Pitch control is key to winning new business

As the pitching debate rumbles on, Kenny Laurenson of First Partnership reveals how to present the best side of your consultancy to potential clients

Pitching is a hot topic at the moment. Design consultancies have shot themselves in the foot to some extent by letting pitches, particularly the creative unpaid kind, become the norm. We are all against it, but we need to work together to stop it. You wouldn’t see plumbers or dentists working on the same basis.

Credentials pitches make much more sense. They are an opportunity for a representative of the consultancy to introduce their company, present a portfolio of work, explain working methods, structure and key personnel information. It doesn’t have to be made by one of the people the client might end up working with day to day, but it would be nice. Then again, credentials pitches are not offered very often.

This brings us back to the ‘creative’ pitch. For these, it is important to realise that any interaction with the client from the pitch onwards is a case of finding a common language between client and designer, to enable exchange of knowledge and interpretation of concepts. The skill of communication is paramount. It doesn’t matter if the creative is a genius, if he or she can’t translate their genius to the client it is worthless.

Ideally, you need that middle ground to be covered by someone who not only totally understands and appreciates the client’s business objectives, but is also a key player on the creative team.

Most design consultancies seek to employ those with great communication ability, charismatic personality, an outstanding creative mind, a large dose of aesthetic genius, technical wizardry and organisational skills. But such people are rare, so what do you do? How do you find people who are both creative and articulate?

I’ve been appalled at how little importance colleges place on teaching communication and presentation skills. At First Partnership we have been developing a programme for students explaining the basics of presenting, portfolios and job application options. I’ve trawled degree shows, only to be disappointed by the complete lack of initiative and basic social skills in the students, and what’s more they’ll generally tell you that they don’t think it’s important to present – that the work should stand up for itself. Take those tutors out and shoot them now.

Consultancies can consider sending creative staff on courses to learn these skills. But what would it cost us, and what would we get out of it? – perhaps a bunch of disheartened young creative staff handing in their notice because they think we are trying to turn them from artyfarty types into bullshitters!

Up to a point I can’t blame design consultancy bosses for sending people into pitches who can engage in good conversation and know how to wear a suit. Depending on who the client is and how they operate, it is important to include someone who will be dealing with the client on a daily basis. In some cases, this will be an account handler. But clients faced with an ‘account handler’ need to assess how in tune they are with the creatives. After all, often on the client side there is another chain back to the final decision-makers, so communication across every link must be perfect.

From the client’s point of view a consultancy may be chosen for a variety of reasons. Some clients take a ‘famous’ name designer on board, some are selected by rooms of suits with clipboards and scored on the most bizarre criteria, and some are chosen by seeing several visuals of the finished job and choosing objectively. But the pitch is not just an isolated interaction and presentation to the client. It is also an important part of the full project and might often be an opportunity to ask for more information about the client’s business.

Of course, it is better for the team that will be involved in the project to be pitching. The client will know who they’ll be dealing with day to day and will not forget that compatible personalities are essential for stimulating productive relationships. After all, it’s teamwork including the client (at least it should be). For the consultancy team it is crucial to be with the client and the job from the beginning. To get into the guts of the business and fully understand the potential of the brand and business objectives, creatives have to find that middle ground with the clients, and vice versa.

Clients don’t always appreciate that larger groups are only as good as the team you get and few consultancies, if any, offer the client the choice of team. Very few larger groups are consistent in methods, skills, approach and ability. Clients get frustrated if they don’t know who they’re talking to or why, and quite rightly. On the other hand, in many consultancies you’ll find designers who end up doing the job who are just as frustrated at not being in there from the start.

A combination of key team members presenting together is another possibility. This entails individuals focusing their part of the presentation on their particular area of involvement, but it can be a bit messy and the better ‘presenters’ can show up the weaknesses of the others. Take the team along so they can learn by observing, but make sure your client knows they are there for that purpose.

There are groups which bring in freelances to knock out the work for the pitch presentations. In some cases, freelances can end up at the presentation itself. It’s fast and easy to order a few business cards for the temporary staff, but the chances of that person staying with the project is unlikely.

As you get busier do you look to hire the doers or the talkers? I suggest optimistically that both can still come in one bag. The only way to keep the teams real is to employ some people who are good at pitching. If you are not self-taught at this pitching and presenting game it pays to watch others.

I see a lot of people outside of our industry pitching and presenting. It shows they’ve had a bit of training and it is always worth picking up a few tricks by watching others.

Pitch tactics

– Avoid unpaid creative pitching.

– Seek to employ creatives who can communicate.

– Consider the pitch as the beginning of a relationship.

– Clients have differing expectations, try to accommodate them.

– Seamless communication is a goal – strive for it from day one.

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