How to Stop Your Boss Losing Your New Business Pitch

In my early days in advertising at JWT I often witnessed the ability of a senior person who'd previously said very little, to swing the entire course of a meeting by a perfectly judged intervention.

I've noticed recently how The Boss can influence new business pitches. And not always in a positive way.

Ingenuity now runs a lot of "agency selection" processes, and these involve various types of agencies competing for business from marketing departments. One such agency has made massive progress in the last couple of years. I remember when they first turned up to a 'chemistry' meeting. (This is what we call a meeting in which the agency and the prospective Client simply need to figure out how well they get on which each other.) This matters to Clients, quite rightly, because they know they will have to spend an awful lot of time working closely with the winning agency. The quality of the human relationships will play a large part in determining success.

This particular agency fielded a team headed by their founding CEO. I would hazard a guess that it was his idea to do so. He took himself far too seriously, and opened with a brief talk on the topic of (and this was the worst part) himself and his achievements. His presence in the meeting cast a long, dark shadow over his team. When his people were speaking, they also had a very annoying habit of turning to look at him, as if seeking his approval. The Clients, who had hoped to take part in what should have been a two-way exchange, were left feeling rather sidelined.

Winding forward two years, the same agency has amazed me by completely nailing a pitch. The owner/manager was still in attendance. I had my fingers crossed they'd show how good they actually are, and not make me look an idiot for proposing them. I was soon able to uncross the fingers; this same guy had worked out a new role. This time he announced he was simply there to demonstrate how much they wanted the business, but he'd let his experts do the talking. While they were setting up he cracked a few jokes, of the self-deprecating variety, and even did a mild amount of flirting... but then shut up. They sailed through. The Client even liked the flirting because, this time, he clearly wasn't taking himself too seriously, which gave an air of self confidence and assuredness. Less talking, and an utterly different outcome.

Then you get the Boss who just can't stop talking. This was a fairly recently appointed MD who seemed like she couldn't bare even a moment's silence. Any void, no matter how brief, would be filled immediately. By her. As before, this made the Clients feel that they were something of a side show - there simply to be 'presented at', rather than engaged in dialogue. The Clients couldn't get a word in edgeways, so the agency was never able to respond to what the Clients really thought. Unsurprisingly, this agency therefore failed to make the cut.

On the other hand, you occasionally get the boss that isn't there at all. Their team is left to fend entirely for themselves. And yes, we've just had one of these... To be fair, the team didn't do too badly, but they found themselves at the decision stage in the position of being in the "not sure about" category. They lost out to another agency, also in the "not sure about" category that had proved their desire for the Client's business by fielding the CEO.

It is of course not always possible to bring the boss, but any agency serious about winning a pitch should be able to rustle up a member of the Management team. The purpose of this person would be to demonstrate desire, let the agency team do most of the talking, but also - and perhaps decisively - bring the value of their experience to the discussion when it matters.

In my early days in advertising at JWT I often witnessed the ability of a senior person who'd previously said very little, to swing the entire course of a meeting by a perfectly judged intervention. That comes down to two things. Years of experience and the all too rare skill of listening.


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