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Want to enjoy the pitch process? Here’s how to be better prepared

By Gregor Matheson, Design director



The Drum Network article

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August 1, 2019 | 11 min read

"Great news! We got through to the pitch..."

Cello Signal on the importance of planning, inspired by Pixar's Inside Out animation.

Signal on the importance of planning, inspired by Pixar's Inside Out animation.


If you’ve ever had the pleasure of watching Pixar's Inside Out, you’ll be familiar with the characters of Joy, Anger, Sadness, Disgust, and Fear, who are the emotions that sit at a control panel inside the mind of a young girl.

When we hear the fateful news that we are successfully through to a pitch, we can almost picture Joy and Fear wrestling at the helm of our minds.

Initially, Joy is winning the battle. After all, the opportunity to pitch for something we have all worked incredibly hard for is fantastic news. However, you soon begin to feel Fear slowly peeling control from the firm grip of Joy as reality begins to set in.

Fear is a natural worrier, leading him to lack confidence in his ability. And he usually finds himself in a state of overwhelm "Wait...they want to do the pitch in a week's time? How the hell are we going to win this?" Before you know it, Fear has full-control and Joy is nowhere to be found.

Personally, I believe this fear is created from just a single aspect of the entire pitch process - lack of effective preparation. My father has worked offshore his whole life and frequently reminded me of the '6P's' when I was in school: Prior Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance. Never did I think an acronym out of an oil and gas training manual would serve me well in the creative industry... but he was right.

Throughout my career, I have learnt that the more you embrace preparation and the numerous hurdles that follow between brief and pitch, the easier and less stressed you will feel. Unsurprisingly, the more effectively you prepare, the smoother and more successful pitches become. Who'd have thought?

Sadly, there is no such thing as 'the perfect pitch'. Spoiler alert.

Time and resources are usually the key limiting factors, but agencies are likely to have any number of unexpected challenges on top of that.

However, I truly do believe that by practising the following three areas, you can ensure you and your team are prepared to the best of your ability and can actually begin to enjoy the pitch process.

1. Qualification

When we get invited to tender or pitch, it is easy to run towards a solution. So much so, that we sometimes forget to take a moment and qualify the work first. It is critical to get together as a team, interrogate the opportunity and answer some hard questions, honestly.

  • What does the client really need? Interacting with your client as much as possible before pitch day will give you an insight into what they really need, and whether your agency/team is best suited to solving those challenges. Speaking to them directly might give you valuable insights that aren’t apparent in the written brief. Addressing these during the pitch will help you stand out and forge a stronger connection with the client.
  • What are they going to be like to work with? These interactions will give you a valuable insight into how they might behave as a client. Are they showing any signs of what it might be like to work with them, positive or negative?
  • What will this do for us? We (rightly) spend a lot of our time thinking about what we can bring to the client, that we fail to ask ourselves: what will this do for our business? Will it be work we can be proud of that we can also turn into a great case study? Does it align with our ethos and values? You need to know why you want the work.
  • How winnable is this? Possibly one of the hardest questions to answer honestly. While it is important to challenge yourselves and those around you, there is little reward going for work that you have zero chance of winning. Consider the competition. Do you have appropriate sector experience and credentials? Do you have a more distinctive or compelling solution? Can you actually deliver what they are asking?
  • What's the cost of pitching? Pitching is a necessary evil in our industry. We have to do a lot of work upfront, for free, with no promise of winning the work. However, the bigger question is, how much time and effort is your business willing to give before you reach the point of diminishing returns? You also need to measure the Rational Cost vs Emotional Cost. Yes, this might turn into great case study one day, but will it completely demoralise the team in the process and become 'one of those projects'?

2. Storytelling

Being a creative, I'll admit, I am going to be a little biased here. While adopting all these habits are important in effectively preparing for a pitch, I truly believe that storytelling is imperative to the success of a pitch or proposal itself.

