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Feng shui and lucky shirts: Ad execs on their pitch quirks, rituals, and tips

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By Sam Anderson, Network Editor

October 16, 2023 | 11 min read

From lucky watches to feng shui and advice from Simon Cowell, ad execs from The Drum Network share how they make an impression in pitches.

A lucky ceramic cat

How do ad execs get in the lucky zone before a pitch? / Samuel Branch via Unsplash

Last month, The Drum asked ad execs what they’re doing to make the pitch process less stressful. Waste and stress are serious issues affecting much of the industry, leading to initiatives like the Pitch Positive Pledge, which tries to make things a little less grim for all concerned.

But alongside that serious issue, there’s a raft of slightly less weighty worries that nonetheless loom large for pitchers and pitches. What should you wear to a pitch? How funny should you be? How much personal research about the client does it take to cross over from interested to creepy? These considerations combine to generate a rich, hidden psychodrama of superstitions and quirks behind even the most professional pitch meeting. Here, leaders from The Drum Network share their little obsessions and gems of wisdom.

Matt Ward, commercial director, Clickthrough: “I have a few quirks when building relationships that have been with me for years. I always wear a white shirt when meeting clients, whether potential, new or existing. Everyone in my office knows if we have clients in by the color of my shirt.

“I also insist on wearing a jacket for at least the first 3 meetings with a client or until we have a good enough relationship. This is true for both face-to-face and virtual meetings.

Asher Wren, vice president of growth, Dept: “Casting the right leads on a pitch to ensure that there’s a true emotional connection to the brand and work is one of our core strategies. If you dig deep enough there’s always someone with an emotional connection to a brief that comes in.

“Recently, we pitched a tech company that works with SMBs, and in asking around found that one of our growth leads used the platform to power their own fashion e-commerce brand. They were able to speak confidently and emotively about how the brand had helped her to build their business.

“In another pitch, for a niche, luxury retailer, we cast our lead strategist because they’d worked as a store associate for the brand in their teens. It’s one thing to be well-read on a brand, and another altogether to empathize from first-hand experience why the brand matters to its customers and its impact on their lives.”

Tim Jones, founder & director, True: “It’s all about making a connection on a human, personal level. Beyond the basics of researching their business, financials, product or service offering, price points etc, I follow the mantra of ‘nothing is interesting if you’re not interested’.

“Often the most impressive quality about a person isn’t necessarily where they’ve previously worked, but the formative detail; where they’ve lived, their passion project, or the people they’ve met along the way. If possible, I’ll always try and find out a detail or two about the person I'm meeting. I’m fascinated by coincidence and connection, and there’s almost always one to be found between two people and their lives. That’s as powerful as any business fact find.”

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Brennen Roberts, vice president of marketing and growth, The MX Group: “There’s a tendency to focus on the key decision-maker in the pitch process, but we’ve found it critical to have a plan for the entire buying group. Being proactive to create relationship-building opportunities at all levels is a great way for both sides to learn more about each other in the dating phase of the pitch and to instil confidence in the final selection.

“These opportunities don’t create themselves; we have to adopt a mindset that goes beyond the brief and considers how to connect the client’s executive leadership with ours, and their day-to-day team met with our day-to-day team.

“Every relationship advantage helps in competitive pitches, so small gestures like sending a gift card for lunch to a junior team member who can’t attend the pitch can help tip the scales in your favor. Good relationships signal ‘I’ve got your back’. Sending those signals is worth sweating over.”

Jody Osman, director of growth, Propeller Group: “When bringing together a pitch team, it’s important to ensure that everyone is clear on their role and is suitably prepared and supported throughout the process. At the same time, you need to keep it fun.

“Get everyone to practice their intros and make sure they’re succinct and impactful – you only get one chance to make a first impression. Do your research on the company and all the people you are meeting to find any connections, interests, or background in common (without sounding like you’re stalking them). Ask relevant questions and make sure you read the room to understand when you need to inject some energy, and when to listen. Enjoy silent pauses along the way; these can be powerful when pitching as it gives people time to reflect and create impact.

“Agree next steps; have them in mind in advance. Are you looking for a decision, a place on the roster, or a follow-up meeting? Be proactive and timely with any follow-up. Make sure the client feels like you really want to work with them, rather than just win their account. Finally, a tip from Simon Cowell: stop selling when you hear a yes; keep cool and wrap things up before you talk yourself out of a deal.”

Nikki O'Brien, vice president, accounts, Mas: “When it comes to having superstitions, I certainly do. I’m all about feng shui; I keep a plant in the far left corner of my office to symbolize growth. It’s visible on my calls so that even as I am staring at the screen, the little bit of green peeking over my shoulder stands as a reminder for me every day.”

Charli Edwards, creative director, Cavendish Consulting: “The key to a pitch is breaking the tension. Crack a joke – it won't kill you or your chances of success.

“Working in a pretty serious sector as creative director, I always find a way to lighten the mood as quickly as possible to enable relaxed conversations and natural chemistry. In my latest pitch, everyone was concerned about the lack of space in the meeting room, so to break the minor panic, I let everyone know that, it’s fine, I can do the interpretive dance on the table. Mood switched, laughing ensued, and a warm conversational pitch began. (Don’t worry, no actual interpretive dance was performed)”

Seth Gunderson, senior director, growth, Signal Theory: “When our team heads into a pitch, we never say ‘good luck,’ because saying that actually means bad luck. Instead, we say, ‘break a leg’. Historically, when ensemble actors were backstage, they were told to stay behind the ‘leg line’. Staying back meant they didn’t get paid. So when you tell actors to break a leg, you’re wishing them the opportunity to perform for the audience and get paid.

“Advertising will always be about people. No matter who the prospective client is, those prospects aren’t hiring agencies per se; they’re hiring the people (the performers) in the room.”

Stephanie Antonelli, managing director, global organic growth lead, VMLY&R: “We don't have a ton of superstitions, secret handshakes, or pre-pitch routines. We simply show up as people our prospective clients want to hang out with, from the day we say ‘we’re interested in responding’. Some call it the 'Midwest nice' in us, but it's more than that.

“When we prep for a pitch, we’re thoughtful about how we choose our team and create content that the client will be proud to own. We do the homework on what keeps clients up at night. We learn about what they are interested in outside of work. And we take all of that into the room with us. We follow up quickly after the pitch with ‘a little something extra’ to show them we heard them, value them, and are eager to be their partner.”

Adam Bly, head of growth, Impression: “I always wear a watch (a £20 Casio so they don’t think I’m a flashy salesperson) and I always set it one minute quick to keep us punctual. There’s nothing worse than trying to sneak a look at your phone screen for a time check.

“I always have a notebook and I’m always writing stuff down, even if it’s useless. It’s often just verbatim points that our team or client is making. It helps to keep me present and paying attention. I also prep a notebook page with names, roles of attendees and the pitch timing plan.

Finally, I like to sit in a position where I can see the whole room so that I can gauge the vibe at a glance. I could type 500 words on the topic of seating positions in a pitch setting, but that’s for another day.”

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