From my book: THE AGENCY: BUILD – GROW – REPEAT. How to build a successful agency business that wins and keeps clients.
This is only one of the six parts included in THE GROWTH section of my book. That’s the section which addresses winning new business, in it you’ll find:
- THE MARKETING
- THE SELLING
- THE PITCH
- THE MEETING
- THE FEES
- THE RELATIONSHIP
In this post we look at THE PITCH, meaning all the stuff that happens before we present our deck to the prospective customer. Enjoy:
When that’s all said and done, you’ll have to pitch to prospective clients. All your work done in marketing and selling led you here. The pitch is where the sale is closed. You have built an incredible business, a remarkable team, a fantastic training program and kick-ass sales and marketing strategy for your business. Now you have to pitch. There are many books that address selling and pitching; in this section, I’ve included the 20 to 30 percent of strategies that are likely to give you 70 or 80 percent of the results. This is the stuff that has worked for us at Genie, and the stuff that other agencies have done to bring in business and success through pitching.
So where do you start? You start by understanding as much as you can when you first come into contact with a prospective customer. Whether they reached out to you or you reached out to them, you want to understand all the important aspects of their business and objectives before you even start creating the pitch. Here we’ll go into some of the aspects that are relevant to us and probably you – take what’s relevant and replace what isn’t, come up with stuff based on your historical data or an educated guess. What I’m describing here, just like throughout the book, are the principles rather than the specifics.
You have to understand the size of the budget. If you are a marketing agency and you deal with paid media, then you want to understand the size of the budget that the prospective customer has to invest in paid media. If you are a development agency, a graphic design agency or any other project-based agency, you want to understand the size of the budget for the given project, because this will frame the conversation. Understanding the budget will immediately let you know what resources you can dedicate to the account, the type of help that you might need, and in general, the type of workload and shape the project is likely to bring.
I remember 10 or so years back, I started a graphic design agency, only because many of my marketing consulting customers were asking for the service. I hired a friend who was a graphic designer and started offering the service. One day we received a call from one of the most prestigious law firms in London – they wanted a total redesign. I was so excited I think I actually clapped during the phone call. I spent three weeks preparing a pitch and travelled to London, only to hear that their budget was £3K. They wanted a logo, more than 40 attorney page profiles, headed paper, a website with a complex structure, and business cards. £3K. Are you serious? £3K. In the end, we were extremely lucky and slowly managed to persuade them that we needed more like £30K. We got the contract, and today, more than 10 years after I sold the agency to my former business partner, they are still a customer. We were lucky, but I can tell you plenty of stories without the happy ending.
Find out what the budget is, then you can act accordingly, prepare and have your facts and deck ready to back your argument. If the budget is larger than you think it should be, you can make the strategic decision to inform them and look very honest or offer the absolute best possible solutions with all the bells and whistles you can find.
The second thing that you want to understand is the timeline. Are they looking for an agency now because they are desperate? Are they looking to change the current agency because they’ve just had enough? Is this urgent or are they researching for next year or next quarter? Is it perhaps the case that a new manager came in and wants to make an impression, do her job well and so decided to investigate what other agencies might have to offer?
It’s very important, critical in fact, that you understand the timeline; this will shape the dynamic of your immediate day-to-day business and the decisions you’ll make in the near future. Often people forget to do that and they almost reach the pitching process before they realise that the project is more urgent that they thought and they don’t have the resources to deliver it. Or the opposite may happen – they realise that the project is not likely to start for six or even nine months. This happens a lot. Don’t let it happen to you, ask the question.
Today I received an RFP (request for proposal) from an e-commerce manager who used to work at one of our customers and then moved on to another global brand. Lilly (let’s call her) wants us to pitch for the performance marketing channels: PPC, shopping, paid social, retargeting, etc. It’s a great opportunity. She actually made contact the first time regarding this about a month ago. I have very gently chased a couple of times, and today she sent the RFP. I got really excited – the account is massive and the budgets are large. We looked at the timeline. They are not looking to make a decision till April next year. It’s now the beginning of September. They’ve got September, October and November to research, December for the pitching and January for the decision. The new agency will start in April.
