We’re pleased to have Jody Sutter guest posting for us on the topic of the pitch. Do you have a plan to win it?
Jody Sutter is a business development expert and the owner of The Sutter Company, a new business consultancy that advises small agencies on organizing and operationalizing their growth strategy.
She helps them generate revenue by demystifying and simplifying the process of pitching new business. Her programs make it easier for small agencies to embrace and sustain a new business strategy because they take both the agency’s strengths and available resources into consideration.
You can also pick up her book, A Small Agency’s Guide to Winning New Business: 8 Steps to Winning More of the Right Kinds of Clients, on Amazon.com.
In November, Adweek released the results of a survey of 70 brand marketers asking them to rate their agencies’ performance during 2020 and anticipate plans for changing or retaining their agencies next year.
The headline warned that 40% of brands may seek new agencies in 2021. Attention-grabbing stuff, to be sure. But not wholly surprising.
Earlier this year, MediaPost also predicted a high-level of pitch activity. The article framed it as an opportunity for independent agencies. Why? Because clients were starting to feel the full effects of layoffs and cutbacks at agency holding companies, pricking those clients to take their business elsewhere.
And, anecdotally, many of my clients, small independent agencies, have never been busier. This includes shops that specialize in serving sectors that were particularly hard hit during the pandemic, such as restaurants and education.
The RFPs and new business inquiries keep rolling in.
I’m not here to read the tea leaves (I’ll leave that to Adweek, MediaPost, and others more qualified than me), but the situation did get me thinking about pitching and, more specifically, positioning your agency to win.
Your job is not to please the client
A couple of months ago I wrote about how the pandemic was changing the nature of agency reviews and I said (perhaps optimistically) that disruption on the scale of a global pandemic may provide the jolt we need to break free from patterns that don’t serve us anymore (like the one-sided process of a marketer selecting from a collection of overly solicitous agencies vying for its business).
As I mentioned in that post, your job is not to dump a bunch of credentials slides on the clients and hope to overwhelm them with your awesomeness.
Your job is to advance the sales process and close the deal. Easier said than done, to be certain, and you will be better served if you start off with a plan that involves more than just enthusiasm and the willingness to “do what it takes” to win.
How do you plan to win?
Start each pitch with a strategic plan to win the business. Here are a few considerations for what to include:
Distinguish between implied needs and expressed needs
First, understand what the implied needs and motivations of the client are.
Explicit business needs are expressed in the RFP, of course, but it’s a mistake not to consider personal agendas too. Each individual on the client team is likely to have other motivations beyond seeking an innovative, efficient marketing solution for the business they represent.
That’s the idea behind Bain & Co.’s B2B Elements of Value pyramid. It lists 40 distinct kinds of value ranked by five levels of importance to buyers of business-to-business products and services. From lowest to highest they are:
1. Table stakes (which includes things like an acceptable price and meeting specifications)
2. Functional value (e.g., improved top line, innovation, product quality)
3. Ease of doing business (e.g., reduced effort, decreased hassles, availability)
4. Individual value (e.g., growth and development, reputational assurance, fun and perks)
5. Inspirational value (e.g., vision, hope, social responsibility)
You might be surprised, as I was when first introduced to the pyramid, at things like “innovation” and “improved top-line” are ranked lower in value and how comparatively important individual and inspirational values are, like getting ahead in one’s career or doing good for mankind. Bain & Company explains:
“As B2B offerings become ever more commoditized, the subjective, sometimes quite personal concerns that business customers bring to the purchase process are increasingly important. Indeed, our research shows that with some purchases, considerations such as whether a product can enhance the buyer’s reputation or reduce anxiety play a large role. Recognizing the full range of both rational and emotional factors behind business purchases — and tailoring the value proposition accordingly — is critical to avoiding the commodity trap.”
I’ve been working with a strategy and design consultancy and recently introduced the Elements of Value pyramid to leadership there. Despite no previous awareness of it, they were already incorporating the principles in their approach to pitching. One of the first things the CEO told me when I asked him to describe common characteristics among his typical clients was that his clients are often looking for a bit of glory — a promotion, a quick win in a new role, or even a sense of higher purpose.
By being aware of this and shaping their pitch to address it in some way (along with all the other overt requirements of the client), they often put themselves in a strong position to win the business.
Redirect the brief
How many times in your career have you grumbled behind the client’s back about an unclear or inadequate RFP or project brief?
An RFP describes what the client thinks is needed to solve the business problem at hand. And, in their zeal to please, agencies don’t often challenge those assumptions. They default to a “client is always right” mentality.
I’m certain that clients do their best to anticipate all their needs when writing an RFP. But clients are humans too and humans are imperfect. What’s more, they’re probably not experts in the subject matter to the extent you are.
(Can you imagine if you had to write a clear, comprehensive brief for your plumber when your kitchen sink mysteriously starts to back up?)
Sometimes winning the pitch lies in your ability not only to recognize that the client is asking you to solve the wrong problem but to probe for what the true underlying problems are. Your job is to ask questions, challenge assumptions, present alternatives, and ultimately guide the client toward describing the true desired future state. Only then can you propose the right solution.
Focus on the most convincing reason (not all the reasons) to hire you
Now that you’ve refined or even redefined the ideal outcomes at both the enterprise and the personal level, you must convince the client that your agency is the best-qualified choice.
And that hinges on playing to your strengths. Too often I see agencies fall prey to the temptation of offering the client all the potential reasons why the client should hire them. That’s a flawed strategy for two big reasons:
1. It forces the client to do more work than they want to. We don’t like having too many choices. And when a client is sifting through multiple RFP responses that all kinda sound the same, they are craving a clear message.
2. Some reasons to hire you are going be stronger than others. Why focus on your weaknesses?
It’s not easy to build a persuasive case for your agency when you are overcompensating for weaknesses.
Here’s an example. One of my clients, a website design agency, recently pitched a business that had issued two different RFPs. One RFP was for website design and it fell beautifully within the agency’s sweet spot. The other RFP was for traditional branding and marketing services. The client offered the agency a chance to pitch for both and the agency was captivated by the opportunity to potentially win a coveted branding project.
The problem was the agency didn’t have the right credentials for a branding project. And the proposal reflected it. The one for website design was concise, smart, and easy to read. The case studies were relevant, and the proposed approach demonstrated mastery and instilled confidence that the client would be in excellent hands.
In contrast, reading the branding proposal felt like watching someone try to punch their way out of a giant paper bag.
Not only was the proposal longer and wordier, but even the language and idioms used were off. My clients over-relied on what they knew, how to build websites, in an attempt to camouflage their lack of experience in brand-building.
In the end, the agency was indeed awarded the website project and failed to make it through the first round of selection for the branding work. I admired the agency’s willingness to go for it, but it was too big a leap — and from my perspective, not worth the enormous amount of time and energy that went into trying to be something they are not.
Is 2021 the year of the independent agency?
We are entering a period where smaller indie agencies have a chance to shine and win business from clients that have traditionally hired larger, higher-profile holding company agencies in the past.
Take full advantage of this trend and have a plan to win.