: In order to Win you’ve got to get In.”

  1. Suex said

    When it comes to the work, my boss is a really talented creative director. But she’s really uncomfortable at new business pitches. I think it hurts her politically. I’m pretty sure it harms me as well. The big wigs stop coming to our group when a pitch is on.

  2. SRP said

    Suex brings up a great point, one which I’ve talked about before and will again later. Being a good craftsman is not enough at most agencies. In order to be a well-rounded creative director, one has to excel at showmanship, sales and hand-holding. Winning new business is as important as winning awards. Is this fair or even good for creative departments? Not sure but it is our reality.

  3. Voiceofreason said

    Back when, I used to think whoever had the best idea would win the client over. Now I know better. I worked on a pitch where we dazzled them with our creative but they chose the shop based on network relationships.

  4. Jason Fox said

    I once worked on a pitch where the creative team was given 15 minutes of a 2-hour presentation. In rehearsal, the account director actually went into detail about the bi-weekly status meetings our agency would have with the client. Oddly, the non-client was underwhelmed.

    Pitching is rough. It can bring out the best and worst in an agency, often during the same pitch. Often repeatedly.

    One more ramble: After a loss, never try to cheer up the troops by saying your agency came in second. *Everyone* who didn’t win came in second. Just once, I would’ve like the potential client or pitch consultant to have come back and said, “You guys pooched it. Hard. You were fourth.”


  5. SRP said

    You are spot on about the “coming in second” bit.
    I learned it the hard way, by hearing the line over and over.
    Then I heard another more telling: “Second place is first loser.”

  6. nonsmokinggun said

    Your Revlon kbp story is a wee bit inaccurate. I worked on that business and it went on for much longer than 4 months. Your point is valid though — breakups happen all the time. Life in showbiz, baby.

  7. SRP said

    I got the Revlon bit from a trade press story some time ago. I actually added a month to how it was reported! Glad to know it was a “wee bit” more than that.

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