FEATURE19 June 2012

The art of the pitch

Legendary ad man John Hegarty has plenty to teach researchers about how to sell themselves better, says Emma Morioka.


Being able to win business is key to the success of any agency, and business is won or lost in the pitch. But how good are we at selling ourselves, and what could we learn from other industries to improve our chances?

One place to turn to for inspiration is the advertising world. John Hegarty, one of the industry’s leading lights, founding partner and worldwide creative director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) and the man behind advertising campaigns for Levi Strauss, Audi, Boddingtons and Unilever, has written a book on advertising in which he dedicates a whole chapter to
the pitch process.

While advertising and market research agencies have different propositions to sell, Hegarty’s observations are useful in thinking about how we as researchers can maximise our new business win rate.

Accept nothing. Question everything

At the start of the pitch process is the brief. Hegarty says that briefs are often the result of someone trying to bring some order and control to a process. While he does not condone anarchy, he argues that an overly restrictive brief is not conducive to the creative process. Understanding the business problem that the client is trying to solve and then tailoring the approach to this is much more constructive.

In market research we often come across very prescriptive briefs. In some cases this may be appropriate, but in others, particularly where the client is after that elusive customer insight, this may well be a hindrance. It is useful therefore to get into the habit of thinking and talking beyond the brief. What business issue is driving the research? Why is this project being carried out now? What will the results be used for? How will the work be judged a success?

Behave like a great brand

Hegarty argues that agencies should always consider whether a project is right for them before pitching. Think of your own agency like a brand – it should stand for something and those brand values should be reflected in the work the agency does. So if a research project’s budget won’t cover the cost of doing it to a high standard, you need to consider whether it’s even worth pitching.

Take the high ground

Hegarty says that all brands aspire to be seen as a category leader – whether they are or not – so it’s important for the agency who pitches to help the client believe in themselves and to help them see a future for their brand and business that extends beyond one particular project.

How often do we as researchers think about what will happen to our client’s brand and business after we’ve finished our work? Do we think about where they will be in five or ten years’ time? When we pitch, do we have a vision for the research that extends beyond the next few weeks or months?

Do we engage research buyers in discussion that goes beyond the requirements of the particular project we are working on?

Change the rules

One way of standing out from the crowd is to change the rules and tackle a problem in a way no one else has. Hegarty cites the example of the pitch BBH did for Polaroid back in the early 1990s. Polaroid was losing out to the disposable camera market and its ‘instant’ advantage was proving less competitive.

BBH argued that Polaroid was not a camera business, but a social lubricant. People used Polaroid cameras when they were having fun. It got the party going. From this they derived the proposition of “live for the moment”, which they subsequently developed into an advertising campaign for the brand.

It can be challenging in market research to come up with a killer insight before the project has even started, but that’s why some initial research can help mark you out from competitors. You might record some vox-pops of people talking about the brand, or run a quick online poll with customers to demonstrate that you have already begun to immerse yourself in the business issue at hand. It may also uncover some insights that you (or the client) had not previously thought about. Good for the project. Good for the brand. Good for you.

Reputation is a pitch-winner

When BBH opened their first offices in New York the challenge was one familiar to any market research agency that’s embarked on an international expansion – how to pitch when you are a complete unknown in the market. Happily for BBH, it had a great back catalogue of work, and instead of starting meetings with the usual slide on who the company was, they played a show reel of their best advertising campaigns. This allowed them to start on the front foot and let their reputation precede them.

How many pitches have research clients sat through where the first slide is a facts and figures outline of how many people the agency employs, how many offices they have and how long they have been in business? How about starting the pitch instead with a collage of client vox-pops talking about how the agency has performed and the decisions that have been made by businesses as a result of the work the agency did?

Make the pitch about your people

Hegarty asserts that an important part of the pitch process is convincing the prospective client that the people you want them to hire – creatives, copy-writers, account managers or researchers – are interesting, intelligent and insightful people, precisely the kind of people they want to work on their brand. Consider the pitch as a dummy run for the project.

How often do we ask ourselves, what would we as a team be like to work with? How often do we address those niggling client concerns about whether the moderator we recommend for a project will really be the insightful sector expert that the client needs? Do we reassure a client that the project manager involved in the day-to-day running of the project will be as responsive and reliable as the senior executive sitting in front of them during the pitch? And should we take those people along with us to meet the client before the project has been commissioned?

Good-quality ideas win through

Hegarty’s final observation challenges some of the conventional wisdom surrounding the pitch process: that is, that success is determined by the point in the pitch process at which you get to pitch. In advertising, he says, the belief is that the last slot in a competitive pitch is the best position to be in if you want to increase your chances of success. Being first is next best, but if you’re in the middle you’ve already lost.

Hegarty’s colleague John Bartle decided to put this to the test and analysed all of BBH’s pitch wins and losses to see if timing made any difference. He found that it didn’t. What did make the difference, however, was the quality of ideas.

So when you’re next caught up in the drama of a major pitch, do take some time to step back and reflect on this and other lessons from Hegarty. He is, after all, a man who knows how to get attention for all the right reasons.

Emma Morioka is director, brand voice at P\S\L Group

Hegarty on Advertising:

Turning Intelligence into Magic
(Thames & Hudson, £16.95 )

1 Comment

12 years ago

I normally welcome looking outside of MR to learn - but I have my grave doubts about the usefulness of this mini-benchmarking exercise. Creative Agencies are very different beasts from MR Agencies; so is the challenge, as is the nature of "the Client". Also - didn't BBH just sell itself to another Network Agency? Wonder how that pitch process went...I would think it is more useful for MR agencies to compare themselves with different, and growing, Business Types, rather that one (Advertising) that has arguably seen its highpoint quite a while back.

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