Pitch Secrets: How clients really think

Success in pitches all comes down to post-rationalisation. Martin Jones reveals how to make the most of your chances.

Advertising agency chemistry and pitch meetings are strange affairs.

It's easy to believe that everything rests on the clarity of the agency's insights about the client's business or the brilliance of the creative concepts. In reality, the real questions the potential clients are looking to answer are "can I spend time with these people?", "do they like each other?" and "how much do they want my business?"

And I can guarantee that the decision that a client makes about whether to choose an agency or not is invariably post-rationalised on the basis of positive responses to those questions.

And yet, many agencies underestimate this emotional side of new-business decisions, believing there is a silver bullet in the form of a positioning or resource. Others focus on what they see as the inherent benefits of their particular structure. However, for every agency that argues the benefits of independence, another will exhort the benefits of being owned. Neither is right or wrong and, in reality, the basis for client decision-making is far more prosaic.

The light went on for me a little while back during a series of chemistry meetings between agencies and a potential new client. The first two meetings were very positive and buzzy, with lots of banter going on. In the taxi at the end the feedback was all good. "We really liked both of them," the client said. "They seemed to be really interested in our business and both kept asking us lots of questions."

The third meeting didn't go quite so well because the agency's chief executive dominated it by constantly talking over his colleagues. The feedback afterwards was predictably negative, but the rationale was an insight into the psyche of clients. "I'm not sure they were interested in our business," the marketing director claimed. "They kept asking us lots of questions. They were relying on us to do all the work."

When I pointed out that "asking questions" was the reason why they liked the first two agencies, there was a slightly sheepish silence.

And there you have it in a nutshell. The same approach was interpreted in two entirely different ways depending on how much the client engaged with and liked the agency team.

I was once asked to look at the customer journey that a new-business prospect might make when visiting a new agency. "What do clients think about putting creative awards up in reception?" was the first question. Unfortunately, the agency chief was expecting a definitive answer.

My response had to take into account the way in which clients post- rationalise their thoughts: If they've had a good meeting and like the people, they will think you care about your product. If they've had a poor meeting, they will simply see your display of creative awards as being a focus on art rather than commerce.

The art of client post-rationalisation in new business applies to everything. If you are a big agency and the client likes the team of people, then big is good. It means there will be lots of resource available to them. If the client doesn't like them, then big is bad. It means they will get lost. The reverse applies to smaller agencies. Will the client get senior involvement and commitment, or are you too small to cope?

Name any type or size of agency and you can put up a positive or negative rationale. The client's post-rationalisation of the business will largely be based on what they think of them as a group of people.

Start-ups are good because it means they will get senior commitment and hunger. If the client doesn't like the team of people (or, as has occasionally been known, they don't like each other!), then start-ups are untried and risky. Integrated agencies are either multi-skilled or Jacks of all trades.

Vast amounts of experience in a client's sector can be seen as a very positive asset when the client likes the team. If they don't engage with you, or you don't engage with each other, then your experience will make you formulaic in your response.

Simple, isn't it? And yet many agencies don't appreciate just how important emotional engagement is in a pitch. Part of the problem is that when clients have their new-business hat on, they tend to be like those people that make very encouraging noises when they are looking at buying your house and then never take it any further. It is much easier to be polite rather than say that they don't like your taste in wallpaper.

Telling someone they came a close second is an easy answer when what they really mean is "we just preferred somebody else". So, what can you do about it? How can you ensure that you genuinely engage with your potential clients, increase your chances of a successful pitch process and get them to post-rationalise in your favour?

The first thing is to recognise that emotional engagement is a key motivator and that the best case histories in the world won't get you on a pitchlist if your team doesn't get on or isn't particularly excited about the opportunity. Surely this doesn't happen in 2009's ultra-competitive market where every opportunity is treated like gold dust, I hear you cry? You'd be surprised.

Second, to increase your chances of clients post-rationalising positively about having met you, think carefully about the casting of the team you field. In the past, it was the cult of the individual. Today, clients are no longer seduced by flamboyant individuals who promise to personally solve all their problems. They are worried that relying on one person is a dangerous game. They understand the benefits of having a genuine team of people working on their account, and anything that gives them a different impression will be frowned upon.

My favourite story on the importance of team surrounds someone who went into a pitch with white powder around their nose.

The agency was unsuccessful and the feedback from the client as to why was unusually honest. Part of the reason that the agency didn't win the business was not because the person had powder around their nose, but that nobody from the agency had told them about it. The client had inferred from this small omission that this group couldn't possibly be a real team and they didn't want to work with a group like that.

I think the importance of the cult of the team is also one of the reasons why start-ups have done so well. They are often formed by a group of people who can finish each other's sentences and are very supportive of each other, having worked together closely in the past.

Hunger will also get you a long way with these post-rationalising clients. You need to ensure that your agency is genuinely interested in the opportunity and that you really want it. "We should never have gone for it," is a phrase that should be banned from all agencies. The chances are that if you felt that, the client will have felt it too.

I've never met a client who isn't interested in what people think about them. Yet too many agencies still think that their time is best spent talking about themselves rather than about the client, their business and their challenges.

Looking interested always helps. Creative people in meetings have a tendency to doodle and look like their minds are elsewhere. Unfortunately, there is a danger that this can be interpreted as the creative not being interested. Invariably, this is not the case and they are simply thinking about the client's challenge. The client doesn't know this, though. The lesson here is to practice positive listening. It will always stand you in good stead.

No client wants to feel that they aren't important to you and the smallest signal, however unintentional, can kill the meeting dead. I remember one client whose principal concern was that the agency wasn't interested in their business because the managing director was playing with his BlackBerry during the meeting. I professed surprise as this was someone who had always shown huge amounts of interest in and respect for clients. I later found out that he was using his BlackBerry, but simply to ask for someone to bring in more drinks and turn up the air conditioning. An example of proactive account handling being misinterpreted as a lack of interest.

Never forget that perception is 90 per cent of reality in new business. You may be the best agency in the land, but unless you and your team have engaged with your prospective client, leaving them feeling like you genuinely want their business, then it won't be long before you, too, become the victim of client post-rationalisation.

- Martin Jones is a non-executive director of AAR and, in his spare time, advises agencies on their new business and marketing.


1. Make sure that your team know and like each other.

2. Show that you "get on" but don't get carried away with banter within your team. To the client it can sometimes feel like a party they haven't been invited to.

3. Don't over- or underman the meeting. Too few people means it looks like you aren't bothered. Too many means there won't be a chance for chemistry and you are in danger of looking desperate.

4. Don't put food so far out of reach that clients won't lean over to get it or make it so complicated that they won't know how to eat it. Why do agencies insist on putting mangos and pineapples in meetings?

5. Make sure that the case histories and work that you show are relevant to the client's needs and issues. Otherwise, you risk leaving the client feeling like they are looking at holiday photographs of places they aren't ever likely to visit.

6. Whenever possible, meet clients in reception. It is terribly impressive when someone does this, but please think of something more engaging to say than: "Where have you come from?"

7. Make sure that you engage with everyone on the client team. Particularly at the early stages, the decision-making is very democratic and if a junior member of the client team is feeling ignored, that will be a good enough reason to exclude you.

8. Don't say "sit anywhere" when clients come into the room. Think about who and what they can see from where they sit (if it's opposite a window, you can guarantee that they will look out of it, rather than at you!).