My secret hack for winning pitches Let’s be honest – no one in advertising likes pitching. Yes, the thrill of winning a new business is incredible, but the process of winning that business is anything… More
“I want a once-in-a-lifetime, never-been-done, unparalleled, one-of-a-kind, completely unique idea and three case studies to show how it’s worked before.” Sound familiar?
I remember the first proper brief that I ever worked on when I was at college studying copywriting. It was for Dr Pepper. We had been broken up into teams of about 6 people to try and crack a big idea and because we were all completely new at the game, it took a really long time. In fact, at that stage, I still wasn’t entirely sure what a copywriter was – it seemed like all I had done up until that point was sit around in a room and chat. Turns out, that’s pretty much what the job entails. Anyway, at one point, I remember the first time in my advertising career that an idea ‘hit’ me. It wasn’t a good one, but at the time, it felt like the Universe gave me a cerebral high five. I stood up. I looked around importantly and said something that began with ‘What if…’ (I might have even raised my hands as though conjuring it out of thin air) and the room went silent. It was actually already silent because we had hit that lull when you’ve just been staring at each other for the last 20 minutes with nothing new to add, but it seemed to go even more silent. I was met with stares and then someone said three words that, sadly, I’ve heard many times since although it never seems to lose its sting: ‘It’s been done’. And that was it. The room seemed to move on. Except that I didn’t. I didn’t quite realise that what those words meant was that that idea and everything associated with it, was tarnished. It had become untouchable. Why? Because it was no longer unique; it was no longer pioneering; it was no longer art.
Of course, this leads us to ancient Egypt. It’s said that the first signs of advertising appeared here when the ancient Egyptians employed tall stone obelisks to publicise laws and treaties, using hieroglyphics. It was, in essence, the first billboard. The first time that someone decided that an outdoor space was a good place to try and convey information. At least, it’s the first record that we have of someone doing so. I would argue that the person who made that obelisk, if he were around today, would be in advertising. But the person who saw its genius and decided to put it on public walkways, outside shops, and on the road, was in marketing. Because if advertisers understand the human psyche, the marketers know which psyches they want to focus on. Why? Because they’ve literally spent years breaking down target audiences, studying case study after case study on how best to reach people and understanding every aspect of their market.
But herein lies the problem. On the one hand, you have people in advertising dismissing ideas if they’ve heard them before, and on the other hand, you have marketers with dwindling budgets wanting to implement ideas that they know work. You have people, working on the same goal of building brands, literally pulling in opposite directions.
So how do we solve this? The answer is simple: Hollywood. We’ve all grown up with our favourite action movies where the protagonist and antagonist have been at each other all movie long, only to finally come together to defeat their mutual enemy. We see them surrounded, without a chance of victory. Their enemy starts his monologue talking about how they are now irrelevant and that the world has moved on. Slowly, we see them sidle up to one another, standing back to back, and come to the understanding that if they use other’s strength, they can magnify their own. The realisation sets in. The music starts playing, they start to own the low angle ‘Ridley-Scott-esque’ shot slowly tracking around them, everything moves in slow motion… they’ll finally able to take on all their nemesis has to throw at them and become glorious.
But it starts here: trust. The advertisers have to know that they’re not about to run off and spend days or weeks pushing the boundaries only to have to produce something that the brand manager’s girlfriend came up with the night before. They have to know that they’re not in the creative equivalent of an abusive relationship where any expression of creativity is stifled. They have to be free. But advertisers, know this, if you’re going to be trusted, you have to have the brand’s interest at heart. Don’t chase after awards with scam ads that you’ve somehow got the client to run at 2am, against their best interests. Don’t come back with safe options that you think they’ll buy, but you know won’t work. They chose you above all other agencies because of the work you do. So do it.
Marketers, trust your initial instincts. After all, you’ve gone through a tenuous pitch process where you chose your current agency. And you did it for a good reason – you loved their work. So now trust them to do what they do. Make sure you don’t accept some pseudo strat based on ‘ unique insights’ that position the brand or product as something generic like ‘convenient’ or ‘service orientated’. Push for something that they can get their teeth into; something that will truly set you apart and then go for it.
Think about it this way. If Picasso had listened to all of his critics, what kind of work would he have produced? Would you really want to buy it? But, if someone hadn’t come around, recognised its true value and marketed it to the right people, would it still be worth what it is today?
So sidle up to your agency. Stand back-to-back with your client. Tie those bandanas around your head, cue the slow motion and let those Uzis rip.