  • Telling a story vs presenting facts and information: There is a humongous difference between telling a story and presenting facts and information. In order to be remembered, you need to take the individuals you are presenting to on a journey with you, and you can only do that through compelling storytelling.
  • Hold my attention: recently released a creative writing course with the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood. She discusses that the way in which people tell stories has differed and evolved over time, but the primary rule has always remained the same - hold their attention. In the case of a pitch, the minute the people in the room switch off, you have lost the work.
  • Your opener: The story begins on Slide 1. If you are the first speaker of the day, the opening sentence is your ticket to setting the tone of your pitch and most importantly, being remembered. That opener can be used in a multitude of ways: to show gratitude, surprise and delight, empathy or even shock.
  • The Fortune Cookie Principle: The Fortune Cookie Principle is a book by Bernadette Jiwa about brand storytelling, but I believe it can be applied to presentations. The primary message is that people don’t buy fortune cookies because they taste better than other cookies. They buy them for the fortune inside. It’s that intangible thing that has the ability to change how people feel.

The pitch team needs to dedicate time to discover what the ‘fortune’ of the pitch is. This might be a big vision for the product/service, or a differing point-of-view from your competitors. Maybe you have access to insight or technology that they don't have, or perhaps your company's purpose and values align closely to that of the client. Once you have collectively decided what this is, you can all write your content knowing it is aligned to the same vision, instead of working in silos.

3. Divide & conquer

Pitching is not, and should not, be one person's responsibility. You need to assemble the best pitch team crafted around the unique set of challenges of that client, sector or brief.

  • Pick the right people. Not the free right now people: The team should be comprised of the individuals who will provide the most value to the pitch. While tempting, too often we opt for those with the most availability in their calendar. If they are the right people, they will find the time and make it work
  • ...then trust them: While there needs to be senior-level direction and sign-off, too many chefs spoil the broth. If you have picked the right team, you shouldn't have to babysit them. Trust your team and they will feel empowered to produce their best work.

Treat the pitch like a project

Pitches are critical to your business, so why wouldn't you treat it with the same rigour and quality as a live project? Meaning…

Assign roles

Every person involved in the pitch should have an assigned role. I personally believe within every pitch team there are three roles and you need to assign these to the optimum number of people that will result in the best work. These roles are:

  • The Manager - is the person who ensures smooth-running of the proposal and/or pitch by setting deadlines, chasing individuals for content and planning run-throughs. This is not to be confused with sign-off. Sign-off should be a collective decision of the pitch team.
  • The Producers - are the right individuals who have been chosen to be part of the pitch team. They are the ones responsible for collectively telling a compelling story and deciding what the content of the pitch should be.
  • The Creator - is the person responsible for creating the final document that the client will see. Due to the nature of the role, this is typically a member of the design team. However, The Creator can also be one of The Producers. It is their responsibility to take the team's content (series of scamps, a skeleton deck, rough draft etc) and visually bring it to life.

Enforce deadlines

Surprise, surprise...a smooth-running pitch process also means setting internal content deadlines. These should be set by The Manager and strictly adhered to be the pitch team. This ensures that you leave enough time for run-throughs, feedback and final changes. While it may sound extreme, I truly believe that if you are late in producing your content and/or don't attend run-throughs, you are sending a subliminal signal to the team that the pitch and the team are not important to you. Never be that person.

Practice, not perfect

This advice may seem counterintuitive at first but a mentor of mine always taught me to never perfect your pitch. The stories you tell and the emotions you show during a pitch need to feel real. And the only way that will happen is if there is an element of improvisation on the day.

This doesn't mean sit back and do nothing. It means that if you know the slides, know what you want to say and believe in the work, you shouldn't need to rehearse every word you are going to say within an inch of its life. Schedule run-throughs, not rehearsals.

Remember, pitching is not easy. However, if you practice these areas and habits consistently, I guarantee that your pitches and presentations will get better. There will be hurdles and setbacks, but don't get discouraged. Have faith in the system and the system will reward you.

Gregor Matheson, Design director at Signal.


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