Want to nail your next client presentation? Plan ahead and avoid pitch theater
Vickie Ridley of London agency Lucky Generals explains that planning, not pitch theater, is what wins new business.
Lucky Generals CMO says it’s often best to downplay the theatrical elements of a pitch presentation / Unsplash
The pitching process can take several months from start to finish. Often, at least for the agencies competing within it, that process climaxes with a presentation – a chance for the company’s top team to make their case to an advertiser that they’re the best custodians of its media buying, strategic direction or brand legacy.
A lot of cash can end up riding on a single meeting – a fact which also makes this stage one of the most exhausting for staffers involved.
Vickie Ridley, chief marketing officer and client partner at Lucky Generals, says that it’s important to approach a presentation with a full tank.
“Play the whole series of a pitch as a journey,” she says. “You have to win at every stage, but you also have to hold something back.”
That applies both to the energy levels of teammates and to the content of a pitch. Revealing an idea in its entirety in the earlier tissue stage of a pitch, she warns, risks leaving the client underwhelmed when they see it fleshed out properly in a presentation.
“If you’ve given away too much in the tissue, then the pitch might not go far enough. They’ll leave disappointed because they had such high expectations and you didn’t leave yourself enough room to show off in the final meeting,” she explains.
“If you have a winning idea, how do you make sure that the pitch still feels like a big enough step away from the tissue, to make them feel when they leave that room: ‘God, what if we gave them another two weeks, just think of what they could do?’ Rather than thinking: ‘I still like it but you didn’t wow me’.”
There’s also the risk that going all-in on the presentation stage of a pitch puts too much pressure on staff. A recent study by business platform Pitch found that writing and designing presentations were a particularly acute source of stress during pitching, with 35% of agency staffers pointing to them as the worst part of the process.
To avoid both of those negative outcomes, Ridley emphasizes the need to plan in as much time as possible near the end.
A common tactic? Fake deadlines. “Let’s pretend the pitch is on Wednesday if it’s on Friday, so we get to the idea quicker and then we can spend those two days finessing and practicing,” she explains.
That time is spent planning almost every aspect of a final presentation. Ridley and her colleagues prefer to pitch in person – particularly after the experience of presenting remotely during Covid.
“We had to completely change our style. Our style is very chatty, very informal. You’re trying to build rapport with the client. And as soon as we went on to Zoom or Teams, you lose the ability to do that.”
Though some agency leaders avow remote pitching’s ability to open a business up to new clients beyond their geographic location, Pitch’s survey found that 61% said it was harder on staff. Accordingly, the only aspect Lucky Generals has since retained from those days, she says, is the additional time taken to rehearse for presentations.
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Whenever possible, Ridley and her team look to host a presentation at Lucky Generals’ premises in London. “You get a sense of an agency from its surroundings and atmosphere. We really want our clients to feel that [the agency] is something they can be part of,” she says. “And there’s the panic: if we go elsewhere, will the tech work? How can we be in control of where people sit?”
That last point is more important than you’d think. Ridley says there’s an art and a science to seating arrangements. Ensuring that client and agency staffers are intermingled, set up to swap notes or exchange body language – and that everyone can actually see – might be the deciding factor in making a decision-maker feel heard and valued.
Making that happen means “moving and pulling and sort of shuffling everyone around,” says Ridley – not so obviously that people realize they’re being arranged, but directly enough that your best-placed plan to make eye contact with a key executive at the right moment isn’t spoiled.
“We’ll plan who’s leading the meeting from our side: maybe they should sit closer to the clients. It’s something we think about to create that atmosphere. This is something that’s incredibly hard to maneuver around in hybrid pitches,” she adds.
Other low-key tactics include the correct selection of office snacks (“a step up from our usual crisp selection, though no one ever eats the snacks”), a discreet placement of the client’s product range and goodie bags. Ridley says the latter is approached a little like a child’s birthday party, though instead of a slice of sponge cake, a gift bag is likely to contain a souvenir from the pitching process.
She says: “It might be something we’ve made that sums up the idea or links to what we’ve shown them. We’re not too into the whole pitch theater – we won’t change the entire office – but it’s something to bring the idea to life.”
Ridley is wary of ‘pitch theater’. A misjudged stunt might be taken as evidence of poor budgetary caution by a client, she notes.
“It used to be much more common,” she says, recalling that in an agency berth earlier in her career, the pitching team had printed their prospective slogan on T-shirts and had the entire agency wear them for the client’s visit.
“I don’t think that would go down well now. If the meeting doesn’t go well and they don’t like that slogan, it’s quite a risk. And I’m not sure people would see that as a good use of money anymore,” she says.
“If you are going to do something involving pitch theater, it needs to be more clever or more interesting, or show more creativity than just having a few T-shirts printed.”