The pitching errors small agencies should take care to avoid

In this article, sales expert Andy Preston explains the real-life mistakes agencies make when pitching that often cost them valuable business.

It’s always interesting when I’m talking to agencies about selling. Whether they’re specialists in design, branding, PR, marketing, or digital and social media, not many people in those organisations would consider themselves professional salespeople.

Yet the problem is that those very same people are often called on to pitch their agency to customers. You don’t need to be a professional salesperson to learn from the mistakes below, but you do have to remember that a ‘pitch’ meeting is a critical sales interaction one that can win (or lose) you business.

Below are some ‘real-life’ examples of mistakes agencies make when pitching. Ones that I personally experienced recently when sitting on the ‘buying side’ in pitch meetings with a couple of clients.

You may also be making these mistakes. Take notice, take notes and eradicate the things below from your pitching process forever. If you want to increase your success rate from pitching that is?

Pitching mistake No 1 – Not clarifying ‘The Budget’

This is probably the most ‘basic’ of all sales basics. Yet most agencies still don’t do it! Why? Some because they’re afraid to ask (and get told ‘I’m not telling you!). Some because they don’t know HOW to ask. And some because they think ‘the client will pay whatever price we charge because they love us and our work so much’.

If you’re in the first or second group, you’ll find this article useful. For those of you in the ‘third’ group, print 20 copies of this article out and pin them up around the office. There’s a ‘reality check’ coming.

Oh, and for those of you that are saying to yourself ‘oh but when I ask ‘what’s your budget?’ clients just say they don’t have one’ – you’re wrong. They have one alright. They’re just not telling you because you didn’t ask in the right way. You would be in group number two.

Here’s a reality check. Clients always have a budget.

And if you’re not within it (or very close) you’ve probably lost the business before you even start.

In my opinion, not clarifying the budget beforehand is either stupidity or laziness. Why on earth would you go to the time and trouble involved in preparing for a pitch, only to miss out because you were out on price?

One company that pitched myself and my client was over FIVE TIMES THE BUDGET! No matter how good they were, they weren’t getting the work! Don’t make this same mistake.

If you’re still struggling on how to ask about the budget, I have a sure-fire way of asking that will get you the answer – go to and ask for my ‘budget’ questions. And ask nicely!

Pitching mistake No 2 – Not understanding the brief

This would be the second most basic of all sales basics. Yet many agencies fail to do this too. This is often caused by time pressure, or by a mindset of ‘oh I know that already’. If you’re skimming over this article, you would be in the second group.

Just for clarity’s sake, let me put it this way. There is no excuse for not understanding the brief. Ever.

You have plenty of opportunities to clarify the brief. Yet either you’ve chosen not to do so, you’ve misunderstood what they meant, or you haven’t asked the right questions. All of which are your fault.

In a real-life example with another client, the majority of agencies misinterpreted the brief. They pitched for a complete ‘rebrand’ of the organisation including a ‘brand workshop’, designing new logos, logo and brand guideline documents etc.

In actual fact, the organisation was perfectly happy with their existing brands and logos – what they actually wanted was someone to help tie them together better, ensure a common theme on web and print media and advise them the best way forward. Only 20 per cent of agencies demonstrated they understood this in their pitch, so therefore only 20 per cent were in the running for the business!

Pitching Mistake No 3 – Only talking about your ‘big’ clients

Another mistake many agencies make in their pitch meetings is just to talk about their ‘big’ clients. You might think it’s big. You might think it’s clever. The client just thinks you’re going to be expensive. Stupid move.

If the company you’re pitching is not a similar size as the companies you’re talking about they won’t be able to relate to them as easily. And if the company you’re pitching is smaller, that runs the risk of them seeing your services as not appropriate and too expensive for them – even before you’ve talked about price!

The more you talk about your big clients, the more the people you’re pitching perceive you as showing off – and the client is also more likely interested in themselves than your other clients, so you should be focusing on what you can do for THEM!

In order to be more successful in pitch meetings, your pitch, your questions, your creative examples and your client references should be tailored to that individual client and can easily be related to by them. Otherwise you may have lost the client as soon as you start pitching!

Pitching mistake No 4 – Not showing prices or creative examples

I’m lumping both these together as they fall under a similar category of mistake. Now I know this can be a contentious issue in the agency world, particularly on the ‘creative’ side, but it can be essential as to whether your pitch meeting is successful (or not!).

Another real-life example is a company that didn’t bring prices with them to the pitch meeting – saying that they ‘didn’t price at brief/pitch stage’, nor did they bring example creative either! They said the reason for not bringing creative was that companies just ‘pinched’ their ideas, so they didn’t do it.

Now if that’s your policy, you’ve got to be very, very good to pull that off. And they weren’t. Let’s face it, if you’re not going to bring neither prices nor creative to a pitch meeting, you’re going to struggle against the other companies that are pitching because they probably will have done!

At some level, the reason for a company inviting you in to pitch is to get an idea of your creative and your ideas – not to ‘steal’ them, but to enable to make a decision if you’re the right company to work with or not. And if you don’t give them any idea of what you could do for them, nor a price, you’re making it very difficult for them to make the decision to go with you.

Pitching mistake No 5 – Not preparing well enough

The right preparation can make a huge difference as to whether you win the client. The wrong (or lack of) preparation can also make a huge difference – but in a different way!

In both pitch meetings I participated in recently, it was obvious who had prepared well and who had prepared badly, or not at all. The companies that hadn’t done as much preparation were shown up badly by the ones that had. One company pitching was able to tell my client some things he didn’t know about his own industry – very impressive and gave them a huge advantage in the selection process.

Another company however was less impressive. They turned up and admitted that they hadn’t been able to do any preparation or research whatsoever – due to ‘meeting deadlines for existing clients!!!’ Awful, truly awful.

Now even looking past the fact that this put them to the bottom of the pile straightaway, that would also raise concerns over their ability to hit deadlines if we did give them work! Sounds like they certainly couldn’t cope with any more than they already have!

They opened their ‘pitch’ by admitting the fact, but then suggested that we have a ‘chat’ and maybe they could come back at another time and pitch properly? The response from the client was ‘well we’re making the decision today, so it better be a good ‘chat!’

Pitching mistake No 6 – Poor presentation skills

The presentation skills of all the people pitching were not good, however some were really bad! For three of the companies pitching, the person leading the pitch was visibly shaking, and one was so bad that his colleague had to keep jumping in and saving him from awkward silences!

In an agency, it’s very unlikely you spend a lot of time presenting – yet when you have to do so (like at a pitch meeting) then you need to be good! Sometimes you can lose business purely down to you having poor presentation skills compared to your competitors.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, one company printed out their powerpoint slides onto paper (as the company specified no powerpoint etc) which were white text on a solid green background and then proceed to talk through all the bullet points on every slide. Awful!

Hopefully, after reading the above, you won’t make the same mistakes at YOUR pitch meetings in future. But if you don’t take heed of the warnings above, just hope that I’m not sat on the other side of the table when you pitch.

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