Do you realise that we’re talking about seven months here? Without knowing this, I might have gotten all excited and perhaps moved things around so that we could prepare the pitch – this is an important brand – only to realise that they’re not going to make a decision until January. “Luca, shut up! This is common sense” I hear you say. Well, then common sense isn’t that common these days. This stuff happens every single day: agencies get halfway through the pitching process and never ask the questions: “when are you looking to make a decision? And where are you looking to start?” Know the freaking timeline.
Point number three is the WHY. You must absolutely understand their WHY, their pain points. Why are they looking for an agency? Are they replacing a current agency? If so, why are they replacing their current agency? What is it that they’re not happy with in the current service they receive? You need to understand the pain points because if what makes them unhappy now with their current agency is something you cannot provide the solution to, then you are much better off addressing that at the very beginning. You don’t want to onboard the client to then disappoint them later. Even if you are desperate for new business right now, this is not a good idea – it will cost everybody money and time. It costs because the onboarding is time consuming and my suspicion is that if you bring in a client and they only stay two or three months, you’ll probably lose money because the work is often front-loaded. It costs them because getting agencies to pitch is expensive in terms of resources.
The other thing that can happen is that you burn the client. The client will lose confidence, not only in you but in the entire industry. So be careful when you onboard clients from other agencies, make sure that you understand what the pain points are and ensure that you can satisfy those. We’ll cover more on this shortly when we talk about auditing.
Another scenario: let’s say they are looking to bring in an agency because they want to move from in-house to outsourcing. Then the question is: what are the pain points of doing it in-house? And again, you must make sure that the agency solution that you offer is able to overcome those pain points. Is the organisation perhaps very new? If this is the case then you need to be mindful of it from the beginning, because when you work with new advertisers and new organisations, there are many factors that influence how you manage such accounts. There’s a much larger portion of time that goes into educating them, holding their hands in making some of their important decisions, and generally helping them understand the landscape, as it can be really overwhelming for new organisations that haven’t been through it. If you are used to working with more experienced teams, then you might overlook some of the important reassurance pieces and might lack empathy. Lack of empathy can destroy a relationship. So make sure that you understand the circumstances and their WHY.
Questions like these can open up very insightful and useful conversations:
- “What are the top two things you like about the current agency?”
- “What are the top two things you are frustrated by in the current agency or in-house solution?”
- “What are you looking to achieve personally in your role?”
- “What can an agency do that would make your job here a lot more enjoyable?”
But once you’ve asked, get out of your own way, be quiet and listen.
Once you’ve understood their WHYs, their pain points, the next step is to go into an audit. Now, if you run a paid advertising operation, PPC, paid social, or anything of that kind, you are able to carry out an audit on the current activities. You’ll probably be asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) and get the access to their account to do an audit. At Genie Goals, we invest an incredible amount of time in doing a very comprehensive and accurate audit before we even prepare a pitch for a prospective customer. Once we’ve done the audit, we’ll tell the prospective client exactly:
- What we don’t like in the account and why.
- What the performance implications such imperfections might cause.
- What we would change those things to, and how.
- What positive impact such changes are likely to have on performance.
This way, we manage expectations and we can understand whether we can actually add value.
The number one secret in winning and retaining customers is adding real value.
If you cannot add real value, don’t take the customer on. Simple. Only take customers on when you can add real value. And real value doesn’t necessarily mean driving more performance. It could be better service, better understanding, better communication, better experience, or simply more synergy between the two parties. If you know what the client’s WHYs and pain points are, then you’ll be able to know whether you can add real value. The audit is a big part of determining exactly that.
Presenting the audit
We used to make the mistake of sending the audit and then sending the proposal next to it, as a separate document. I realised very quickly that people were reading the audit very carefully and attentively, but barely even looking at the proposal. It was apparent during the meeting that they knew the audit inside out, word for word nearly, but almost looked as if they had never seen any of the slides in the proposal.
