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I'm going to advance some of my personal opinions here, but I'm sure you have your own experiences of good and bad digital agency pitches.

Please confess all in the comments below, naming no names, of course.

I've added some insight throughout this post taken from Econsultancy's Future of Agencies report and survey.

Finding the room

The most important part of pitching is finding a rapport with project sponsors. This entails an understanding of what they expect from an agency.

Does the client expect an agency to present something, box-fresh, customised and ready to put to work? Or does the client want to go on a journey?

Teasing out the nuances of client expectation and personality is something that agencies may attempt to do on a call to discuss the brief.

At a base level, it's easy to map a brief and a client to the chart below, showing the three levels of agency value.

Though an agency may be big and sophisticated enough to guide transformations, if the client is simply expecting a service to be delivered, this should shape the pitch.

Whilst it's true to say clients can be talked round by a pitch, the starting point is knowing what they think they want. Perhaps the client is a dreamer, and despite having siloed data and legacy technology (fits 'delivering services' in figure 2), wants to hear about sophisticated experiences.

In short, an agency should reconcile client reality and expectations to deliver an inspiring but rooted pitch.

Figure 1 - The three levels of agency value

progression of agency value

Figure 2 - Where does the client reality and expectation sit in the table below?

progression of agenc value 

Predicting the future?

Digital marketing and web design has reached a stage of maturity where many agencies are asking whether the distinction between digital and traditional marketing is a helpful one.

Though a skills shortage ensures we're a long way from digital expertise becoming ubiquitous, agencies are once again focusing on problem solving and customer experience, rather than championing a mix of bleeding-edge and fad.

On top of this agency move to pragmatic (but inspired) customer-problem solving, clients are becoming better educated, partly because of tech's place in mainstream culture and news.

What's my point? Well, including some slides about 'the future of digital' within your pitch could be a mistake.

Discussing concepts such as the internet of things and drone delivery will be, at best, completely irrelevant to most clients and, at worst, hackneyed tropes of an agency that definitely doesn't understand digital.

A client might be sitting in the pitch, already owning a Hive thermostat and a connected washing machine, and thinking 'what the hell does an internet fridge have to do with our new ecommerce site or PPC campaign?'

Do not include this picture

internet fridge

You're a waterfall?

The traditional waterfall approach of hand-off between teams is too cumbersome, too long and contains too much duplication. Clients don’t want to pay for it anymore.

That quote in the Future of Agencies report comes from the MD of a digital agency. I think it's incredibly pertinent. Though waterfall project management is still right for many, others see it as stultifying and wasteful.

In an era of innovation labs, if a client is trusting and excited, agile can increase transparency, collaboration and ultimately client satisfaction.

So, agencies should think carefully before talking about those long requirements documents and several levels of sign-off.

Yawn

waterfall 

Showing your previous work?

Agencies should ask themselves 'Is our previous work exceptional? Is it relevant to this pitch? Has the client asked to see it?'

Work is, of course, often showcased on an agency website, where similar questions are pertinent.

In web design, for example, agency concepts often change significantly based on client feedback throughout the build, making the final product right for the client, but perhaps not immediately coherent to the layman.

In advertising, the most creative work for a consumer goods campaign may not set the right tone for a risk-averse legal firm.

Being highly selective when showing past work ensures the focus is on the client at hand and their brief. Nailing that is the most important thing.

There are many agencies who leave their name and their track record at the meeting room door, knowing that this will project a confident image, where trawling through past successes may seem insecure.

Is it really necessary to show them your medals?

trophies

Showing passion?

A simple point here. The chart below shows how important several soft skills are in agency land.

If that's the case, then these soft skills need to be evident, where relevant, in the pitch.

An agency MD might be the most intelligent and savvy person in the world, but if he doesn't come across as passionate, it's arguable he or she shouldn't be in the pitch.

soft skills agencies need

Adding context to agency value?

According to the chart below, 62% of agencies see more work being done in-house by clients as a challenge over the next five years (22% see it as very significant and 40% as quite significant).

