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Vox pop: what's the best lesson you ever took from a pitch?

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The pitch is an integral part of our industry. Some might even say it's the foundational skill upon which an agency's success is built. It's also often the most stressful time of a marketeer's life - we've heard some war stories about awful pitches, and triumphant tales of a pitch that soared from the minute it began. In this voxpop we've collected some of the best pitching advice our Drum Network members can offer. Keep checking back in over the week as we add more!

Andrew Dunbar, general manager, EMEA, global digital consultancy Appnovation

With over 20 years’ experience driving growth at big global digital and design companies I’ve almost been at more pitches than I’ve had hot dinners. Yet I still get that adrenaline rush just before a big pitch - it’s the ultimate test of how well we have interpreted the brief, how our capabilities and expertise stack up against the competition and that one thing you can never predict: are we going to click with the client’s team?

As a bit of a control freak, I sweat over the pitches which don’t go to plan, whether it’s members of the pitch team getting lost on the way, key pieces of equipment suddenly not working, or someone on the client side who keeps looking at their phone. That said it’s these situations which can teach the biggest lessons because teams don’t often get a chance to think on their feet in a high stakes environment and it’s amazing to see people rise to the occasion when needed. These mishaps can also help break the ice with the client as you work together to solve the laptop which isn’t behaving or mop up the water that got knocked all over the table.

There’s lots of debate about whether it's better pitch first in the day or last, but I’ve found that really all that positioning does is make a mediocre pitch stand out more from other mediocre pitches. When you have a genuine passion for something, and a team that is great to work with, that’s what clients remember regardless of when or what you present.

My most vivid memory of this happening was several years ago when an important FMCG client interrupted a beautifully polished presentation which had taken weeks to put together to tell us he “didn’t do powerpoint.” Instead he asked the pitch team to talk through the proposal without the help of slides. It was a heart stopping moment and a bit unfair as the RFP had specifically asked for a powerpoint presentation. In actual fact dropping the presentation meant we were able to engage on a much more personal level and show our passion about the project more clearly than we might have done just talking through slides. This more informal approach meant the whole meeting was much more interactive, and both sides really got to know each other. I’m pleased to say that we won the business. It taught me a key lesson: that demonstrating a passionate drive to work with your client to find answers is far more important than a well designed deck.

Carla Knight, director of agency services (UK), APS Group

Pitching for us is one of the highlights of agency life. The collaboration, teamwork, ideation, creativity, and sheer pace at which we come together as a team never fails to excite. Add to this the pressure of competition and the very real desire to work with the client or brand in question creates an intoxicating concoction that ensures we approach every new pitch with the same level of enthusiasm.

One of the most interesting facets of pitching is the ability for one team to leave a pitch with totally opposing experiences and feelings about how it’s gone for them – it’s often a mixed bag of emotions! The best pitches, either won or lost (preferably won!) are the ones where you walk away knowing you have done your best possible work, both at the pitch and in the run up to it.

Two lessons of advice from my experience, and echoed by my team would be:

Be yourself

Yes, prospective clients want to see great work, new ideas and innovative thinking, but above this they want to be able to connect with you as people and as a team. They want to be able to envision themselves working with you, trusting you and more importantly being able to enjoy the whole process with you. The best way to demonstrate this is by taking your authentic self into the pitch and letting them see your personality. As a rule, we use no scripts in our pitches to encourage each personality and passion to shine through to the client.

Make it memorable

Pitching is competitive and so you need to be memorable, especially when your client may have had several pitches presented to them over a short space of time. People remember how you made them feel, so we treat every pitch like an event and invest time in thinking how we can give maximum impact and stand out. Using a survey prior to one pitch allowed us to obtain everyone’s favourite chocolate bar or biscuit which were then waiting for them at the start of our meeting – they created a great buzz and a positive atmosphere from the get-go! But even something as simple as checking LinkedIn for any buzz topics and notable information can help you to find ways to connect and be memorable with your prospective client.

Rob Allen, sales and partnerships director, ClickThrough Marketing

Within the past two weeks, ClickThrough have set our personal pitching record of pitching to 6 different companies. It’s been a fast paced and challenging experience but, given that all of these took place over Zoom, we’ve been able to put consistent levels of energy into each. With such a large concentration of pitches in this short amount of time, we’ve naturally picked up a few lessons about pitching on Zoom, showing there’s still a huge amount to learn through digital pitches.

The main lesson is simply to be prepared. Of course, a benefit of pitching over Zoom is being able to absolutely maximise the time you have to work on your deck. Whilst this is by no means a safety blanket, when you no longer have to allocate travel time to a pitch, you can get involved in a little super fine tuning. Being well prepared also takes the strain out of any of the issues and interruptions we’ve all been faced with at home.

Whether the pitch is interrupted due to a bad internet connection, a doorbell ringing, or kids and pets demanding attention, these are all things we’re now used to and having a tight knit team that can cover spins it to work to your advantage. It gives you a live opportunity to show that you have an adaptable team that are clued up enough about each other’s specialities to support one another. You’ve also got the added ‘human factor’ that all these interruptions bring which I feel helps give a sense of people’s environment and a respect for doing our best in the common situation we all share.

I can see pitching via Zoom staying as an option even when we’re past Covid-19 restrictions. It’s always better to meet face to face and build that bonding and rapport but, when you’re pressed for time or in scenarios where pitching in person would require an overnight stay, I don’t see it being uncommon to pivot to pitch via Zoom. A benefit to potential clients is that pitching over Zoom makes the most of their time too, as there’s no delay with drawn-out introductions or the making of drinks at the beginning of the meeting. When coming into a Zoom pitch, they know that every minute will be focused on important information designed to benefit them and their business.

Dan Hall, sales director, 2 Heads

The days of client meetings in the grey wilderness of Slough seem like the grind of another lifetime now.

All those packed tubes, slow moving tourists and 100m sprints down the platform at Paddington only to find the client isn’t there. Halcyon times. Certainly the client meeting commute now we’re pitching via laptops is a lot less effortful but has the art of closing business followed suit?

The past twelve months have changed the way we do business forever. Before 2020 very few clients would trust a new agency with a significant project without meeting them face to face. It’s just not how business was done. Yet here we are in 2021 and it goes without saying that those treks out to Berkshire will never return at the same frequency.

So what is it that’s got us all so comfortable doing business through our laptops? It can’t just be the slippers?

I think the key reason is that virtual pitching is a leveller. With all of us at home, the supplier-client barrier has become almost non-existent. Seeing people in their natural habitats has humanised the experience. We’re no longer ‘vendors’ to be kept at arm’s length via Ariba. The executive armour has been packed away, a dog’s barked, and suddenly we’re a regular group of people talking about work. The biggest lesson that virtual pitching has taught me is to remember that clients may have the power to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but they’re also just people. They live in homes, they have pets, they home school and they typically don’t tidy their bedrooms.

Recognising this and breaking the ice by speaking to clients with the same tonality as they might expect from a trusted colleague – with the requisite levels of guidance and respect – builds a connection and very quickly earns trust. Agencies are the colleagues a client gets to choose, so view the relationship through this lens (obviously you’ll need your camera on).

Next time your clients join a Zoom call, chat to them like a colleague, not the customer. Present the work like you’re sharing it, not selling it. Talk about the commercials like it’s ‘our’ budget. And above all else, relax, you’re not wearing trousers.

People still buy people, even when they’re pixels.

Adam Kirby, associate creative director, IMA Global

Where do we place our value? Our data? Our ideas? Our coffee?

I’d argue it’s our freedom. We’re afforded the agency, big brands aren’t. Unencumbered by corporate shackles, we can roam the world curious.

Ideas are ten a penny, but original experience can never be discounted at pitch. Whoever your target audience, situate yourself in their experience and seek to understand their context.

I’m a proponent of a more anthropological approach to the creative department. Using our problem-solving skills to understand the world rather than push our ego driven agendas. In a recent successful pitch, creative thinking was spent filming documentaries and curating art projects to better understand what the community wanted from a brand. This information cut through the normal strategies gleaned from cold data and reports to a deeper human understanding of the problem and the solution.

So take the time to be curious, understand your context and share your sketchbooks. Show clients what they don’t have the platform to see.

Single minded propositions, we’ve got loads of them. Pitches are won, and seldom lost, in the tissue. A sure-fire way to achieve this is to use your creative department like a gatling gun at a coconut shy.

I have a maximalist approach to idea sharing, confronting the potential account with a valley of polyboard erected in the centre of the creative department. Each panel is awash with scamps, reference, endlines and adcepts under a loose creative territory. The effect is collage, turning traditional tired Powerpoint presentations into something textural and multi-facetted. Connections are made across ideas, positive reactions are pounced on and the more coolly received concepts left, quite literally, on the cutting room floor.

On the surface it gives the opinion of inviting the client into the creative process. Cynically, it allows us to cover all the ground any competitive agency was likely to tread with the hope that by the time they presented their thoughts, the audience would be thinking of us.

It’s not the right strategy for every pitch team or client. This approach relies on a degree of showmanship, intuition, and improvisation. It also relies on a client team with the ambition to work in that fashion. More often than not, it’s people rather than ideas that win pitches.

Countless hours can be wasted choosing the right route. Instead, choose to waste those hours productively – throwing enough work at the wall that some of it might stick.