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April 23, 2021

By Mark Duval - The Duval Partnership

Whether pitching in person or virtually, deciding who will represent your agency determines the outcome of the pitch.

But how do you assemble a winning pitch team for your agency?

What is the strategy behind building a team that stands out from the competition—and won’t work against you? We’ve put together some tips and best practices that can help push your team to the front of the line.

But first, let’s tackle one of the most common questions.

Should you have a dedicated pitch team?

Prospects often only want the people who will work on their account to be involved in the pitch. According to Brent Hodgins, Managing Director of Mirren, the problem is that agencies with the strongest, most business-savvy teams “will always” beat the teams consisting solely of day-to-day team members.

As a result, Hodgins recommends having one or more core pitch teams that are augmented by those who will work on the business and those with deep category expertise. His only caveat is that each member of the team must be able to present well. The result is that the team might be slightly different for every pitch, with some individuals being a bit more practiced at pitching than others.

Is that the right approach for you? It depends on the size and complexity of your agency, but you want your pitch team to be built around team chemistry, relevant expertise, and the people who will be working on the account. And, you will want to remove any potential weak links from your team roster.

What’s your team-building strategy?

Before assembling your team, carefully digest the brief in full, understand what the prospect is looking for, who their decision-makers are, and who will be involved at each stage of the process. What are their motivations? How can you earn their confidence? From there, determine who you need on your team to make a compelling case throughout the pitch.

Don’t underestimate the importance of diversity (across experience, gender, seniority, culture, etc.). Your team’s diversity speaks volumes about your agency’s values and culture, as well as the perspectives and creative thinking that you can bring to the prospect’s account. Additionally, the team should authentically represent your agency—no bringing in people “just for looks.” It's not just about who's in the room for the final pitch but about who will help shape the creative ideas and their presentation to the prospect.

TIP: Agencies that leave creative and strategic teams out of the pitch process tend to present poorly because they fail to convey compelling agency stories. Stephan Argent of Listenmore has observed that when presentations are left to new business professionals, they tend to be concerned with listing facts, wins, awards, offices, and resources instead of developing an overarching story to engage the prospect.

Pitch team strategy

We can’t talk about pitch strategy without referencing our interview with Chris Shumaker, an agency search consultant and President of Hasan + Shumaker. One of Shumaker’s observations is that pitches aren’t always won based on the best work. Based on conversations with other search consultants, he estimates agencies win spec pitches without the winning work “about 15-20% of the time.”

Working agency-side as a new business strategist, Shumaker developed a pitch strategy based on planning to win whether or not his team had the winning work. This was in addition to all of the strategic creative work the team was investing towards a winning creative solution.

This pitch strategy arises from the idea that clients often evaluate agencies based on the entire review process journey, not just a single meeting. It capitalizes on the many opportunities to win the pitch at every touchpoint, building the prospect’s trust and confidence in the agency’s team along the way. And it recognizes that pitches are often won before presentations take place.

When he spoke with us, Shumaker mentioned that he likes to divide the pitch team into two sub-teams: one for content and one for competition. The content team would do everything you’d traditionally expect from a pitch team: focus on the content, the brief, the client’s audience, the deliverables for the meeting, the strategy, etc. But while the content team is working on that, the competition team is hard at work elsewhere.

As Shumaker describes it, the competition team considers all the variables of the competition — client audience, the other agencies, the agency brand, and flawless execution at every touchpoint. They study the decision-makers, the influencers, the competitive agencies, and how to neutralize their case studies and experience. It’s on them to identify the real reason for the review (which may not be the stated reason) and how to leverage that insight to separate their agency from the pack. The competition team also looks for opportunities to make relevant contacts along the journey.

Takeaway: If you’ve been limiting your pitch focus to the final presentation, you are missing key opportunities (and perhaps setting yourself up to spin your wheels). Upgrade your pitch game by incorporating a more competitive approach and see how it works for your agency.
Assigning roles

What roles do you need to fill the content side of your pitch team? Here are a few ideas:

  •     Pitch Manager. It’s wise to identify one person who will be accountable for setting and meeting deadlines to stay on track with the pitch.
  •     Designer. This person creates the pitch deck. While the deck is worked on collaboratively, this person does the heavy lifting to bring the team's creative strategies to life visually.
  •     Pitch Strategists. These are the team members who take the lead on determining the content of the pitch and weave a story in response to the prospect’s brief.
  •     The Outsider. Never underestimate the power of an outside perspective! Name one well-seasoned team member who will be familiar with the brief but is not part of the pitch-planning process. This person will offer their objective, “outside” perspective on the pitch, help fine-tune, simplify, and clarify the message, so it presents as intended.

Other pitch team considerations

  •     You can’t fake chemistry. If a team isn’t well-practiced and doesn’t genuinely enjoy each others’ company and what they are doing, it shows. And keep in mind, you’ll be judged on chemistry at every point—not just in when you’re “in the room.”
  •     Get everyone aligned not only on the pitch deck but also on the agency’s story. To that end, there is no substitute for practice.
  •     Everybody in the room should need to be there. You don’t want to overfill the space (virtual or physical) with extra bodies to look bigger or more important. Each party should have a speaking role and bring something of value to the pitch. Five to eight people should be plenty.
  •     Your team must show confidence to gain confidence. That means each presenter will stand up, make eye contact, be prepared, and demonstrate authority. Just one weak link can cost the team the entire pitch.
  •     Understand the value of your team and treat them accordingly. Everyone should be introduced, and their roles explained. Across the multiple meetings of a pitch process, the deciding factor is often your team. Your entire team will be judged based on how they connect with and "fit" the prospect's culture and how they demonstrate their ability to think and create in ways that solve the prospect's challenges.
  •     In general, don’t let the CEO monopolize the presentation. Not only is it a good idea to let everyone on the pitch team shine, but most prospects “get” that the CEO is unlikely to be highly involved in the day-to-day aspects of their account, so that’s not who they really want to hear from.

TIP: The best pitcher is not always the best person to do the pitch. Years ago, we worked with a very talented digital agency that did great work and got results. The CEO was brilliant—and he was a masterful pitcher. The only problem was, he knew it. His arrogance cost the agency business and repeatedly stopped them from progressing to the next round in pitches. It became easier to limit his presence in pitches rather than trying to change his personality. They found when they were able to do that, it helped them win more pitches.

Parting thoughts

Assembling your pitch team, from strategy to content production, to relationship negotiation, to presentation, should never be approached as an afterthought. It shouldn’t be based on people’s availability. And it shouldn’t be limited to a single team of C-level agency executives.

Building a winning pitch team requires a strategic approach specific to the opportunity. As discussed here, identifying a winning line-up for your agency depends on individual chemistry, relevant expertise, overall diversity, and team practice.

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