march-madness-new-businessIt’s that time of year again: March Madness. It’s the season of Cinderella stories, buzzer beaters and heart-breaking defeats. Only 68 of the country’s best teams get invited to the dance, but 67 of them will end the season as losers. In advertising, where new business pitches require agencies to “win or go home,” these themes may sound familiar. Pitches are competitive, high-stakes showdowns that require talent, endurance, and intelligence (and often a little luck). Below are five tips to help your agency cut down the nets.

  1. Devise a winning game plan early: A good strategy is always key to winning. In any pitch, it’s critical to demonstrate your agency’s knowledge of the brand, the consumer and the category — and to do it as early as possible. Distilling that learning down to a strong insight and positioning will be the foundation for your pitch. While primary and secondary research will validate your strategy, don’t let it monopolize your limited time. Based on initial insights and instinct, draft a working brief and immediately engage a team on creative development. Strategy can be refined as more learning is gleaned, but giving the creative team the ball with just seconds remaining on the shot clock rarely results in a high-percentage shot.
  2. Play your starters: While clients and search consultants often ask agencies to feature their day-to-day team in the pitch, always play your stars in critical moments. Your junior- and mid-level talent is your bench. Manage their minutes. A client is ultimately buying an agency, a leadership team and a winning strategy. At crunch time, make sure you have the people on the floor that best represent your agency’s philosophy and culture established by the senior management team.
  3. Execute flawlessly: The best teams limit their errors and execute well against strategy. This comes from practice, and repetition becomes habit. Build rehearsal time into your pitch timetable. Present run-throughs in front of objective agency peers who will provide honest feedback. Pay close attention to delivery as well as content. More practice allows for better storytelling and less reliance on bullet points to get your message across. Flawless execution also means eliminating stupid errors; proofread, arrive at meetings early and ensure there are no A/V issues. For all the time and money you’ve invested in the pitch, why not bring the IT person to troubleshoot unexpected problems? Remember, this is the Big Dance, not Sunday morning pick-up ball.
  4. During the regular season, work to improve your seeding: Even when you’re not in pitch mode, work to improve your odds of receiving RFPs. Refine your agency capabilities presentation and develop tight case studies; produce engaging agency reels, proprietary tools and frameworks that give your agency an advantage. Leverage social media and internal and external media relationships to improve the visibility of your agency. CMOs have established The CMO Club, and like the NCAA Selection Committee, their impression of you can determine your fate. The club is comprised of more than 700 heads of marketing that rate agencies and share recommendations. More than ever, it’s important to develop strong top-to-top relationships with clients and build relationships with search consultants.
  5. Take One Game at a Time: If there’s any theme to March Madness, it’s ‘Survive and Advance.’ Starting with the RFP, aim to win at every stage. Work to clearly understand the objectives and expectations for every meeting. And at each, add something extra that exhibits passion and provides a taste of what’s to come. Cultivate relationships and find reasons to engage a client between big meetings. Even routine email queries can demonstrate desire and communication style. If the final meeting is with the CEO, consider previewing the presentation with the CMO or head of marketing if you’ve developed a relationship throughout the process. It signals a spirit of partnership and you may get feedback that better positions you for the win.

Good luck and enjoy the Madness!

Originally published Mar 29, 2013 1:01:43 AM, updated July 28 2017

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Business Pitches