The one of pitching is an interesting business.
On one hand, we love the thrill that comes before winning a new account/client. Agencies thrive in that addictive spiral of pitch, win, repeat – and same goes for freelancers. From the perspective of a writer such as myself, it’s a feeling comparable to having an editor reply to your article pitch – or even better for novelists: an agent to your novel blurb.
But on the other hand, pitching can be mentally and financially exhausting. It is estimated by former advertising executive Peter Levitan that a pitch can cost an agency up to $35,000 (if not more), leading to hundreds of thousands of expenditures a year – some of which for accounts which are never won.
And while freelancers may not have all the associated costs of running a full-on, team-focused agency pitch, the creeping bills at the end of the month are ever so looming, and ever so frightening.
Now, the topic of paid pitches and clients taking advantage of agencies is probably something for another time – but there is a common understanding that some mechanisms in the pitching process are largely wrong. Because of the crazy competition in the ad sector, some agencies play a numbers game – submitting credentials and reaching out to as many prospects as possible, in the hope to win some new business. That is not only damaging to the agency itself, but to the industry as a whole.
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Pitch Smarter, Not Harder
There’s a reason why numerous business development and freelance coaches advise against the numbers game in pitching to prospective clients: it lowers the quality of your overall pitches and spreads it across a number of opportunities which you may not really want to take on after all.
And since we are a platform for jobseekers too: it is the equivalent of applying to dozens of jobs at once, without caring to tailor your application to each and every employer. You might get lucky, sometimes. Other times, you will end up with a crappy job at a crappy company.
Whether you are an agency or a freelancer (pitching to either agencies or clients themselves), you should stop this right now. Pitch smarter, not harder. It takes some extra time, some extra risks and a range of entirely new drawbacks – but it pays off greatly in the end.
But what does it mean to ‘pitch smarter’?
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If you run an agency
At the root of it all is the quite curious fact that we are somehow hard-wired to think in the short term and seek immediate gains. Reaching out to numerous clients may seem like the smart thing to do, when your agency is looking to make up for some considerable recent expenses – but in truth, this has the potential to harm you in the longer term.
What if you end up with a really unpleasant client that doesn’t resonate with your personality at all? Perhaps some preliminary, surface-level research unveiled that you would be compatible, but a bit more time spent to understand their brand story would have save you a lot of time and effort. Unfortunately, by the time you reach the pitch meeting, it is already too late.
Not all projects are worth doing, with some being more in line with your business values than others. Don’t be afraid to turn down something that you don’t feel you can legitimately do well in. It is only going to be a source of stress for your new-business team, yourself, and certainly the rest of the creatives in your team too.
Of course everybody makes mistakes from time to time – so it’s understandable if a client looked good right until the moment you went to deliver the pitch. But that’s what preliminary meetings and briefs are for, right? If you are concerned about anything before you can deliver a confident pitch, make sure to set up a meeting with the client to discuss the brief and the specs. Not only you will set up better expectations and gain more confidence in your team – you will leave a good lasting impression as well.
Don't go for everything just for the sake of gaining new business
Conversely, just like any jobseeker or novelist looking for the perfect agent, you should adopt a more selective approach with your RFPs. Don’t go for everything just for the sake of gaining new business. Be more selective about the kind of pitches you can do, and you will notice that your wins will accumulate even faster over time.
Smaller agencies obviously can’t afford to spend tens of thousands on a pitch, but they can still give it all they got. Some clients will value their creative energy and spirit – or there wouldn’t be cases of smaller agencies winning big accounts. As long as you can be yourself and show your specific sector expertise, you may well find the perfect big client for you even without having to spend epic sums of money.
So, by all means, be more selective. But when you do select, hit it as hard as you can. Pitch smarter – not harder.
Image credit: Charis Tsevis
If you are a freelancer
Things aren’t much different for freelancers – though of course, much less money will be involved. In the process of pitching to different clients, you should always look to be more selective in your approach, whether you are a veteran or just starting out with your own business. It sounds obvious, but it really isn’t. To go back to the metaphor of the jobseeker; how many times have you sent dozens of applications for very similar roles, without even bothering to look into the company itself?
How many of those came back with a positive response? Were they more than 3?
Didn’t think so.
And whether you are pitching to agencies or clients themselves, the same kind of reasoning applies: don’t play a numbers game. One of the best things about being a freelancer is that you can specialise in your own field, or find your own niche, so to speak. If you are looking to expand into another niche, it’s absolutely fine of course – but you must come prepared.
Guaranteed, if you take the time to research the people and companies you are pitching for, you are going to reap the fruits of your hard work. Freelance writers do this all the time when pitching to publications. Some editors expect them to at least have done some preliminary research on the topics and voice of their publication, the kind of headlines and style, maybe even the team. If you can hook someone in with your first few lines, showing your character and the fact that you care can only lead them to at least consider your offer.
This is not just about getting results from your pitches, of course. By adopting a more selective approach, you will only attract the best clients for you, too. There is a difference between going for any kind of work that sounds alluring and actually taking the time to choose who you want to pitch to. It is a form of respect towards your prospects, your fellow freelancers in the same field, but most importantly towards your own business. By only working with the best clients for you, you are most likely to find retainers and your reputation in the field can only grow.
That said, don’t expect that anyone approached this way will instantly offer you a chance to meet or speak. Sometimes you’re just not a good fit for what they’re currently doing, or simply they are not looking to hire an extra freelancer at the moment. That is okay. But they might keep you in mind for the future – and that is all new business coming your way when you least expect it.
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If you are either
Despite some mechanisms that may be specific to agencies or freelancers, there are some general ways to pitch smarter that can actually apply to both. The base principle remains the same: if you play a numbers game, it can only hurt you in the long run. Additionally, valuing quantity over quality is just a symptom of a sloppy approach to business – you are literally hammering a nail on any point of the board hoping it will stick, rather than aim for the most strategic points.
With that said, there are certainly elements that are common to both groups of ‘pitchers’ and that can help you adopt a smarter, more resource-efficient approach to pitching.
Research is probably the first and most important one of all. Find the time to research your client/agency, understand where they operate and how, and make sure you are at least somewhat confident on the kind of results you can bring to the table. As for the actual results – that’s what having conversations is for!
Adding to research, if you are an agency pitching directly to a client, ask for a brief. You will never reach the pitch meeting with the same confidence if you just go blindly about the sample you are going to deliver, or the presentation you were thinking of showing to the room. Set up a meeting and discuss expectations. That makes all the difference.
Do not, ever, forget the value of storytelling and authenticity
But before you actually go to pitch your services, take a step back and look at all you’ve learned about the client thus far. Are they really the perfect fit for you, and vice-versa? How big of a challenge is this going to be? It doesn’t mean you should never go for a challenge – but you should honestly evaluate how winnable any given pitch or project is. If it makes you feel like you’re slightly out of your scope – then perhaps it is time to say no and move onto something else.
And lastly, do not, ever, forget about the importance of storytelling and authenticity. Not only you need to hook your prospective client with the story you want to tell, you also want them to read a story about yourself. Mind, you will most certainly need the help of a writer on this – but it is all about building a character out of yourself. What are your desires, greatest challenges, and how do you approach them? Own yourself and your story, then present it to the room or, if you are a freelancer, sprinkle it all over your pitch email.
People nowadays, and especially after the Covid-19 crisis, want to work with professionals who are human, relatable and honest with themselves. Be one of them, and you’ll thrive.
Play the numbers game, and you’ll fall.