Agency Growth Tips 12/21: Life’s a pitch.

Published 06.03.2019

Apologies for the delay with this article a few days surfing stopped play – no wifi, hardly any G’s let alone 4G, and no access to my iCloud meant I couldn’t access my files.

Life dished me up a break. A workend. See 5/21.

And I have well and true embraced it. Thanks universe.

Years ago I wouldn’t have… I’d have stressed, made work my priority, and even if I wasn’t working I’d stay stressed and made things even worse for me and those around me.

An aside: Work is not life. Mistake that at your peril. I did. Work can be your priority for a time. Running a business, if that’s what you do, is no picnic. And it takes some blood, sweat and tears at time. And work can remain an important priority forever. 

But. Family. Health. Happiness. These are not commodities you can buy. But you can lose them. And nothing is worth that. Not even your dreams.

As there’s been a break, let’s do a quick recap… If you’d like to catch up on the previous articles I suggest you read them in order – however, they are written totally independently of each other – and you should be able to dip in and out.

While these are written specifically for agencies, the learning, ideas, insight, mistakes I’ve made and rocks I’ve turned over are not just applicable to agencies. More so, any entrepreneur, service driven business or high growth company. I’ve had lots of great feedback from all sorts of people from all sorts of industries.

As I always say – look for the similarities. Not the differences. And if you recognise that phrase, I salute you. And the steps you take.

Me. If you want to know more about me and why I am writing these for FREE, please have a read of 1/21 – Create value. Not things. I don’t want an email address, there’s nothing to sign up to, nothing to download, no event to attend.

These are helpful basics. Not my IP. My approach… honed by listening and being curious, succeeding, failing, and being open to feedback.

A few thoughts before we dive into the second piece on Winning Pitches. The first was 10/21 – about the fact you can be half way won before you walk into the room.

Before we go any further… this article is NOT about whether it’s right to pitch or not.

I’ve been in the industry a fair while (nearly 20 years), maintained an 80% pitch win ratio, enjoyed a six year 100% winning streak (and it was a HUGE amount of pitches) and have pitched and won work from some of the biggest brands in the world.

And I’ve lost a few that I really wanted. And it hurt. And, pretty ,ugh I knew I’d lost it on the day. Somehow, you just know.

And although I’ve won a lot of pitches, even I hate the process. But, it is the process we’ve got. So I don’t waste time debating it very often. Vote with your feet if you don’t want to pitch.

All I look for in a pitch is fairness. If there’s a level playing field – then game on.

I do get asked all the time, ‘should we pitch?’ – here’s my take.

If you don’t believe in the pitching process generally, that’s fine. It’s a perfectly acceptable not to participate in a specific approach if you don’t like the way it’s been setup or managed.

It’s called choice. Yours. And making smart choices is key to growth. You cannot do everything. Be all things to all people. Give 100% everywhere, always It’s impossible.

Look at you and your team for a second as a resource. There’s only so much of you to go around. And you need 7 hours sleep and to eat five a day, do what you love and to spend quality time with your family to be the best you.

So, make good choices about whether you pitch at all, and whether you decide to accept a specific opportunity.

What I do what to do before we dive into the article is this.

Challenging agency snobbery around pitching… i.e. those that do pitch and those that don’t. And those that do pitch hard and those that pitch light.

We as an industry sometimes sound like bitching school-kids. The model is broken. We shouldn’t pitch. They only win because… We only pitch if…

If this is starting to resonate with you or annoy you, I am talking to you. Ease up.

Life, is too short for this stuff. Everyone has their own approach. Your have yours. Find your lane and stick to it – best of luck to everyone. Cream rises to the top of course, and there’s is no right and wrong here. And sometimes you have to take risks in life to get anywhere.

We think we are the only industry to be hit with pitch madness. It’s nonsense. B2B’s everywhere submit bids, tenders and pitches that cost six and seven figure sums. This happens everywhere. And no one likes it. So either you get to a point that you’re so good as an agency, so famous and so adored that work just walks in the front door… or be ready to pitch if you want high growth.

It is EASY, yup I said it, to grow 25% per annum as an agency. If you’re managing the business well, that’s 5% of organic growth with the clients you have, and one big client win per annum. If you have a bigger appetite, pitching is the fast lane to growth.

