10 Insider Tips to Win a Search Agency Pitch

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engage stakeholders in your process. meet early, meet often.

photo credit: Engin Erdogan

When you’re a search agency pitching to potential clients, how many times do you wonder:

What is it that they really want?

What are they thinking right now?

Are we doing okay?

Was this tie/shirt combo a good idea?

The last question is anyone’s guess (spots over stripes, really??) and whilst you can never truly tell what the people with the scorecards are thinking, there are plenty of things you can do to feel more confident about their evaluation of your pitch.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve sat through my fair share of pitches from search agencies, creative agencies, and PR agencies, and whilst there is some overlap, the approaches taken have varied considerably.

As the Client, it’s great every once in a while to meet an agency that just ticks all your (scorecard) boxes. You can tell that their preparation was thorough, that they have a bright team and have given your situation – and possible solutions – a great deal of thought.

Others, unfortunately, can leave you scratching your head.

If you’d rather be the former and not the latter in your next pitch, read on.

1. Prepare Thoroughly

The key to good preparation is a comprehensive brief. You can’t always guarantee getting one, so if the details are vague, ensure you can speak to the client beforehand to establish a more detailed understanding of what they need.

If you’re given sufficient time before the pitch meeting, make good use of it to find out about the company and its search activities. For a client, it becomes apparent very early on if you haven’t done your homework and that’s a distraction that is very hard to shake as the pitch progresses. If you can’t put in the effort for the pitch, I would wonder, what would you be like after running the account for 6 months?

As an agency, you’ll have a lot on your hands, juggling multiple accounts whilst pitching for new business. It’s understandable that your resources might be stretched. However, if you want to win this pitch you’re going to need to set aside time to properly address the brief and not leave it to the last minute. It won’t reflect well if you try to reschedule the meeting to buy yourself more time.

2. Don’t over-sell to the client

If the brief was comprehensive and you’ve asked the right questions before the pitch, you should have a very good idea what the prospective client wants. Use this as the basis of your recommendations and be mindful of the budget. Pushing additional products or services to raise the value of the account can irritate the client, and does little to build trust.

From my experience, the best agencies have been those who have engaged in a conversation with the business to understand what is needed, then made appropriate recommendations, ensuring the solution fits within our budget.

A client is more likely to extend its contract or increase its spend with an agency that takes this approach, than one that wants to empty its pockets as quickly as possible.

3. Wear your best white hat

There are some businesses that don’t really care how you do it as long as it works. They tend to be ones that are less concerned with a site being penalised in search engines, as long as it can bring in the money quickly. After all, they can always open another site tomorrow or switch to one of their 200 other sites.

However, a company with a less fly-by-night approach to commerce, one that is interested in building a reputation, customer loyalty and a brand, is going to be more risk averse and will be looking for reassurance that you won’t be harming their business.

It may be a given to your agency, but it’s worth stating your ethics to the customer early on in the pitch, providing you with an opportunity to assure them that you wouldn’t do anything underhand that might pose a threat to their business or reputation.

Of course, if you’re not white hat, that’s a whole different story…

4. Balance your pitch team

It’s awfully tempting to bring out the Big Guns for a pitch, especially if they have great credentials. As a potential client sitting there, it can be very impressive to hear about the experience and contacts of your management team.

However, be wary of only bringing your senior staff.

The best piece of advice I ever received about running pitches, is to insist in the brief that the person (or people) who will be your daily contact be part of the team presenting to you. And when they‘re there in front of you, direct your questions at them and not the Directors.

For me, the answers they give go a long way in helping me make up my mind about your search agency. Do they fill me with confidence? Can I trust them with my company’s budget and reputation? Do I think I could work with them day in, day out?

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how smooth the Big Guns are, your company’s success in this process could come down to my impression of the person who probably earns the lowest salary amongst your pitch team. Now that’s something to think about.

