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Karmarama, St Luke’s and MSQ share the secrets to pitching success


By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

February 28, 2022 | 9 min read

The AAR Group recently released a report highlighting the British advertising agencies that had secured the most new business and their pitch-win conversion rates. The Drum caught up with some of the top agencies featured on the secrets of their pitching success.

baseball pitcher

How can agencies perfect their pitching? / Unsplash

Winning new business and beating off the competition to retain your existing clients is an art every agency needs to master. After two years of agencies pitching furiously, first to survive the economic hit of the pandemic in 2020 and then to make certain they caught the wave of recovery in 2021, we wanted to understand how the most successful agencies have honed their mastery of the art.

According to Ben Bilboul, chief executive officer of Karmarama, a pitch is ”a moment in time with a client where anything is possible.”

”There’s the sense that we’re going to create the future for the next five years of this brand. It’s the moment you all wish for in agencies.”

His agency was among those named by a recent AAR Group report as having one of the best conversion rates in competitive pitches in the UK. The report was based on agencies self-reporting their pitching victories, where the UK office was the sole party or lead agency. According to the marketing consultancy, Karmarama won six out of seven pitches in 2021, a conversion rate of 83.7%.

Choosing battles

But whether an opportunity has come from an invitation or an RFP, knowing when a client is a good fit for an agency – or not – is important. ”We turn down the majority of opportunities for us to pitch,” says Bilboul. ”It’s critical to pick the right one.”

Whether a pitch is right might come down to its fit with an agency’s existing specialisms or experience with a specific category, or a moral objection. Many agencies today refuse to work with tobacco firms, for example.

London agency St Luke’s won every pitch it went up for last year, according to the AAR. Chief executive Neil Henderson says: “There are certain categories we’re stronger in and categories we’re not so strong in. When you’re desperate and there’s not many opportunities around you, the temptation is to go for things that you’re not as strong in as other agencies, but you’re putting yourself on a losing wicket. It’s really hard saying ’no,’ but if you’re confident that new business is going to keep coming, you can say ’no’ to things you’re not so good at.

”If you’ve got the relevant experience, the relevant credentials, the right kind of cast in the meeting with the right experience themselves – the more you can do that, the more likely you are to win.”

It can also come down to something as human as interpersonal chemistry. “You’re also looking at the client’s values and at the way they approach the pitch,“ says Henderson. ”Chemistry is a two-way thing.”

”We’ve certainly pulled out after chemistry meetings because we’ve learned something about budgets or what it was that they were really trying to do, or the way they were going about the pitch wasn’t appropriate for us. It’s a great place to be if you can do that.”

MSQ’s executive partner Kate Howe, who works across many of the pitches the indie network goes for, agrees (MSQ agencies weren’t included in the AAR report).

”We have three Ps: profit, passion and prestige. We ask: does this relationship have the potential to become a long-term partnership? Is it something we can invest in and genuinely deliver something that will be mutually beneficial? Does the client have values that align with ours, so that it will be a great experience for our people to work on it? And can we do something amazing with this client – award-winning work, game-changing work?”

Not every client has to meet each criteria, she says. ”If we get two out of three, we might be very happy to progress.“ Further qualifying factors might be budget and the actual brief itself. “There’s lots of brands that want you to pitch and won’t tell you what the budget is – they won’t even give you an idea. It’s like, ’hang on, we’re a commercial business too.’ We’re not going enter into a partnership without certain data.”

There’s another reason to consider limiting new business pitches, Bilboul says. Batting for new work can have a major impact on staff morale, both for good and bad. ”It can create the best buzz in the agency. But if you lose too many on the trot it can really destroy morale and confidence. It’s critical that you do the ones you think you can win. You don’t want to be the CEO who’s standing up too often going, ’It wasn’t us, it was them,’ because then you sound like you don’t know how to pick the right pitch.”

Squad rotation

Approaches to pitches differ considerably between agencies. At St Luke’s, Henderson estimates 20% of its staff have participated in a new business pitch at some point.

Henderson says: ”A lot of agencies just have the one pitch team who throw themselves at every pitch, and you can only really do one at a time. We’ve thought that through and [instead] we have multi-pitch teams ... so we can do two pitches on the same day with totally separate pitch teams. Something like 20% of the agency have actually presented.”

The experience can be a key learning moment for younger team members, he says. ”We involve people, we give them responsibility. And when they’re in the pitch room, we can genuinely say that the people in the room are going to work on the business.”

In contrast, MSQ takes a more focused approach. Howe says that while some new client work comes in directly to its agencies (either by invitation or as an expansion on an existing account), the network prefers to bid for new work on their behalf. ”Increasingly, brands are coming to us as MSQ and saying: ’We need a complex set of capabilities to solve our challenges. Can you put your group together in a way that sells things for us?’”

Though she says MSQ’s agency leaders are able to use ”a huge amount of autonomy” to meet client needs, integrated pitches ”enable us to apply our model in the way it’s actually been designed, with creativity as a differentiator, technology as an enabler and data as a driver. That’s something that we relish the opportunity to do, because that’s why we designed MSQ.”

Most of those pitches, Howe says, are handled by a crack team of experienced, ‘hands-on’ multi-disciplinarians. Clients are short on time, and so the company chooses to front-load experience. Recalling her own time client-side at bookmaker Coral, she says: ”One of the things that’s just infuriating to clients is when they meet an agency team through a pitch process, and then they never see them again, and they get delegated to the cleaners and MSK. We’re all about senior people with their sleeves rolled up working on your business.”

And at Karmarama, Bilboul relies on a vanguard of the ”best new business team in the industry.”

”Like most agencies we have a core team who are first in line, which is our marketing and new business function,” he says. ”You want to put the right people on the pitch every time. It has to be the right team, and motivated.”

Human capital

Whether an agency wins or loses a pitch, the toll invariably falls on its staff. ”Pitching is hugely capital intensive, intensive on human capital as well as financially,” Bilboul says. Every agency has to balance winning with the wellbeing of its people.

Writing earlier this month in The Drum, IPA president and VCCP international chairman Julian Douglas highlighted the strain that pitching can take on staff mental health. “Pitches have become more frequent, more complex and more costly. More costly to the agency and advertiser, to the individuals involved and to the environment,“ said Douglas.

“Largely unfunded, it demands significant investment in time and money for agencies and clients alike, neither of which have good people sitting on the bench. With the added complications of working remotely and the associated changes this brings, we are seeing an increase in burnout and mental health ramifications at the individual level. At the industry level, we are seeing a talent exodus from advertising.“

Bilboul suggests that managers build in slack to their planning to account for downtime and recovery. ”You have to have some headroom in your resource plan so you know you have the availability to do pitches – they’re not going to go away any time soon. But that doesn’t equate to unlimited pitching, because you will burn people out really quickly.”

For Henderson, ”culture is the secret sauce” that prevents team fatigue. ”Culture is the thing that allows you to do pitch after pitch after pitch with a group of people that are highly talented [and] up for it.”

Giving more staff a role on pitching teams means each of them have a stake in their success. ”People have really got to be committed and they’ve got to want to win,” he concludes.

”There’s a hunger that runs throughout the agency and clients can sense that.”

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