Aside: When does it stop being easy to grow 25%+ per annum? When you hit £1-1.5m turnover. But most agencies start to feel the pain around £750k turnover. The world changes at this point as your talents and time get spread very thinly.

There are some facts to consider.

The average agency is making c. 8-10% EBITDA. Yup. That’s it. Some make up to 30% – VERY rare. Those making more are not a pure play ‘agency’ – they are typically consulting, have products etc. Often, a hybrid business. Great news for them… still applying agency rules to that type of work, but they have new and unique challenges too.

It’s easy to make 20%+ when you’re small… it gets harder and harder to maintain this level of profit.

Those that do, have a real business on their hands. Those that don’t simply have work to do – and that’s ok.

And aside: Agencies and their owners often feel that they are at a crossroads. I remember feeling like that every month or so. 

You are not alone.

Most agencies flip flop from good years to medium to bad years. This shows a lack of control and management of fiscal matters – costs and margins, but also of poor relationships, probably high staff churn and client churn too. This is also ok – it means you too have work to do. But years do not have to be pitching on this cycle.

If your life stays like this, it will be hell as an owner – and getting a handle of the disciplines of running a business, not just handling agency output will make all the difference, I assure you. In all areas of your life, and the lives of your team. Lean years breed fear… to many of them are hard to handle.

Back to my point, before I begin the article itself, if you’re not making >25% EBITDA, and you’re producing content, apps, website, comms, etc – you can call yourself what you want. To me you’re an agency.

Let’s think quickly about client brands – typically, one way or another, they spend around 10% of their turnover on marketing… do you?

Most agencies are not spending this amount. On the basis that most agencies don’t, those making 10% per annum, are hiding a problem – a lack of investment. Inflating their profits and putting problems in the post to yourself.

I do not support the policy of not pitching from any agency that tells me that they don’t pitch on principal or pitching is a bad habit if they’re not delivery 25% EBITDA.

Why? Because I believe what most agencies do is spend their marketing budget on pitches. And if you’re not pitching, and only making 10%-15%… your margins are being supported by the lack of pitching… not the wisdom of your approach… again, very often, under-investment.

We can always find numbers to support our thinking. But if pitching is your thing – you’re no less of an agency in any way. And if you’re not pitching, don’t be kept warm by low profit margins, unless you are are truly investing in marketing your agency.

So, no snobbery please. Pitching isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But it’s part of our industry – part of most B2B industries one way or another – and isn’t going anywhere.

None of the above is criticism. It’s realism. If you’re pushing your career or own an agency you’re already my hero. Seriously. This can be a tough game. But it’s a brilliant industry – and it should be fun.

Also, to develop ourselves and our business we have to accept where we are in – to recognise it and improve.

To ignore our weaknesses or challenges is denial – and to realise our full potential professionally and personally we have to be prepared to be honest with ourselves. And some the things I say will sting – that’s good, it means I am probably talking about you – and we have a choice to do something positive with the pain – or to stop reading.

Now, to the article itself – and this is already a long one.

Aside: Usual dyslexia warning. Also, this one is likely to be a little sweary. My spellers are a sign of enthusiasms. As is some of my language.

Here we go, and let’s start as we mean to go.

Agency Growth Tip 12/21 – Life’s A Pitch (Winning Pitches 2/2)

Pitching is fucking hard work.

It’s a thankless bloody process, that consumes far too much industry time. Clients don’t realise that we don’t have time to pitch if we are a good agency. So we find time. Midnight oil, broken promises to friends and family, knock on lack if sleep, high stress – all for a budget that rarely materialises at the same level as promised.

But for most agencies, it’s what you do.

Aside: 10/21 was about about being half way won in the pitch process – it has lessons in there beyond pitching itself. Same with this article. Pitch or not, you have to sell. Similarities, not differences. 

My father, the greatest man I’ve ever known (and the greatest communicator) had a series of soundbites that could apply to life, relationships, health, work, dreams, ambitions – and I use them all the time.

He once said to me “if you’re going to do something, don’t just do it well, anyone can do that. Be extraordinary.”

