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Here’s what ad agency bosses are doing to make the pitch process less stressful


By Sam Bradley, Journalist

September 12, 2023 | 11 min read

Pitching levies a heavy toll on advertising workers, but it’s integral to the agency business model. We ask bosses from the US and UK how they alleviate pressure on their teams.

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Agency leaders volunteer their anti-stress policies for better pitching / Unsplash

After a recent survey showed that the pitch process is still causing significant strain for workers despite industry pushes to ease some of the pressure put upon agency staff, we asked agency founders and new business leaders at network and indie shops about how they work to ensure new clients are brought in without bringing down the roof in the process.

How do you solve a problem like… killing a pitch presentation without killing your team?

Christi Tronetti, head of growth, M&C Saatchi London: “As an agency, we used to strive for pitching perfection. Have we covered all bases? Have we answered all the questions? Have we done enough? We were putting importance and energy into the wrong things. We forgot that in pitching, and indeed new business, there is no right answer. Now, we’re starting to ask questions like, are we pushing ourselves and indeed the client hard enough? Are we having the uncomfortable conversations early and often? Does any part of this process truly excite us? And, crucially, we’re having fun again. Lots of laughter, lots of support, lots of pints. And you know what, it’s working.”

Pedro Martins, chief growth officer, Total Media: “It took us a long time to get our process right – and it’s still not perfect. The IPA/Isba Pitch Positive pledge has been a fantastic initiative and we try as much as possible to adhere to it. When it comes to a pitch, we rarely have crazy late nights or burned-out team members tweaking slides late the night before. The reason is threefold: creating a supportive culture and a real team spirit, planning ahead from start to finish of the process and being selective, which means knowing when to say no and pitching for brand challenges we can get excited about and can really deliver for.

“We still don’t get it right 100% of the time, but who does? I would say that 90% of the time the pitch team has all left the building the night before, as close as possible to the usual end of the workday, so they can all bring their usual best selves to the pitch.”

Helen Lee, head of growth and marketing UK & EMEA, Wunderman Thompson: “From the very beginning, it’s about the simple human skills of being constantly curious, asking the client the right questions and listening to the answers, and it’s the same with your pitch team. Taking inspiration from our Lionesses recently, we play well together because everyone knows what their role is and what they’re there to do. That way, you’ll avoid own goals and get yourselves to the final. Rehearse and then rest is my first tip. Don’t push your team to be running through it over and over up to the very last minute. Folks need space to clear their head and get some sleep to perform at their best. My second tip is rituals: encourage the team to rely on their favorite pre-pitch routines to manifest luck. And remember to have fun – clients sense it and want to be part of it.”

Emma Mariscal, business development director, Mother LA: “Teamwork makes the dream work and we believe the team is greater than the sum of its parts. Camaraderie, communication and clear swim lanes are the keys to a low-stress pitch process for us at Mother. When the team works live in a room together, we’re efficient and able to quickly align on what needs to get done and who is tackling it, which are paramount to keeping the full team in lockstep. An added bonus for us is that there are no egos and we all like each other, so it is low-stress and fun.”

Emily Wilcox, chief executive officer, Johannes Leonardo: “The secret to balancing new business with team burnout is only saying yes to pitches that align with our creative ambition and represent meaningful opportunities for our teams to excel and grow. We ask ourselves, does the scale of the challenge or the size of the impact represent a very real personal and professional stretch for our team? When those line up, when people feel part of chasing not just a new business win but a runway for their growth, extra hours don’t end up feeling like hours because the time spent becomes more purposeful.”

Luke Regan, managing partner, DAC Group: “We will never eliminate stress from the pitch process but agencies can get in the habit of producing extremely dense presentations when the pressure is on. Less is more. You mustn’t miss a vital part of the scoring, but you can make your life easier by interrogating the brief on what you really need to cover. Realistically, a client will likely only remember one or two things from your deck (three is excellent). Towards the end of the process, we brutally edit and re-focus the flow of the deck back to the three key messages we want to land.”

Matt Ridsdale, business director of new business, EssenceMediacomX: “We choose carefully what to pitch for and focus on being well-prepared and bonding as a team, defining together what a positive process looks like. We also rotate our staff, so we don’t always rely on the same people and provide training to ensure we have a strong pitch bench and people who are genuinely excited to be involved. With everyone working towards a common goal and trusting each other, it makes for a happier team and better collaboration. It’s also important to throw some fun into the process, especially in the final days before the pitch to celebrate it and go into the presentation with energy. This may include a dance party before the meeting to loosen everyone up and let the team enjoy it.”

Luke Willbourn, managing director UK, Talon: “At the final stages of a pitch, the team in the room has gone through weeks (and in the best cases months) of collaborative preparation. At this point, there is an intrinsic understanding of how everyone is going to contribute to the conversation and comradery emerges naturally. The key is to not kill this off with over-preparation. An assigned pitch leader is vital in maintaining a sense of calm, keeping to the structure, encouraging everyone to embrace their responsibilities, instilling confidence and ensuring everyone is clear on ‘what this content means for the client’ at all times. After the pitch, we make sure to debrief for learnings and focus on celebrating everyone’s hard work – no matter the outcome.”

Bianca Bensemann, executive director for growth, Wolff Olins: “Let’s not kid ourselves; pitching will always be stressful. More often than not, people pitch on top of their day-to-day jobs. But one thing to remember is that chemistry is so important in pitches and something that clients really value. A burned-out team won’t bring the required energy. So at some point, I just make the team stop fiddling with the work and just focus on prepping their story and the presentation. How you show up in the room is going to make more difference than any last-minute tweak to the logo.”

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Michael Maslona, sales director, Summit: “We plan everything early to avoid last-minute stress – be that finalizing audits or proposals, or simply planning where to meet, how to get to the office, train times or car parks or who is attending. This is alongside the basics of scoring the opportunity to ensure a good fit, building relationships with key contacts and asking the right questions in advance. A good sales team will have this all in hand – they are there to not only take the lead with overseeing and delivering the proposal but to ensure that the wider agency team has all they need to make the pitch as easy for them as possible.

Josy Amann, co-founder, Media Matters Worldwide: “It takes structure and adhering to that structure. First, score the opportunity to ensure it’s the right fit for your agency. Second, assign roles. We have a pitch playbook that sets up various roles to ensure accountability every step of the way. This process helps eliminate stress and levels the playing field for contributors who work well under pressure but also those who procrastinate. Some late nights happen, but when we stick to our structure and stay on track, we avoid burnout.”

Later this month, The Drum will be publishing a new report, ‘How to swerve the cancelled pitch’, exclusively for members of The Drum Network. To find out more on how your agency can become a member and read the report, click here.

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