On the 23rd of June 2016, David Cameron got a very real lesson in advertising. After years of pressure from opposition parties, Cameron decided to have a referendum to see if the British people wanted to stay with, or leave the EU. At the time, it was done as a low-risk ploy to keep the peace among the Tories before the 2015 general election. I doubt that any of his advisors thought there was a chance that people would actually vote to leave. Obviously, this was a mistake. Without getting into the politics, of which I am really not qualified to comment, there is something that we can learn: Never present an idea that you don’t believe in.
Now we’ve all been there. You’re sitting in a 6 o clock review and just presented an idea that the Art Director, Copywriter and Creative Director love… but others in the room are less enthusiastic about. The suggestion is to present the idea that we all love, but also take in a ‘safer’ option so that the client doesn’t think we’ve completely lost our minds, or worse yet, make us lose our retainer. So against our better judgement, we prep the other idea as well as the one we love. We don’t put as much thought into it, it’s not as well executed and it really does become the ugly step child, but that’s okay because ‘don’t worry guys – they’ll never go for it anyway. It’s just a safety net’.
And then you walk into your meeting. You stand up and present the work you love and low and behold, they love it too. Everyone is laughing (if it’s funny), ideas start shooting around the table, and you’ve done your job – you’ve inspired people to see what’s possible. Even the people on your team who were not as sure about the idea, now see the light… or at least, they see the delight on their client’s faces and that’s the same thing. And that’s where the presentation should end. But it doesn’t. You then click the arrow key on your keyboard and instead of saying ‘Thank you’, it says ‘Route 2’.
Now, in order to show the client that you’re not presenting them something that you don’t believe in, you try and put in the same presentation prowess as you did the first time round. The thing is that by this stage, they love you. They think you’re a creative genius. So anything you show them is going to have the Emperor’s New Clothing effect on them. If they don’t like it, it will almost be admitting that they don’t ‘get it’. Something that people are very unlikely to do. What they do see is that it is safe. And that it will probably speak to people who are ‘less sophisticated’ than them and therefore, it might not be that bad.
Before you know it, you’re representing a lemon; something you don’t like. Something that you are trying to ‘unsell’ because you know that it’s never going to work and in years to come, people are going to question what you were thinking. So don’t be David Cameron. And don’t go in with ideas you don’t believe just to keep everyone happy.
In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he gives a ‘how to’ guide on the basics of flying. It’s brilliant really. To some it up, he says that all you need to do is throw yourself at the floor… and miss. Genius. It is a little more complicated than that – and if you haven’t read it, do yourself a favour, read it – but it goes something like this.
He says that you need to throw yourself at the floor with every intention of hitting it, but then become accidentally distracted. In which case, you’ll find yourself flying. Well, bobbing or floating to be precise. He also says that you can’t try and distract yourself on purpose. If you do, you will hit the floor. Instead, you should put your full attention into knowing how hard the floor is going to hurt and really go for it. If, however, you are lucky enough to have that before mentioned attention, distracted, say by a lovely pair of legs, a bomb going off in the vicinity, or an extremely rare beetle, you may find yourself floating above the ground. You may be one of the lucky people who can afford one of his flying clubs where you pay to be distracted. This mainly comprises of people with odd body parts, or surprising opinions, jumping out from behind bushes at the exact crucial moment. Most hitchhikers, it is said, can’t afford these clubs.
If you find yourself floating, you should really not acknowledge it. Don’t listen to anybody else in this time either because it’s likely that anything they say is not going to be helpful. Instead, breathe regularly, try a few swoops and enjoy the sensation without putting too much thought into it. Or you might find it coming to a very sudden end.
I think that coming up with ideas works in the same way. If you truly want to come up with something original, about the worst thing you can do is try to focus on a way to do so. Instead, go off and do something else. Go play a game of squash, meet your mates for a pint, read a book, drive a car with the top down (The car’s, not yours. Although that will work too.), and then, all of a sudden, come back to your idea with vengeance. Try and be the person in the flying club that sneaks up on your brain and shows it an odd body part. Metaphorically speaking, of course. If you do, you may just find yourself floating, or bobbing. And then, whatever you do, don’t look down and don’t listen to people. Just go with it. Try a few swoops, play a little, but don’t acknowledge what you’re doing. Just enjoy it.
When you’ve safely landed, then take stock of what’s just happened. You’ve been privy to something truly original – an idea. Untainted. Untarnished. Just the pure raw energy of what the world is made of. Savour it. Cherish it. Then do all you can to write it down, record it, take mental pictures, or carve it in stone, but whatever you do, capture it. Original ideas are a privilege and you’ve just had one.
Of course, this is just one way of many to come up with them. There really isn’t a formula. But the one thing that I’ve found that is common with all ideas is that you need to give them the space and time to appear. If it’s too rushed, too calculated, too forced or too mechanical, you’re going to hit the floor.