And that’s the first part of my advice. If you’re going to pitch, pitch brilliantly.

Here are two of the most important tips in pitching.

Ask yourself, before you do any work, ‘how do we win this pitch’? And always work to the principal that you work FROM a brief, not TO a brief. There may be angles the client hasn’t considered, things you know that they don’t, or better ways of answering the brief.


Yes, that was shouty. But seriously, if you do not read the brief at least 25 times through the pitch process, you are choosing to lose the pitch. If you can’t repeat it almost word for word by the time you get into the pitch meeting, you don’t deserve to win the pitch.

In most industries, you get a 100 page tender. And have to go an talk about it. We get about ten. And if you don’t know every fact on it, or don’t nail everything on it, what happened when you lose isn’t chance. It’s laziness. Seriously.

I have had the opportunity to sit client side and be pitched too – not just since we sold the group, but even before hand when clients were adding to the roster or wanted some support with a pitch process that we chose not to take part in. Because my relationships were very strong and equally pragmatic. And it’s vital that you build the same style of relationships to largely avoid having to repitch for clients you already have.

Know there brief inside out. Sense check your work all the way through the pitch process. Use the same language as the client – understand everything on their, be curious and curtious enough to care about it.

And ask questions. Immediately after you get the brief. Preferably face-to-face – do everything you can to find the time to do so. If you cannot, get on a call. And ensure the whole pitch team are there if you can.

Aside: we’ll come on to the pitch team question later.

It’s scary how many agencies do not ask questions of the brief, or them. Do you know what a client thinks when you don’t? That you get it? No. That they have written the perfect brief? No. That you know the industry so well that you don’t need to? No. That you’re too busy? No.

They think you’re arrogant. Or can’t be bothered. Same if you haven’t tried to meet them.

The goodwill created in getting face to face – meeting them, asking some questions in a timely organised fashion is critical.

Just like in a job interview process, if you’re hard to handle, a pain in the arse or uninterested during the pitch process, clients know you’re going to hard to manage if you win the pitch.

You’re half way lost if this is you during any pitch process. You can salvage it – but you just made it very hard to do so. And that’s bad business. This is part of how you can plan to win the pitch. Demonstrate you’re brilliant to work with from moment one. And you’ve given yourself the best start.

Let’s unpack tip one a bit further. Asking yourself ‘How do we win this pitch?’ – some of this is about what’s on the brief. A lot of this is unwritten. Why is the client pitching at all? What led them here – it’s actually a massive process for a client to run a large pitch, costly and full of risk. So something has happened, or something isn’t working with their current arrangements. Ask searching questions – about why the pitch has been called – understand it as best you can.

Usually, it’s failure to deliver, a constant change of who’s managing the account, a dip in creative performance or a lack of pro-activity. These are all things you can counter or work from in your pitch if you put your mind to it.

Instead of saying why you’re so good, why not play a one minute film of your clients giving you a testimonial, instead of saying how good you are? Not stock footage from them, but for this pitch – so it’s relevant. Now they know you’re had working, have strong relationships, move fast and you want it. It’s just one idea – you’re an ideas person, in an ideas business… so I’ll let you come up with your own idea, but you hopefully get my point.

Let’s talk about pro-activity. Or as I always say:

“The brief is the floor. Not the ceiling”.

You work from a brief. Not to it. It’s the foundations. First of all – ALWAYS rewrite the brief for use internally once you have asked your questions – put a pitch through the same rigorous process you would any brief.

And if you’re not rewriting every brief that comes to you anyway – WTF? Clients brief what they want – the agency MUST make it ready for the internal process, pack it with insights and reduce it down to it’s most simple form (with everything required there), making the original available. It should be signed off by both client services and creative (and written by your planning team if you have one).

Aside: “We don’t do that…” – well, please try it – your work will improve, as well as your relationship internally and externally. If you’re not doing it, what’s happening in your agency is not client service – I call it baggage handling.

Same thing if the client send you a brief and a lots of supporting documents that you expect the creative team to read.

Stop. No. That’s not how it works. Distill this into a brief for your creative team – I am dyslexic and have ADHD – not a great formula for reading war and peace. But give me the facts, and I’ll give you a killer idea. Help creatives be creative. That’s doesn’t mean exclude things – or give licence to creative people to be lazy. But if you’re not adding something in a process, you don’t need to be there.

