A Guide to Perfecting the New Business Pitch

Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



Some agencies approach new business pitches like an assembly line with a “one presentation fits all” mentality. Others go so far as to produce big ideas replete with full creative executions hoping for an immediate “yes.” Still others throw something together at the last minute, assuming their tap dance will work. 

Because there’s so much more to pitching new business than putting the ultimate presentation together, we’ve assembled this short guide to get you going on the right foot (or put you back on track).

Who’s “the Catcher”?

Before you even think about putting a pitch together, qualify the prospect. Don’t waste limited resources pitching to any prospect because you’re hungry for business.

What kind of client is a good fit for your agency? By “fit” we mean a client that will feed your agency’s soul -- not just its bank account. What kind of client energizes you to do your best work? What type of client is most profitable for you? What kind of client adds luster to your own brand? How big are they? What industry are they in? What kind of customers do they have?

Whatever your criteria are, put that list together, and rigorously qualify all prospects against them before you commit to a new business pitch.

Do Your Homework

The more you know about the prospect’s industry, business model (i.e., how they make money), customers, competitors, positioning, and communications, the better prepared you will be to ask them strategic questions -- the answers to which provide the context (or frame) for your pitch.

Clarity Trumps Persuasion

The purpose of the pitch is to convince the prospect that your agency can solve the client's marketing problem(s). Flint McLaughlin, director of MECLABS, has done many experiments that show how being clear is the most powerful form of persuasion. Concepts and points, clearly conveyed, are laser beams that carve into the prospect’s mind. Clarity moves the prospect forward with you. Confusion keeps her stuck. Stuck means she tunes you out, and your pitch is dead.

Be Realistic

When pitching, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and start to believe there’s nothing you can’t do for this prospect. It’s tempting to expand beyond the initial scope of your pitch to make predictions and promises that are unrealistic, especially when answering the prospect’s questions. Unrealistic predictions and promises are not believable. If they’re not believable, you aren’t either.

Tell A Great Story

You already know that storytelling is the quintessential pitching skill. But for some reason, during a new business pitch many agencies neglect their storytelling skills in a rush to show all of the great spec work they did for the client, or worse, they talk about their capabilities instead.

You can wade through thousands of search results to find the perfect slide formula for an agency pitch or for the latest rules and tips on pitching new business. But those slides don’t tell you how to tell a mesmerizing story

So we turned to where the world goes for great stories: Hollywood. Academy Award-winning director, producer, and screenwriter Billy Wilder had his 10 commandments for screen writing. As you read through these and Garr Reynolds’ insights on applying them to presentations, you’ll discover insights relevant to creating the perfect pitch. Our favorite is No. 6: if you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.

Exude Passion

Passionate people are high energy and contagious. They show enthusiasm, curiosity, and openness. If you can’t (as a team) pitch with authenticity and passion, don’t waste your prospect’s time. It will be blatantly obvious you’re faking it, and your work will be substandard. Neither one serves you. 

Practice Makes Perfect

This is no time to wing it. The best pitches may start out as bullet points or even fully written scripts. But by the time you deliver it, your pitch had better be fused into each team member’s DNA so you’re all walking and talking naturally. It should never come across as stiff. 

No Wallflowers Allowed

From a prospect’s point of view, the worst thing you can do is have the head honchos deliver the pitch while the rest of the team, especially the prospect’s account manager, sit there silently. Whoever you bring into the room must have an active role to play. The prospect wants to get a feel for your agency and the team that will be working on her account. The pitch should be designed to provide that glimpse.

Also, your team should treat each other respectfully during the pitch -- or it’s all over. Leave the creative genius at home if he’s going to dominate the room or antagonize anyone.

Persuasion Is a Process

The pitch rarely happens in a vacuum. There are multiple interactions before the big day. Persuasion is (or should be) used during those times, too. According to Jay Conger, professor of management at USC’s Marshall School of Business, there are four distinct steps: establish credibility, identify shared benefits, reinforce using vivid language and compelling evidence, and connect emotionally. All of them are familiar to you because you do this every day for your clients.

Overall, the key thing to remember is that the most persuasive people tend to be the most open-minded, the most willing to listen, they ask insightful questions, and they collaborate in finding a solution even if means adopting someone else’s suggestions. This person finds a way so the prospect wins, and they do too. There is no “ego” in persuasion. Keep it that way.

There are thousands of great books you can read, but the seminal work is by Dr. Robert Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

The Path to No More Pitching

Pitches are, for the moment, expected in the advertising agency world. There is much that is broken about that process, from both sides of the table. And things are slowly changing. 

There are some ad agencies that have been able to stop pitching. How did they get there? What makes them different? As Peter Levitan points out, they are few and far between and for good reasons. It takes work and tremendous commitment to reach that enviable state. 

Author Blair Enns, in his book A Win Without Pitching Manifesto, discusses his 12-step prescription. He firmly believes that when agencies rethink how they package and sell their expertise, they are able to set themselves apart from their competition. That takes them out of the pitching business and back into doing what they do best.

And while most agencies are not quite there yet, it’s an inspiring goal that many advertising agencies are actively working toward today. Will you be one of them?


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