See What Sticks

For the last two and a half weeks, I’ve worked an average of 12 hours a day (including weekends), attended hours of brainstormings and meetings, made a large stack of sketches, produced around 25 screens, spent over 12 hours travelling and made two presentations for the CEO of a large firm. And I haven’t earned my company a cent.

Why hasn’t my boss fired me?

I’ve been pitching.

What’s a pitch? Imagine you could go into a car dealership, tell them exactly what you need in a car, and they would build you a custom ride to suit. You could then – without paying a cent – take it home and drive around for a couple weeks. If you didn’t like it you could take it back, no strings attached, and go buy a car elsewhere.

Okay, not a perfect analogy. For those of you not in “da bidness”, a pitch is where a potential client invites web agencies (usually 2 to 6) to present ideas as to how they would redesign their website. The agencies go off and cook up concepts, sketches, screens and a presentation. What the potential client gets for nothing is plenty of new ideas how their web site could function and look. What the agency gets for their investment of time (at a cost to the agency ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 Euro) is either a new client, or nothing at all.

There’s no point in complaining about the pitch process. It’s the standard way to win new clients in our industry, as well as in advertising, architecture and others. However, since I’ve been pitching quite a lot in the last couple of years, I’d like to take a look at how they work, and how they could work better. This time I’ll be concentrating on advice for companies who will be inviting agencies to pitch, and in future articles I’ll inspect the process inside the agency, and what could or should happen if you win.

You Want Fries With That?

The heart of the pitch is the briefing. A good briefing is a document which defines what the client is looking for. Typically a pitch begins when an agency receives an invitation to pitch with a briefing. I could write a few pages about what a good briefing should be, but to start with, here are a few tips.

No Man is an Island

Don’t let one person write your briefing. Your website will represent your entire company. So why should only one person write the first contact with your future agency? Discuss it with the key players, get all of them to sign off on it, and don’t send it out until they do.

Uh, Fries in the Shake?

Who can know what you want if you don’t? Almost all briefings I’ve read fall into one of two categories: vague or contradictory. Some are both of course. If you hope to get what you want from an agency, make sure you describe it clearly. Give your briefing (i.e. your future kick-ass website) the time it deserves. Get the key players together for a day and workshop out ideas, expand on the good ones and kick out the crap, and cook it down to the essentials. Ask yourselves hard questions (e.g. What’s the single most important thing our site should achieve? How can our website stand out from those of the competition? What should our site achieve in 1, 5, 10 years?) and write the answers into the briefing. Show the briefing to objective observers outside your company and see if they understand it. All of this will make it easier for agencies to hit your target and easier for you to recognise the right solution when an agency presents it to you.

I Know Something You Don’t Know

An agency’s first step in a pitch is to research your industry and try to learn, in a couple days, everything you’ve learned about your business through years of experience. The agencies you invite to pitch will bring you much better ideas if you provide them as much background info as you can. Who are your competitors? Where does your firm see itself in the industry? How well do your products sell? What is your brand “personality”? How is your company changing and why? How do people use your current website? Are there statistics? How many employees will be dedicating how much time to site maintenance? What are your company’s strategic and tactical goals? How should the site help you achieve them? If you include the answers to these questions in your briefing, the agencies will be free to spend more time preparing to show you what you want to see.

Tell Me About It

Above all, be open for communication. I’ve never won a pitch for a client who wouldn’t talk to me before the presentation. The dream of every pitching agency is a face-to-face briefing (accompanied by a written one of course). Maybe you don’t have the time for that, but plan on talking to all pitching agencies at least twice before the presentation, and invite them to call with any questions they may have.

But That’s Not All

In order to develop an excellent concept and design for a pitch presentation, agencies need quite a lot more than just a briefing. This is a no-brainer for anyone working in an agency, but judging by how seldom the “more” is delivered with the briefing, I assume most people responsible for internet projects in large firms aren’t aware that an agency needs not only a briefing, but also:

  • A corporate design styleguide
  • Brand identity guidelines
  • Logo art in the best quality available
  • Fonts used by the company, especially if not commonly available
  • As much exisiting photo and/or illustration art as is available
  • Examples of exisiting corporate communication

If you’re organising a pitch for your company, don’t send your briefing without sending everything on this list with it. If they’re competent, the agencies you’re inviting are just going to ask for all of it anyway, so save yourself and them some time.

The Guest List

Who to invite? If you’ve developed a focussed briefing, it should be pretty clear who’s capable of fulfilling it. Make a list. Do your research, check out projects each agency has realised, and cross a few names off the list. Call some contacts who’ve worked with the agencies, see how satisfied they are, and cross some more names off. Look at award lists and in the press. Cross more names off. Your goal is to get down to five names. Three is even better.

Partners are not = Solutions

Are you looking for a short-term solution or long-term relationship with partner who can help you with more than a new website, for example statistical analysis, banner production and placement, e-mail newsletters, site maintenance, marketing specials, etc.? If all you’re looking for is a short-term solution, then the pitch is simpler for all involved, although far less enticing for an agency. But if your company needs a partner to work with over years on many different projects, state that in your invitation, and keep it in mind through the entire process.

