By Blair Enns, Author, “The Win Without Pitching Manifesto”
Are you in PR, marketing, advertising or related integrated marketing communication professions where you’re forced to pitch your best ideas to prospects and even clients—only to have them walk with those ideas without ever signing you as their AOR?
You’re not alone if this business reality drives you crazy. It’s just bad business and can cost you thousands—if not more—in lost creative capital, time and resources. But the truth is it doesn’t have to be a reality. Not anymore.
The free pitching of ideas and advice is endemic in the creative professions, but it’s really a symptom of other basic business challenges shared among many firms. What follows is a twelve-step program to transforming a creative firm and how it goes about winning and doing business.
Step 1: We Will Specialize
The root of the global free pitching problem is not bad clients, but an oversupply of undifferentiated creative businesses. The client’s power to push the firm around in the buying process, to dictate pricing and to demand that the firm part with its thinking for free comes not from his wallet but from his choice. The client can easily replace one unaccommodating undifferentiated firm with another just like it.
The only real way to reclaim power is to specialize and build a firm of such deep expertise that is seen as having few real competitors. But this first step is where most firms fail. It is the nature of the creative mind to broaden itself and pursue varied interests even while the business cries out for focus. This is but one of the many business costs of creativity.
Step 2: We Will Replace Presentations with Conversations
To a person, creative professionals are addicted to the presentation. This our dirty little secret: We love presenting so much, we’re willing to do it for free. When we’re honest we will admit that we create the conditions where a presentation becomes necessary—working neither transparently nor collaboratively—so that we may meet our own need to present.
Until we wean ourselves of this addiction and choose to converse instead of present we will never be free of the pitch.
Step 3: We Will Diagnose Before We Prescribe
While it’s considered malpractice in other professions to diagnose before properly prescribing, we do it all the time. The arms-length nature of the pitch never allows for a proper diagnoses. It thus forces us into an ethical dilemma each time we agree to pitch. Proper diagnoses requires formalized diagnostic methods, however, and, alas, an inability to formalize how we work – to be hemmed in by a real working methodology—is another cost of creativity. It does not come easy to us.
Step 4: We Will Rethink What It Means to Sell
Most of us think of selling as the act of talking people into things. But selling, when done properly, is merely the facilitation of the buying process. If we have succeeded in the first step (specialized and thereby differentiated ourselves) then we can treat selling as a respectful exercise. If we have failed at the first step then we are left with trying to talk people into hiring us, even while we disdain it.
Step 5: We Will Do With Words What We Used to Do with Paper
A proposal is a constructed set of words that we deliver orally. “Here’s what we propose to do for you, here’s how long it will take and here’s how much it will cost. Would you like to proceed?” The document that follows is the contract, and it becomes necessary once the answer to the proposal is “yes” or “yes, dependant upon working out some remaining details.” Somehow, we’ve gotten away from such a common sense approach and have convinced ourselves that 50-page “decks” are more meaningful than conversations.
Step Six: We Will Be Selective
Pragmatism about opportunity is another cost of creativity. We tend to talk ourselves into pursuing every opportunity that presents itself, when often we should just walk away. Poor fits, unsophisticated clients, ridiculous selection processes, lack of budget or budget transparency – these are just some of the many reasons that we know, and the client knows, we should retreat, even while we continue to advance.
If we want our yes to be taken with credibility then we must regularly wield our no.
Step 7: We Will Build Expertise Rapidly
Knowledge is like water in that it will spread to the edges of its container. If the container of our knowledge is the broad “full service marketing communications,” then what we gain in breadth we will sacrifice in depth. It is difficult to build expertise rapidly when we are broadly positioned. Where the narrowly positioned expert can double his knowledge base every year or two almost in perpetuity, the generalist’s knowledge spreads like a film without ever amassing any meaningful depth.
Step 8: We Will Not Solve Problems Before We Are Paid
Our clients deserve to rest assured that our best minds are working on their challenges and not the challenges of those who have yet to hire us.
Step 9: We Will Address Issues of Money Early
We must resist putting ourselves in a position where we have over-invested in the buying cycle only to find the client cannot afford to pay us what we are worth. By addressing money issues early, including outlining the size of budget it makes sense for us to take on, we save ourselves time and frustration.
Step 10: We Will Refuse to Work at a Loss
We build our firm one profitable engagement at a time and excepting our carefully selected pro bono work all our engagements should be profitable. It is the semi-profitable job or the quasi-charitable client that bleeds us of profit and energy.
Step 11: We Will Charge More
Competing on price is the lot of the undifferentiated generalist. The dual advantages of the specialist are the ability to simultaneous win more while charging more. Charging more brings greater reward to us and our staff and it allows us to allocate more time to contemplate our clients’ challenges, thus improving both our delivery and the client’s satisfaction.
Step 12: We Will Hold Our Heads High
The transformation from generalist to expert brings about many changes beyond the ability to circumnavigate or derail a pitch. It brings with it a value and respect for our work on par with the more elevated professions. And it brings to us rewards of money and time that allow us to have a greater impact on our families and communities.
Blair Enns is a business development advisor to creative firms worldwide. He is also the author of “The Win Without Pitching Manifesto” (RockBench Press in 2010). Blair lives in Kaslo, British Columbia, Canada and can be found at www.winwithoutpitching.com.