How to Win the Final Pitch Presentation Even when the Client Throws You Curveballs

by Jody Sutter

I was recently working with two different clients on two different final pitch presentations that shared a common challenge: client-imposed restrictions on the format of the meeting.

In one case, the agency was restricted to 30-minutes. In the other, the agency was limited to sharing its pitch in no more than eight slides.

(Ironically, the clients didn’t seem to feel the need to place similar restrictions on themselves. In both cases, the brief for the final presentation set unrealistic expectations for the amount of information the agency could cover.)

And, in both cases, I noticed the default reaction of each agency was to fulfill the clients requests, even if it meant a direct route to failure. The agencies hadn’t taken the time to question whether this was the right approach.

Why?

In part, it had to do with an overwhelming amount of pitch activity. Both agencies were fortunate to be pursuing a healthy number of new business opportunities (not all of them ideal, but that’s a topic for another article).

The result was a limited amount of time and intellectual capacity to invest in each pitch. It seemed like the first thing to be eliminated because of the time crunch was critical thinking.

And I get it. I’ve been there! There’s so much to do and so many plates to keep spinning. Stopping to give yourself mental space to think creatively about a situation simply feels like a luxury you cannot afford.

But, meeting pitch deadlines isn’t the same as winning new business and the reality is you can’t afford not to think creatively and critically.
Question the wisdom of your decisions

Neither agency afforded themselves an opportunity to think about what it would take to win. They were so focused on how to fit an impossible amount of content into a small box that they neglected to think outside of that box.

Lateral thinking is a useful technique in situations like this. The concept, developed by Edward de Bono, is based on the idea that we tend to get locked into “logical” patterns of thinking that don’t necessarily lead us to the best solutions.

For example, when we need to make a quick decision on how to organize a new business presentation, it’s logical to follow the client’s brief, no matter how unrealistic or unsatisfying the result will be for all.

(This may be further exacerbated by the tendency of agencies to default to pleasing, rather than challenging, the client.)

Try to recognize your own tendencies to fall into this trap and, before you do, explore creative ways to communicate what the client wants to hear, even if it’s different from what they ask for.
Probe for the underlying reason behind the request

Running an agency review is hard. Writing a good pitch brief is hard.

But the majority of businesses have decided a pitch is worth the effort in order to reduce the risks associated with hiring an agency. Those risks are numerous…

…hiring the wrong agency;

… hiring the right one but getting the wrong team;

…investing too much time educating the agency on its business;

…hiring a hot creative shop that’s financially unstable;

…and perhaps most illusive: getting the right solution out of a creative process that they don’t always understand.

Can we just take a moment to acknowledge that, for the most part, clients are doing their best?

And many of those unreasonable requests are simply the client saying, “hey, we just don’t want to make a mistake. Help us not to make a mistake.”

This is where you have an opportunity to read between the lines and to do it with empathy and insight.

Why are they asking what they’re asking?

Probe for the underlying reasons behind a request. Does it mask a question or concern that they were unable to articulate? And can you find out what that question or concern is, either directly by asking the client if you’re lucky enough to have access, or by using your past experience and best judgment.

And when you’ve peeled away the layers to reveal the real concern, are there better ways to address it than strictly adhering to the client’s brief?
Consider what it will take to win

Your job in a pitch is to win the business. Of course you must do it ethically and authentically, but winning the business is your primary concern.

In most agency pitches winning happens one step at a time.

The final presentation is one of those steps and what you must do there to reassure the client that you’re the right choice is different from what you do at the outset of an agency review or even during final negotiations.

Let’s go back to that agency faced with the strict 30-minute time limit. This final presentation would be the first time the agency team would be meeting the selection committee.

In other words, the agency had thirty minutes to forge an emotional connection with half a dozen strangers who held the agency’s fate in their hands. Yikes!

How the heck do they do that?

We humans love intrigue and surprising ideas and suspense. In other words, we love a good story. Oren Klaff, a dealmaker in the world of finance and author of Pitch Anything (highly recommended, by the way) summarizes the arc of a successful pitch meeting like this:

Put a man in the jungle.

Have beasts attack him.

Will he get to safety?

So I challenged my clients to think creatively about how they might convey important information while also inviting the audience on a journey to show them what’s possible and to demonstrate that they’ve led others to the promised land before and that they could do the same for this client too.

Who’s choosing you? And why?

It’s always important to have an understanding of who’s going to be in the room (Zoom or otherwise) but the stakes get higher when you’re working within restrictions. For example, if you’ve only been given 30 minutes to impress a roomful of people, what can you do before or after to build the relationship? And who are the most important people to reach?

Look beyond your main point of contact. You can have a positive and collaborative relationship with her, but without a deeper understanding of larger team dynamics, those warm and fuzzy feelings may not get you as far as you hope they will.

Who has ultimate decision-making authority? Who doesn’t but could easily sway the choice? There’s a huge amount of information embedded in a list of names and titles, including agendas, aspirations, alliances, and biases.

As with the underlying and unspoken concerns, you try to seek answers directly from the client. But if you can’t, then invest a small amount of time to play out some scenarios. When you do, you’re more likely to be prepared for the one that actually unfolds on pitch day.

Steve Jobs famously said, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” I think the same can be applied to agency pitches. Remember, the pitch is an imperfect method for reducing the risk of hiring an agency.

Marketers do their best to write good pitch briefs and agencies do their best to follow them. But we were born to pitch badly, and too many clients have been subjected to too many long and painful pitch presentations by agencies. Occasionally they must take the situation into their own hands and dictate misguided requirements.

I actually believe that restrictions can push us to find creative solutions we wouldn’t have recognized if given a blank canvas. The trick is to be willing to think differently about what it will take to win.

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