The Golden Handshake

Why are you inviting agencies to pitch? Are you just shopping around for free ideas, or are you really looking for a competent partner who can professionally help you meet your goals?

If you’re just shopping for free ideas, you can skip this section. You can also expect to gain a reputation as an idea-thief, and over the years to have an ever-shrinking list of agencies who are willing to work with you and your company. Word does get around.

For those of you who are truly looking for the right partner, you can increase your chances by paying for the pitch. An agency is more likely to accept an invitation to pitch if there’s a small payment attached to the invitation, and if it’s not important to you that a specific agency takes part, why are you inviting them? I’ve never heard of a pitch payment that even came close to covering the agency’s expenses (pitch payments tend to be between 1,000 and 5,000 Euro), but nothing says, “we’re serious about this, and appreciate your efforts” better than a little cash.

Tick-Tock Tick-Tock

Timing is everything. It should be obvious, but the more time you give an agency to prepare for a presentation, the more they’ll bring with them. A minimum would be about two weeks from sending the briefing to the presentation, but more time is always welcome and definitely has an impact on quality.

The Show

So the briefing’s out, you’ve had a couple chats with the pitching agencies, and the time for presentations has come. You don’t have to do anything more than sit back and enjoy the show, right? Almost…

Firstly, presentations can be exhausting. Give yourself a break, and the pitching agencies a chance, and don’t schedule more than two presentations a day. One a day is even better. It’s just not possible to focus, ask intelligent questions and judge fairly if you’ve already sat through three 2-hour presentations already.

Secondly, don’t forget your briefing. Make sure everyone present has read it, or even better, meet shortly before the agency arrives and run through the briefing again with everyone. You’ll look much more professional and waste less time if everyone in the audience knows what the agency is there to present.

Third, remember that you’re not only a potential employer, you’re the host. You’re receiving guests who’ve just spent a few weeks of time (not to mention blood, sweat and tears) preparing to visit you. Stay polite, offer refreshments, turn your phone and laptop off, and listen to what they’re there to tell you. Give concrete feedback, commit to a date for your decision, and leave a good impression on your guests. Your money may mean that agencies must work with you, but they’ll work far better if they also want to. Also, as I said above, word does get around.

Eeni, Meeni, Meini, Mo!

After the presentations, it’s time to choose. Go back to your briefing and compare what you wrote to what was presented. If there’s no stand-out winner, give everyone in your team a number of points to distribute across all agencies. If this doesn’t make the choice clear, try and at least reduce the list down to two, and invite them back for a second presentation. At this point, go back to the beginning of the process, and do it all over again, but this time add specific and concrete feedback to your re-briefing.

Although it rarely happens, an alternative to the second round pitch is the mini-project. You write a briefing for something small, the two agencies on your list write an offer, and you work with them both for a short time. This allows you to see how they work in reality, and should decide the issue once and for all.

Bummer, Dude!

A handful of agencies have poured their hearts (their hearts? Yes. Don’t underestimate what an emotional process a pitch is.) into a presentation for you, with little or no recompense for their labours. But you can only work with one of them. Don’t leave the others hanging. Call them when you promised to, to give them the bad news personally. And, although it’s rarely done properly, the most important part of that call is “why?” Explain as clearly as possible why your company chose another agency, what was missing, and how they could improve their chances in similar pitches in the future. After what they’ve done for you, it’s nothing more than the least you can do for them.

August 30th Update: Erik Spiekermann has a far better analogy than mine with the car…

“That would be like visiting several restaurants in a row and trying the food in each one, then refusing to pay the bill because none of the dishes were really to your liking.”

He also has a far more hostile attitude (English is down at the bottom) to pitches than I do. But then again, he has many more years experience as a designer, too. And with his rep, I’m sure he can get along without pitching just fine. (via Fischmarkt)

Another update: Bwahhahhahhahah! Yes!

Also worth a look: Wieden + Kennedy’s agency blog, “optimism” has a little report on their current RFP (Request For Proposal, in other words pitch) work. Gives a good idea how much energy and emotion goes into a pitch.


  1. as says:

    put in some pictures dude… and i will read the text

  2. Rerun says:

    True and well written.
    Pitches can be the most exciting and the most exhausting parts of our jobs – and often are both at the same time.

    Hopefully, your article will be read by many people respnsible for organising pitches and not just be another preaching to the choir.

    btw: short anectdote. Once, but only one it happened to me, that an already generously pitch payment of 5000,- euros was doubled after we presented reworked ideas – just for a comparetivly small banner campaign. Sadly, we didn’t get the job, but he payment made us break even on the pitch-project.

  3. Mb. says:

    @Rerun: Congratulations! You’re one in a million. I’ve never taken part in a pitch where the payment came anywhere near covering our costs. At the best it’s just a friendly gesture, and at the worst it gives the potential client the feeling that your ideas belong to him, even if you lose…

  4. Rerun says:

    You’re absolutely right. Normal business practice is not to pay at all for pitches, it was a little bit different before the new economy crash. If I remember correctly, around 1999 multimedia agencys assembled in the dmmv (nowadays called the BVDW) resolved never to participate in unpaid pitches.

    Like a New Years resolution, no one remembered it, when the business went downhill …

    … and about pitch-ideas surfacing in some other agencys campaign, been there, too.