So I had the rather brilliant idea (brag) to embed the audit into the proposal. The way this looks is that as a prospective customer, you would see one slide, for example, on “Best practice and account structure”. Then the second slide would be titled “Currently in Your Account” which would describe the current structure. The next slide would be “What We Would Do” – this would tell the customer what we’d propose to do on the account for that particular section. Then the next slide would be, for example, “Keyword targeting”, illustrating our ways of doing it, the best practice. This would be followed by a slide on “Currently in your account” and again, one about “What We Would Do”, and so on. I basically alternate slides as follows:
- Our methodology.
- The findings from the audit.
- What we would do in that account.
- The likely results of the changes we’d make, where applicable.
The results? Ridiculously good. Doing this keeps people glued to the screen, engaged and interested. They read every single slide or page in the proposal. And this was probably the most ingenious thing that I ever came up with when it comes to selling (more bragging).
THE KIS vs THE KIL
A couple more words on the pitching document, the deck. Remember the story about when we went to pitch to what would have been our largest customer and screwed up because we took it for granted that we were going to adopt all useful targeting options in the Google Ads interface? We learned from that experience, and the day after that pitch, our skeleton deck went from 15 slides to 94 slides. From that moment on, I promised myself I would never lose a pitch again because I’d left anything out.
We started detailing in the deck every single thing that we thought was relevant for the client. We realised that we had developed what I call ‘advanced practitioners’ blindness’. We didn’t see what the customers saw. When writing emails, social media posts, reports and even in verbal communication, I am a massive fan of ‘less is more’, of keeping it short and simple. But I am never going to make that mistake again in a pitch, and so, whilst we use the fewest words possible to make each point, in the spirit of keeping it short and simple, the deck itself is massive and always will be. In building decks, KIS (keep it simple or keep it short) loses in this case. KIL wins. KIL is ‘keep it long’. You can always skip slides, you can always go fast, you can always ignore slides. But the moment at which you don’t have a detail in there and the customer questions it, there’s no saving yourself because you’re saying: “Oh, we take that for granted.” That just sounds like an excuse. So this is my advice to you: KIL, keep it long and skip slides if you have to.
Ask for the close or next steps
You went for a pitch and you’ve done a great job. Bravo. Now the most important thing to do in the pitch is to ask very directly: “Are you satisfied with the information we provided? Is there anything more we need to tell you? Was there anything else you wanted us to tell you that we didn’t?” If you can, (and in the agency environment, especially if working with larger clients, often you can’t), close the sale then and there. “Good, are you happy to go ahead? We can start in the next week or two.”
Again, often that won’t be possible, in which case you still want to be asking when decisions will be made – asking things like: “When are you guys looking to make a decision?” is perfectly fine and no one will get offended because you asked. People don’t mind telling you if they know. Sometimes they won’t know because they don’t yet have an agreed date. In those cases, they could just give you the ballpark, whether it’s a couple of weeks, a month or longer. That allows you to know when to follow up with an email or with a call. It might seem like I’m stating the obvious, but when I asked the agencies I interviewed for this book whether they knew when their prospective customers were going to make a decision, the responses were skewed heavily towards “no”.
Pitching is very, very, very important, even if you don’t win the business. Even if you don’t win the business.
Pitching is very important, even if you don’t win the business.
It’s so important
Put the time in – invest time in researching exactly what their WHYs are, what their pain points are, what their objectives are. Where do they want to go by working with you? What’s their North Star? Find out more about the business, their story, their mission and talk about that. Learn all you can about them and you feed that back, talk about how your company’s missions are aligned (if they are), how you like their story (if you do), feed the pain-points back, feed the solutions from the audit or analysis back, and make sure they know you understand them, not only as a prospective customer, not only as more cash in your bank, but that you truly understand their business and want to understand more. If you do all that, you are off to a bloody good start, I freaking promise you – you’re ahead of 99 percent of the other businesses pitching for the gig. You might lose because of price, timeline, or many other reasons, but you must ensure that you never, ever lose because of quality. You must not lose because you were unimpressive. Research, research, research.
There are five other parts to winning new business:
- THE MARKETING
- THE SELLING
- THE PITCH
- THE MEETING
- THE FEES
- THE RELATIONSHIP