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Say ‘no’ to a pitch: There’s a different way of building a relationship and of proving value — interview with Kevin Jackson, Founder of The Experience is the Marketing

‘There is no such thing as sales’ is the name of Kevin Jackson’s latest book. He shares the encapsulation of his past 20 years working in advertising and marketing with the leading agencies, including Jack Morton Worldwide, George P. Johnson and now his newly launched businesses in strategic consultancy and events, including The Experience is the Marketing, Muslim Lifestyle Show, London Halal Food Festival and Blueprints.org. 

On 21 February, Kevin was a keynote speaker at the Event Planners Talk event about ‘pitching for success: pitfall and opportunities’ and shared very important insights about how agencies can win business without needing to enter the often-uncertain pitching process against other agencies, and instead, make themselves the agency of choice from the get-go. 

Sales: emotional decisions that need logical justification

What makes up sales? People think that sales is a process and that’s wrong because sales are emotional and there’s no getting away from it. You buy the things you want because you feel connected to them, and that, as a result, takes you into the purchasing process — no matter what you are buying. Our behaviour is created by the Amygdala at the back of the brain; it has no language or logic, only feelings.

In most purchases, there is a need to get into a logical reason for you doing that, and that’s the disconnect between the emotion that takes you in and the logic, which is called ‘cognitive dissonance’ — where in terms of the thing that took you into the process in the first place, your logic says ‘you shouldn’t spend that money.’ And especially in the B2B context, when you are spending the money on some’s else’s behalf. Also in B2B, you will make an emotional decision, but then you need the ‘benefits’ and ‘facts’ to justify it.

When you’ve got to know the right people, you must know your stuff

85% of purchases in B2B occur between the 5th and 12th interaction. There are a lot of sales in between, but also a great deal of relationship building in this time frame. For Kevin, there are only two things in sales: relationship (which is the most important) and knowledge. ‘It is not what you know, it’s whom you know’ — that is sort of true, but when you get to the people you know, you’ve got to know your stuff because they are not going to trade with someone who has insufficient knowledge. So even if they know you, if you can’t demonstrate knowledge of the product or service, they are not going to buy from you. 

So: knowing people is number 1, knowing stuff is number 2. 

Being an expert in your field is vital. As mentioned, in B2B, purchases are made between the 5th and 12th interaction, and you need to sustain something in this time period. Where do you go from ‘have you seen our price list, have you been to our website’? You’ve got to build a relationship to get to number 12 and therefore you are probably not pitching. 

Say ‘no’ to a pitch 

90% of businesses should say ‘no’ to a pitch. If you get invited to pitch and you don’t know why, you should say ‘no’ because you don’t have a relationship. Pitching is like gambling — you want to increase the odds of you winning, and thus decrease the odds of you losing; it’s an unwindable bet, any one of these options is a terrible thing. To have one of these options is probably a ‘no’, but to have both is definitely a ‘no.’ 

Kevin has given close to 700 business pitches — that’s a lot of knowledge. There were so many psychological tricks that were used to draw agencies into the pitch scenario — in all pitches, an agency has got to make a commercial decision. Both the client and the procurement department are making commercial decisions, but the agency doesn’t because they don’t understand the dynamics and economics of it. 

If you, as an agency are pitching for an average job (on average, you will spend 10,000–15,000 GBP on a pitch), there are also pitches involving millions of dollars, and that’s a big decision. Every time you lose a pitch, it’s like driving a car off the roof of a building. Who would do that? 

The biggest question we ask ourselves when we get a pitch or a brief that we don’t know is: Who else is pitching. That is the wrong question because then you are not thinking about the client but about the opposition. Now psychologically you are drowned into the pitch and shouldn’t care who’s pitching, you should be thinking: Can we win this pitch, are we able to win this pitch, is the economy of this expenditure going to be repaid winning this pitch? If you are not going to win, you should say ‘no.’ 

There are also other ways suitable for winning work from clients without entering the pitch process. There’s a different way of building a relationship and of proving value. 

How do you prove that you are the best person without pitching?

The companies look for the best person to carry out the work. If you are the best person, you are going to get the work. How do you prove that you are the best person without pitching? That is about building your brand, fame and knowledge and being able to display that. You need to understand who the right clients are, who you fit with — because it’s about being fit, about relationships. 

We all know how to build relationships in our private lives. If all you do is talk while on a date, the other person will have a terrible time. If you ask questions and show interest, that’s a relationship — we think that in business life is completely different, but it’s not.

Should agencies charge to pitch if there is a chance of losing? Or say ‘no’ more?

Kevin doesn’t read briefs in the way that people write them because his job isn’t to do that. The client is in fact saying, ‘we’ve got a problem that needs a solution, and we think it’s roughly that’. And, most likely, that brief has been copy-pasted from other briefs. A common agency reaction to a brief is ‘ah, that’s a terrible brief.’ The client doesn’t know what they are asking, they just know that they’ve got a problem. They don’t know what the agency knows because they don’t have the depth of knowledge around events.

