12 Steps to a Winning Pitch

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As an agency new business director for several years, and now a business development consultant, I've worked on hundreds of pitches—advertising agencies, medical education companies, public relations firms and interactive, for pharmaceutical, device and diagnostics clients. From those experiences and from client feedback, I've found the following to be the 12 most important key steps toward getting the win you deserve. Some are obvious, some less so, and all worth investing effort and time behind doing as well as possible.

1. Manage first impressions. Make sure you sound organized, eager, and professional on the phone when you respond to the client's first call. Get back to them fast if they leave a message. Give them reasons to like you from the start. Ask smart questions—ideally, ones that your client contact will need to bring to others on his or her team to get an answer; that builds your reputation for depth and insight. 

2. Decide go/no-go—fast. Don't waffle, but don't take on pitches you can't reasonably expect to win. If you're in it, drop everything else and go for it. If you can't, bow out now, before you damage your credibility with a late exit or (worse yet) a half-baked presentation.

3. Pick the right team. Choose a team that matches or complements the client team. (This means finding out as much as possible about the client team, as soon as you can.) Ensure each team member has great presentation skills along with a great attitude and great (relevant) experience. Get outside coaching if your teams can benefit from it. Only the strongest survive in pitch competitions.

4. Start up efficiently. Time is the scarcest of all your resources. Don't hesitate a second. Working back from the pitch date, map out timelines by hours, not just days. Get firm commitments and raise hell if people don't deliver. Manage the team's time with discipline, and you'll get to the pitch date rehearsed, ready and rested. Slacken time management, and you'll be in for late nights and dark circles under presenters' eyes.

5. Discover the ah-ha! Find ways to surprise your clients. Such as: unexpected insights into their customers' worlds.... an unexplored opportunity to dramatically build their business.... or some other concept or finding that will set your team far apart from others. Be tough on yourself as you evaluate possibilities. Is it a truly big idea? Can it change the market? Is it meaningful and manageable? Don't waste time on inconsequentials. And be prepared with facts to support your beliefs.

6. Strategize twice, not once. Develop two powerful strategies. The obvious one is for your client, and how you'll make the brand a huge success. The other is for you, how you'll set your firm apart from all others in his or her eyes. Create a short list of key take-home messages about you that your client must leave your presentation remembering. Then practice delivering them in ways that your client can't miss.

7. Stick to your theme. Show how everything holds together, and how it makes you stand for something valuable, something that is difficult to find elsewhere. Draw inescapable connections between creative elements and strategic directions. Make it easy to see the main benefits that your agency or firm is bringing to the client's brand and work, and make it hard to choose anyone else.

8. Produce a powerful pitch, not a masterpiece. If you simply must be a perfectionist, save it for paying work. For pitches, keep the quality of your charts, deck slides and documents just high enough to impress clients, but not so high as to bankrupt you and blow your deadlines. Excessive perfectionism stalls more pitches—and causes more frenzied nights late in the process as teams try to make up lost time—than any other factor.
It's how the team performs in the pitch, and the excitement they build, that determines the win—not how perfect the exhibits look. “An ugly win is better than a pretty loss,” as my daughter's soccer coach always tells her team. Exception: video—because scrimping in this medium looks and sounds so unprofessional to generations who have grown up watching broadcast and cable TV.

9. Rehearse. Then rehearse some more. On a similar theme, don't waste rehearsal time tweaking slides or talking about what you'll say—say it! Talk through the presentation out loud, by yourself and as a group, until your story is clear to listeners, your team is aligned and your value to others is inescapable. Rehearse your Question & Answer section, too.

10. Nail the logistics. Leave nothing (technology, weather, transportation, shipping, security) to chance. If possible, visit the pitch room beforehand, or get photos and floor plans. Use checklists. Know where you'll place boards and projectors, where you'll greet clients, and where the most important ones will sit. Build yourself a cushion of time to make sure your team arrives rested, refreshed, relaxed and ready.

11. Wow them. Show the client a team they'll fall in love with, full of honest enthusiasm, energy and ability. Prove that everyone there is dedicated to the assignment and will get his or her hands dirty making the client a star. Start each section with a ‘grabber' and never let go. And ask for the sale. When the show's over, ask: “Can you give us this business?” or something similar.

12. Close all the loops. Leave the room clean and tidy. Follow up immediately with client thank yous and next steps. Debrief your team: What worked? What didn't? Get client feedback, good and bad. And file away everything re-usable, carefully labeled and indexed, to save time and effort for the next pitch. You're going to need these resources: If you're taking care these 12 steps, chances are very good you'll be invited to lots of pitches, and winning more than your  share of them. 

Rob Buccino is president of NeoCortex Consulting Group
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