So working from the brief, means you have licence to do more but also challenge the thinking entirely, as long as you answer the brief.

And when you think you’re being proactive including additional ideas for press, outdoor, UX, or whatever else… trust me so is everyone else. This is not a differentiator. At all. Do not kid yourself. Yes, do this. Absolutely… but you want to differentiate? Do it at the beginning.

Clients need ideas and insights. Insights drive ideas. So be proactive there. Read Mintel, sure. But eat the product. Drive it. Order it online. Run a focus group or two with the customer groups – challenge the segmentation. Research the topic. Product. Service.

If you walk in with a film of you in s focus group and a whole set of insights the client didn’t know. You’re currency is now gold. That’s not to say you reveal your ideas or who the pitch is through – confidentiality is key. But you can test your ideas by testing territories or getting customer to help create the answers – there are a million ways to inform your thinking.

I do not believe you can validate every idea we have as an industry. New things can’t always be researched… we all know the Henry Ford quote “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. Brilliant.

But you can understand people better. Or importantly, you can understand the target customer better than anyone else in the room.

And now you’re really cooking. And this is where you underwrite your pitch. Even if a client doesn’t like your final ideas – or wants you to work on them further… you can win a pitch on your insights alone.

Let’s revisit… how do win this pitch? Look at your pitch as you progress it – does it tick all these things off? All the things that are in the brief? And all the things that aren’t? Do not stop asking yourself this question. Rigour is key. If ever there was a time to nail everything, it’s now.

‘But we don’t have time…’ Fine. But don’t pitch. If you’re not going to be extraordinary – it’s probably a waste of time.

An aside: I am mindful that you may be pitching for something small – and all this sound rather big… in these instances, be proportionate. This is about interpretation… and I am relying on you to see the similarities and opportunities, rather than the differences.

Still with me? This is a LONG piece…! But, it’s an important topic.

The Tissue Session. Run one if the client will let you… ‘What’s a tissue session?’ In ad agencies tissues are tear outs from your art pad – a way of sharing scamps and ideas, half way through a process – not fully formed, but to get feedback on territories, art or treatments. If you can do this – you heighten you double your chances of winning, IMO. Because you’ve got creative feedback.

You may not be an ad agency – but the same applies in every space – it could be a UI treatment, tone of voice approach, mood board, channel plan… ANYTHING.

But they’re gold. I love a tissue session, and do them on every brief, not just pitches. They greatly improve the quality of your work, but also a client feels way more involved.

I recommend them for all ideas and strategy people internally too – rather than wait until you finished your ideas before you get feedback, take people on the process – you don’t have to agree with their feedback – it’s not about dumbing down, it’s about taking people on a journey. It takes a village… and all that.

The Pitch Team. I don’t know what works for everyone else – but for me there are a few rules I use. Never more then four people in the room (unless requested) from the agency. I prefer three. Always include the person that will run or own the business day to day. Everyone should be part of the presentation. If it’s creative, have a creative there. Dress nicely, but like an agency. That’s what they’re buying after all.

I’ve actually been told to wear a shirt and tie to a pitch before. By someone’s PA. Who wouldn’t see me during the process. Or answer any questions. Or talk to me direct on the phone or email. I didn’t wear a tie. I didn’t bother taking part. I thought it was a poorly run process. And I don’t think we have to put up with that, much like clients don’t have to put up with poor process from us either. Not arrogance. Logic.

What Order Should the Deck Be? There’s no right and wrong. But tell a story with your deck… if at any point there’s a strange segway or bump in the road, reorder it or rewrite it. It has to seamless and flowing. I like ideas at the end – clients want to see them early. There’s no right and wrong, but if it’s advertising or comms, I like threading ideas and media together so it feels super joined up – not stop and start. Clients won’t remember everything if you don’t join things up – and it means your deck flows better – puppy the detail in appendix and be prepared to talk about it – but find great ways of making every slide something exciting.

How long should the deck be? I have no opinion. I’ve pitched 20 slide decks and lost and won.. 200 slide deck (yes, in a pitch) and lost and won. All I know we always made out decks look like a work of art. And that counted.

