How to be pitch perfect

Think you know how to pitch? Think again. Paul Phillips of AAR reminds us that it’s all in the detail.

by Mark Tungate , MAYDREAM

“During the pitch process, the client is looking for reasons to exclude you.” This was one of the main themes of a presentation by Paul Phillips, managing director of client-agency relationship specialists AAR, at a recent AdForum soirée in the Paris offices of Twitter.

Phillips knows his pitches. He’s worked in the business for years and is on Campaign’s list of the most powerful people in advertising. He is also a walking treasure trove of lore and anecdotes. His wide-ranging talk covered many aspects of pitching, including whether or not to pitch in the first place.

“Agencies today work at 99 per cent capacity, so you have to be sure you really want this business,” he said. “If you’re tempted but you’re not sure, trust your instincts. Sometimes it just doesn’t feel right.”

He adds that some agencies publicly state that they are temporarily closed to new business. “Those agencies automatically become the most desirable around,” he says, with irony. “Less is more.”

Once you take the plunge, though, every detail counts. The client is seeing four or five or more agencies, so they have to make a decision. They’ll use any excuse to cross you off the list.

“Don’t pretend to be passionate about their business if you’re not,” is one of his watchwords. He cites a pitch for the Daily Telegraph in London, during which the agency staff claimed to be avid readers of the newspaper. When put on the spot, they were unable to name a single one of its journalists.

On the other hand, when the Cutty Sark museum in London (about a historic sailing ship) was up for pitch, the agency discovered that one of its staffers was passionate about all matters nautical. His enthusiasm shone through at the pitch. The agency, of course, won the business.

Phillips observed that the client is not necessarily expecting the agency to crack the business problem during the pitch. “What they want to know is whether you’ll be able to work together to solve the problem.”

Beyond the basics

What shone through in Phillips’ presentation was that a win or a loss can turn on a small detail. Brief your receptionist when the client is due to arrive, so they don’t get a dull and world-weary welcome. (Better still, be there to greet them.) Get their logo right on your PowerPoint presentation. Know when to stop talking and let them speak. (“You’ve got two ears, one mouth – remember those proportions.”)

But those are just the basics. Two specific anecdotes illustrate the vital importance of detail. Phillips recalled a meeting with Thames Water – the water utility provider for London – in which the agency had put bottles of Evian and Perrier on the table. “The client said: ‘Our product not good enough for you then?’ As I said – reasons to exclude.”

Another agency was pitching for package delivery company UPS (United Parcel Services). All was going well until it wanted to send some materials over by post. Unfortunately, the agency post room sent them by FedEx.

One invitee added another example after the presentation. He described a pitch meeting in which all was going well until the creative director nonchalantly poured himself a glass of wine in mid-speech. The CMO viewed this as arrogant – and the agency was off the list.

The same guest remarked: “Sometimes there’s a tension between the client, who may be a fairly down-to-earth type from the provinces, and the agency who are stuck in their sophisticated urban bubble.”

Phillips said this himself: “Reflect client culture. If you can, mirror their language.”

He also advised agencies to rehearse their pitch – again and again. He was wary of what he called “pitch theatre” if the presentation itself lacked content. One agency turned its entire upper floor into a replica of a bank in order to impress a potential client. It failed to win the business. Another agency, however, won luxury hotel brand Four Seasons merely by demonstrating that the pens found in its hotel rooms were exactly the same as the pens found in its rivals’ rooms. “That’s the problem – you need to differentiate.”

He advised agencies to respect the timing of the pitch. “An hour is an hour. Don’t be afraid to skip slides if you’re running over time.”

If you lose the pitch, he warned, keep in touch with the client. “Sometimes, they’ll come back when they’re ready.”

Six pitch tips from Paul Phillips

• The meeting begins when the client walks in the door
• Don’t attempt to fake passion for the client’s business
• Details are vital – appoint a specific person to monitor these
• Give the client (and your colleagues) room to speak
• Beware of style over strategy
• Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse