Why Pitching is Bad for Business.


At the end of last year we took the radical decision to stop pitching for work in ‘open’ tenders. Some people thought we were mad. Hell we thought we were mad. But six months in and we’ve realized that it was probably one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.

We first started to think about stepping out off the traditional pitch culture having worked with a number of agencies and clients in the United States who gave us a fresh perspective into a process that has remained virtually unchanged since the days of Don Drapper’s Mad Men.

Think of it like this. You [the agency] see that someone [the tenderer] is either single again or thinking about breaking up with their current partner. This gets you excited. Even before you receive any firm information on how [the tenderer] is going to pick their new partner, you’ve envisaged what it would be like to be in a long-term committed relationship with them. Hell you’ve even told your parents that you’re going to see them. You’ve ‘Liked’ them on Facebook and you’re now ‘Following’ them on Twitter and Linked In. No one could accuse you of stalking this early in the relationship.

So what happens next? Well normally you get a short note [invitation to tender] that tells you pretty much what you could have found out by looking at the home page of their website. But that’s all right – it makes them all that more mysterious and alluring.

Well you read their note and suddenly realize that before your date [pitch] they want to know a bit more about you. Fair enough you suppose. They’re cautious. Perhaps they’ve had a bad relationship in the past. So you happily spend the weekend writing up an intimate description of who you are, what you’ve done and  – oh wait – they want to know your financial standing for the past three years. Naturally, why wouldn’t they? After all – you’re going to be extending them tens of thousands of pounds worth of credit. Only fair that they want to know you can afford to do that.

So you’ve stayed back late every night this week preparing the response and you’ve screamed at the accountant to get you across the fingers for the past three years. You’ve hijacked a designer and turned your response into a visual and literary work of art. Now just to upload it. Bugger – their porthole is down. You’re going to miss the deadline. Panic. Panic. Finally Steve Jobs, patron saint of all creative types looks down at you and the submission goes through with seconds to spare. Praise be Steve!

You breath a sigh of relief and then settle yourself in to hear back. They promised that they’d get back to you by next week.

Two weeks after you were originally told that they would get back to you, you finally get an email, normally at 4:59pm on Friday to tell you that you’ve successfully been selected and that they’ve scheduled a 15 minute slot to meet with you on Monday morning and could you bring along some ideas.

Yea – you’ve done it. They want to meet you. Oh wait a minute. They want to meet on Monday morning at 10am and they want you to bring along some ideas. Panic starts to set in. What ideas. There wasn’t a brief.

You quickly email back cursing your slow RSA Stage 1 typing skills to ask for a little more information, but too late – they’ve gone for the evening. Oh well that doesn’t matter. You’ve work to do. Best cancel your plans. Best cancel your weekend. You’ve a brief to make up and a complete campaign strategy to prepare for Monday morning. Now what did they say the budget was again? That’s right they didn’t. This is a M.E.A.T. tender – and no not the sort of meat that would make a vegetarian get up and leave the table, this is the other sort of M.E.A.T., [Most Economically Advantageous Tender]. That pretty much means, so long as you’re cheap, you’re guaranteed to get to first base.

It’s Monday morning. You’ve quickly dashed home for a change of clothes and a shower and are back in the office for 7am. You grab the presentation materials and dash to meet them. Oh God, you think, this really could be the start of something wonderful. I hope they don’t notice I almost cut my throat with the razor this morning trying to shave whilst on the phone with the bleary eyed designer still back at the office who was having problems with the printer. No it’s fine – they’ll understand.

The door opens and your mouth drops. You suddenly realize that you’re not the first person to see them this morning. There coming walking out of the office is your counterpart from agency ‘X’ doing the obligatory ‘please like me, please get back to me, we could have something special together’.

Your eyes meet. You both realize you’ve been duped. But neither of you are willing to admit it. Immediately you both try to size the other up. How many people in their team. Do they have boards or was it a PowerPoint presentation.  A quick glance at your watch to see if they had more than the 15 minutes that you’ve been given. Yes its childish but I want what they got whaaaaa!

You’re left standing for a couple of minutes now whilst your counterpart is safely escorted from the building. Then show time. Here’s your moment. You’re led into meet your dream date and involuntarily you quickly scan the room for tell-tail signs of anything the other agency might have left behind. Before you can complete your forensic sweep, you’re introduced to the panel and suddenly realize – wait a minute there’s five of them. No one said there’d be five of them. Cold sweet. You’ve only brought three documents. OK. Adapt and overcome. We can still do this. So you do the meet and greet and straight away you realize that the one at the far end of the table doesn’t like you. Dodge the visual dagger just sent hurtling your way.

Whilst you make your way to the far end of the table noting they have deliberately placed you as far away as is humanely possible whilst staying in the same room, you hear the rules. ‘We’re giving all agencies 15 minutes to make their presentation and then we’ve got 5 minutes for Q&A at the end’.

OK – forget about setting up. Just go. You start with the obligatory thank you for inviting us along but realize that you don’t have time for pleasantries. You’ve 14 minutes and 30 seconds left to communicate your full understanding of a brief that they haven’t supplied you with and also convince them that you’re in tune with their culture and fully appreciate the challenges they face in reaching their objectives – wait a minute – what were their objectives again? What was the two liner on their website?

Oh God – one of them looks at his watch. Surely you haven’t been talking for that long. So you pick up the speed. You spend 20 seconds on that slide that took 5 hours to work out. Your delivery is now at a speed that most auctioneers would have trouble keeping up with and then you’re through. You suddenly realize that the ‘Thank You’ slide has appeared on the screen behind you.

You suck in a lung full of air and stand there waiting like a winded racehorse for the Q&A. This is usually preceded by an awkward silence. Which of the panel will speak first? But you already know the answer to that. It’s going to be the one at the end whose been sitting sharpening his/her Bic all of the way through your presentation.

You brace yourself as they shift in their chair. And then it comes. Out of everything you’ve covered the one question they ask is, can you break down your costs.

Ok – so I’ve over dramatized some parts, but I bet there’s scenarios in there that most of you will identify with.

You see; these sorts of pitches aren’t just a waste of ‘your’ time and ‘your’ money. They demoralize your staff and they risk costing you your existing clients if you are continually diverting resources into pie-in-the-sky pitches that the tendering body isn’t taking seriously.

So today, instead of diverting resources into open tenders that are normally awarded on some sort of box-ticking criteria that involves the term M.E.A.T. and excludes factors such as effectiveness and relevance, we concentrate exclusively on our existing clients. Amazingly this has had a rather curious and unexpected side effect.  We’ve actually ended up securing new business.



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