5. Understand the details of the brief

If a prospective client has given a detailed brief, there is a good chance they’ve asked for specific things for a reason. Skipping something and hoping they don’t notice is a risky tactic. If they’re on the ball and you didn’t address it in your pitch, they may well have graded you with a ‘0’ in that area.

If you can’t provide the service they need, be honest with yourself – bluffing only wastes your time and the client’s. If you can do it, but overlooked the point or decided to focus on other areas in your pitch, then you could be doing yourself a disservice.

Be thorough in breaking down the brief. Make sure you’re very clear on what is important to the client.

If they’re following a structured process, they’ll have written a brief and used it to create a corresponding scorecard. They’ll be checking the headings throughout the pitch and scoring you on how well they think you match to the need.

The best way to ensure you score well (apart from having the skills and resources, of course) is to base your own pitch around the structure of the brief. This makes it easier for the client to complete their scorecard rather than trying to piece it all together from memory at the end of the pitch.

This is exactly the same approach as how you were taught to answer exam questions at school or university. Address the points requested and make it easy for the examiner to see that you have done so. You can even use the headings from the brief it you want to be explicit.

6. Avoid sucking up to the top dog

It’s very tempting to focus your pitch on the most senior person in the room. After all, in most cases this is the person who will ultimately make the decision on which search agency to hire.

This approach can go horribly wrong though, if you over do it. Dropping the senior person’s name into every sentence can become embarrassing for that individual, as well discourteous to the other members of the team.

Use this sales technique in moderation and don’t forget the other people present have scorecards too!

7. Be tactful

SEO can be such a subjective area at times and approaches and beliefs can vary considerably from agency to agency or company to company. If you don’t agree with something the potential client has done in the past, then you can say so, but do it with tact – especially if the client has an internal search team and they’re sitting in on the scoring panel. Criticising someone’s work can quickly put them on the defensive and will harm your chances in the pitch.

Even if the previous work was poor or risky, acknowledge the work done already and talk about how your agency can help build upon it (or remedy it) to generate a greater return on effort and investment.

8. Avoid the Me, Me, Me

This may well be an English trait, but bragging doesn’t sit comfortably with a lot of people. In a pitch, you have to find a good balance between confidence and humility. Your slides or handouts can do much of the cheerleading for you – featuring any accolades or big brand testimonials you may have earned.

Use the pitch to talk about how you can assist the business. You can mix in bits about you, but remember why you were invited – to help the company. Whilst this could be a big account win for you, the client is only really interested in making the right choice to improve their own situation.

Whilst it’s tempting to talk in detail about your big name clients, it might not the best use of your allotted time. It’s great to see the names you work with (for reassurance) and it’s useful to hear of any similarities between their projects and ours, but don’t forget to move on and address the situation at hand.

9. Be patient

With a bit of luck, your potential client will have laid out the timings at the beginning of the process – or at least let you know when a decision will be made at the end of your pitch. Whilst a brief follow up email or call can be a nice touch, ringing several times to ask if there is anything else the client needs is going too far and is likely to become frustrating.

If you’ve prepared thoroughly, fielded a strong team and delivered a pertinent and engaging pitch, you should feel confident to leave the decision in the hands of the client.

10. Be a gracious loser

If you have done all of the above and given a great pitch, but still didn’t win the account, then accept the decision gracefully.

It’s always disappointing to lose a pitch, especially if you feel that it went so well. Whilst it may be tempting to ring the company with counter offers or to question the decision, (or in one case, to tell them it’s their loss), it’s unlikely to get them to change their minds. If anything, you could be hurting your chances of an invite back next time or a referral to a different part of the business or another company.

Losing a pitch does not mean that they don’t rate you as an agency. It could just be that for this particular project, your strengths are not in the right area this time. The next project though, could have your name written all over it.

Best of luck with your next pitch.

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Gary Robinson is a UK digital marketer, who fell into this tech world by accident and decided to stay and play. That was 1999. He's still here. His current loves are conversion optimisation, mobile and tinkering with new technology. He also has a fondness for coffee.

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