The flip side of this dynamic is the need for agencies to prove the value of what they do (which sits at the top of the worry list - 40% see it as very significant).

As an agency, proving to a client that you have what it takes may mean positioning the strengths of your agency in the context of the challenges shown below.

So, if your agency has a particularly thorough recruitment policy, talk about the relative proficiency of your team in the context of a skills shortage. If one of your agency founders is an ex-Googler with expertise in programmatic media, talk about that in the context of a complicated ad landscape.

It's not enough for an agency to spout how good they are, it has to differentiate them in some way.

challenges for agencies

Showcasing tech?

64% of agencies are increasing investment in proprietry technology. 43% are planning a large increase in investment in technology over the next few years.

If an agency pays for tech and knows how to use it, incorporating mention of it in the pitch is important. Whilst clients will not be impressed if tech distracts from strategy, it can help to demystify some of what the agency is bringing to the table.

So if an agency has developed its own video newsroom, SEO software, trading desk etc., its incorporation can quickly set them apart.

tech investment in future from agencies

Presenting designs!?

The last thing to cover is the phenomenon of agencies creating original work for pitches.

This is a dangerous game and only worth it if the client is of great importance and an agency already has a firm idea of what the client wants.

It can be a sound investment or a big waste of time.

Are you an agency bod or a CMO? Seen some bad pitches? Let me know below. I've never worked at an agency, only been on the receiving end (of a limited number of pitches), so what do I know?

If you're interested in finding an agency, see the Econsultancy Top 100 Digital Agencies Report.

Ben Davis

Published 3 February, 2016 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is a senior writer at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (3)

Ben Potter

Ben Potter, Commercial Director at Leapfrogg

For someone who has never worked at an agency and only been on the receiving end of a few pitches, you make some excellent points!

I've been 'pitching' (I really don't like that word but you know what I mean) digital marketing services for 13 years so I've seen the good, bad and the ugly from the agency's side of the fence. I think the two biggest lessons I have learned are very much in line with your points on 'finding the room' and demonstrating value.

With regards to the former, empathy is absolutely key. The ability to understand the challenges faced not only by the business but the individual (or individuals) you are speaking to wins hands down every time. I reckon I ask about 100 questions during the briefing stage to get to this point.

This leads to how you demonstrate value. This isn't done by shouting about how great you are, your latest piece of technology or how many awards you've won (yawn...they're not hard to win and most people I speak to couldn't care less). It's about presenting a solution which is relevant because you've asked the right questions in the first place and really thought about what it is you can offer that is going to address their challenges, concerns, etc. That's what buyers value - the confidence you are going to ultimately make their life easier.

Fundamentally, selling in an agency environment is not about using Jedi mind tricks to dupe people into buying stuff they don't need (although unfortunately, this is all too rife, especially in SEO), it's about adding value from the first call. It's about asking challenging questions and offering considered thought and opinion throughout the process. It's about building great rapport. It's about being honest, even if this means walking away.

In most digital disciplines you can't do this if you are a 'fly by night' sales person. You really do need to know your onions.

7 months ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Senior Writer at EconsultancyStaff

Great points. Thanks, Ben

7 months ago

John Butcher

John Butcher, Group Procurement Director at Merlin Entertainments

What a great article! The emphasis on tech- based solutions might be more prevalent to digital agencies, but causes of success and failure are common whatever type of agency. You can tell when an agency pitches a great idea, which makes the hairs stand up on your neck. Equally powerful is the fist-in- mouth when the chemistry is wrong and a clash in culture or personality undermines the best creative intuition or well-founded research.

At Proxima we work on behalf of clients across all of marketing, not just digital, but the features of winning and losing pitches are similar. Winning ways are built on understanding what matters most to the client, by probing beyond just the written brief and published success criteria ; being within the budget; embracing procurement and working with them (love, like or loathe them, they should be able to facilitate more contact time with marketing to understand the business problem or challenge more); bringing the real team who the client will work with should they appoint you because that will be fundamental to both parties – much like Ben’s point on empathy and the “finding the room”, which brings me back to the age-old hard-to-put-a-number-on chemistry.

7 months ago

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