There are a number of things that need to change — and a number of ways of thinking that need to change. ‘My fear is not based on your budget, but rather on my experience’. The client got to understand the dynamics of our industry — what it costs agencies to pitch to them — and they also need to understand the dynamics regarding how we work best. We’ve all got a secret sauce, something that makes us different from the other guys — a way of working, a way of thinking, the people we’ve got, the environment we’ve created, the methodologies, the processes — these factors should give us something unique. In a multi-pitch operation, where the client is trying to equalise all of that, those differences are weakened. We should be charging for pitches, yes, and if you are not, that is almost the wrong way around, bringing us back to the gambling analogy. If you spend all your money on a bet, there is a chance of winning, but the jeopardy in a pitch is that the client can’t lose. There is no downside for the client in having 10–12 agencies, and that’s why they do it.

You’ve got to find what the jeopardy is for the client. The jeopardy is that they don’t find the right agency for their task, that only happens by people saying ‘no’. That only happens by the best agencies saying, ‘look, that doesn’t fit our process, what we are happy to do is this, but we won’t do that.’ 

Because that is your money, you are in control of deciding how you spend it. The client doesn’t decide that — it’s up to you. But you are getting drawn to this, saying — ‘we are going to win this thing’ — and it’s going to be difficult to get out of there because somewhere in the business, someone has an emotional stake of running that pitch. You have to have very strict processes of deciding whether to go for it or not, but also must have a very strong process of what you will do and what you won’t do. 

To use an analogy, consider a classic exam situation where you’ve got to answer the question, but you need to demonstrate knowledge. When a client is saying this is our brief, really what you should be doing is: the event is a result of a long discussion about many things, and someone in the building said — ‘it’s an event’ — but when the board or CEO says something, it’s usually we ‘need more sales’, ‘increase shareholder loyalty’, ‘decrease costs’ etc. There is a business need that is served by an event. When that bounces around the building, eventually, someone says that it’s an event so let’s do a brief. It may be an event, but can we do something online instead? Unless you know the business objectives and what the business drive that is resulting in the brief of the event, you will be in the wrong place.

Two things are going on in this context: 1) The objective of the event and 2) the business objective of doing this thing in the first place. You’ve got to be aware that understanding that will put you in a different place and provide you with a different business.

Reciprocation — one of the biggest drivers in business to build a relationship

The best thing to do in terms of driving new business is to create something you believe is right for a brand or a business and take it to them. One of the biggest drivers in business is reciprocating — you give something to get something. What we want is a relationship. What you have to prove to clients is that you would do the thing that would serve their needs and is going to add value to their business, that is going to make that person successful, that is going to drive sales to that business, to reduce costs. 

Looking at reciprocity, it’s a strong psychological driver. What happens in this process is — you pick a business or brand that you love, have brainstorming with your team regarding what you think will help them. All businesses love ideas that help their businesses and if you find a way to deliver that, you will build relationships. Outside the traditional sales conversations, you will need to do something. You can’t build a profitable business reacting, you’ve got to build your own business. 

The psychology of losing a pitch is damaging to the business and negatively affects your agency for the next time you pitch. Counter that with ‘let’s brainstorm what we can do with this’ — you find a brand you like, you brainstorm and you create an idea that you are passionate about, that isn’t based on a brief but rather on a notion. You find that client and connect with them ‘We have an amazing idea for you, would you like to hear it?’ They say yes. Now you’ve got from being a faceless company 1 in 6 in a pitch to a one-on-one situation, you’ve found the person who you need to talk to, and you’ve talked to them. You may not win a job, but you make impacts and eventually it turns to business, it becomes a process for you. Find a way to build business that doesn’t involve pitching. 

Charging for pitching will make you stand out for the wrong reasons

If you recognise that you are only there to make up the numbers and the client already knows who they are going to pick — you are going to lose. A strong incumbent is one of the signs of a toxic pitch. Incumbents know exactly where the profit is, where the losses, problems and opportunities are. If an incumbent gives an OK presentation, the client fills-in the gaps for them. 

If you are going to charge for a pitch, you have to know and understand what you are charging for and what message that sends to the client. It’s very hard to turn down pitches, but usually it’s the right thing to do, and that’s not even detrimental to the client. 

Charging for pitching, you will stand out for the wrong reasons and turning down a pitch and offering to build a relationship instead will put you in a better position.

There are clients who have strategic purchasing departments and they will invest money into a pitch. It’s not a lot (approximately 3,000 GBP), but that’s an intent, saying ‘we care about you.’ That’s a benchmarking exercise for clients who don’t see other events and provides an opportunity for them to see that. Instead, invite clients to an event you are doing or take them to an event and that will help them to understand where they are. It raises the game. Clients have no idea what agencies spend. You don’t become successful losing pitches and spending your time developing pitches. You’d rather spend your time in your client’s offices and developing businesses. It may take you one, two or three years but that’s the start of a relationship; keep building your network, build your brand, make yourself famous, improve your skills and invest in your own learning — then, you will be a viable concept whether or not you pitch. 

Photos: Sponsored by Splento

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