Don’t be grumpy. If you’ve been invited to repitch, yes, it’s a bit shit. But if you’re grumpy and resentful about it or anyone on the team is, I pretty much guarantee you’ll lose. If you accept a repitch go at it like you’ve only just met or the other agencies will swamp you. This bit is the only choice you do have. Walk away if you’re not going to give it everything you would the first time round you pitched.

Fudge it and you fucked it. Be honest in Q&A’s in a pitch… it’s ok to say, I’ll find out and come back to them. Never make things up when asked in a pitch. Makes you look like an idiot. And who wants to work with an idiot.

Do you rehearse? No. Never have. But if people need to, do so. But make it fun. Not scary. Juniors and people who hate doing this stuff can easily go into themselves – lift people up. Don’t push them down.

Pitch first, middle or last? Honestly, it doesn’t matter. It’s better for your nerves to pitch last, but to the client, the best pitch will win out. First or last are always my choice – but like I say, that’s more about me than it is about the client.

Stick to time. If you’re given an hour to pitch. You finish on the hour. And leave time for questions.

Be smart. Don’t tell them you were working all night on the pitch… if you’re tried tell them you were working on someone else’s work all night. You don’t need a round of applause. Leave you ego at the door.

We. Never me. Use language like we think. We believe it’s our opinion. We came up with. This is a team event. Not X Factor. Grow up.

Follow up fast. You follow up, say thanks, wish them luck with their decision making and throw in your final thoughts same day or the morning after… at the latest. Look hungry the whole time… it doesn’t show desperation. This isn’s a game. Or a dating app.

How many ideas do we show? Never show anything you don’t want the client to choose. Sometimes it’s smart to show something predictable though (that you think other agencies may present, and tell the client why that’s the wrong idea) – it’s a very smart way to kill other agencies pitches. Show what you think works. Never more than three ideas… but if you know your ONE idea is THE ONE. Then show that one. And that’s it. Have courage.

On the subject of your ideas though. There is one mandatory. Make sure they’re bloody brilliant. This bit is the hard bit… the rest is a process – and that’s a test of how good a business you run, or want to run. Processes take your 75% of the way to winning a pitch in my opinion. They have to love your process, execution of the deck and your ideas, the people. These are all discriminators. Tick all these boxes… then creative simply has to bang it home with some killer ideas.

Often if you don’t win the pitch you’ll Hera there ideas were better elsewhere. I believe this is true only 50% of the time. It’s easier to say that than we don’t like you. Or your team. Ask for more feedback. Be humble. Ask for there absolute areas you could improve, where they saw weaknesses and finally what they liked.

Learn. It’s ok to lose a pitch. Not nice. Sure. But use it as a chance to learn and be better next time. Always get feedback. Don’t hide from the truth. Use it to drive you. This is golden feedback to take into you entire business, not just the pitch process.

Let people win. If the team are good enough, guide it, stay out of it, let them pitch. That’s amazing. If the team aren’t good enough – what are you doing building a team not good enough… that’s your fault. Not theirs. The first place to look for positive change is in the mirror.

Finally, my last piece of advice.

Choose your pitches carefully. You have limited time and energy and other work to do. Do not do every pitch. Run the pitches that you want to win. If you’re need to win pitches to stay afloat, then your costs are to high – and you need to reshape your business. If that include redundancy, that’s awful, but if it’s right for the team you have to do it. It’s the shit bit of running an agency.

If you’re not winning 50% of your pitches, you’re underperforming. If you’re winning 1/3 you have a problem – could be the ideas, more likely the people and the process.

There’s plenty more tips to come that apply to pitching too – but I hope this is useful.

Enjoy the process if you take part. And make it enjoyable for the team. Recognise their hard work. Celebrate their efforts win lose or draw. And get that feedback. It’s gold.

Pitching isn’t easy. But it is simple.

You’ve just got to be the best at every stage. Your product is not your ideas. But the experience of the agency, with ideas as the cherry on top. You can differentiate at every stage.

As my dad said, ‘go the extra mile… you won’t find many other people there’.

Or as I’d say. Never be ordinary. There’s far too many people doing that already.

Best of luck.

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