Managing marketing: The trials of the pitch consultant

Managing Marketing is a podcast hosted by TrinityP3 Founder and Global CEO, Darren Woolley. Each podcast is a conversation with a thought-leader, professional or practitioner of marketing and communications on the issues, insights and opportunities in the marketing management category. Ideal for marketers, advertisers, media and commercial communications professionals.

Stephan Argent is the founder and principal of Listenmore Inc, Canada’s leading advertising pitch consultancy. He talks with Darren on his role as a pitch consultant and adviser to CMOs and CEOs at many of Canada’s largest corporations and shares his observations and insights into the pitch process and the function of the pitch consultant in assisting marketers to navigate the often confusing marketplace of advertising and media agencies.

You can listen to the podcast here:

Transcription:

Darren:

Welcome to Managing Marketing, a weekly podcast where we discuss the issues of  interest to media, marketing and advertising.

This week I’m in Toronto, Canada and I’m sitting down and having a chat with someone I’ve known for a decade and we founded the Marketing First Forum together and that is Stephan Argent who is the president and founder of a consultancy called Listenmore, welcome Stephan.

Stephan:

Thank you, good to have you here.

Darren:

Well, thank you for having me at your office I guess, the nerve centre of Listenmore in Toronto, Canada.

Stephan:

Indeed.

Darren:

It’s been a terrific week meeting with a lot of agencies and having lots of conversations and one of the things I found really interesting was that the agencies here in Toronto seem to be having a crisis of confidence. Would you say that is fair or is that an outsider’s perspective?

Stephan:

I don’t know if it’s necessarily a crisis of confidence; I think there are a couple of things fueling it.

I think one is they’ve woken up to the threat of consultancies and they are all trying to reinvent themselves. And the second thing is, Canada by its very nature isn’t as brazen as some other markets that might be south of our privacy hedge.

Darren:

Well it is interesting because at a much smaller scale I feel a little bit like Canada’s relationship with the U.S is very similar to something closer to home for me which is New Zealand’s relationship with Australia.

You’ve got a much larger population right on the doorstep for New Zealand and that there is this tension but also collaboration that needs to occur.

Stephan:

Yeah, the thing that we’ve got in common with Australia is that we’ve got this huge land mass with cities along the border or coast line. But the big difference is that the U.S is such a huge economic hub that the general rule of thumb, is that a marketing budget in the U.S is ten times the size of one in Canada.

When you get international alignment very often some of the international agencies that are being appointed are taking their cues from a U.S based marketer so they have to fall into line in order to do the things they want to do.

Darren:

What I saw and what I read as a crisis of confidence was that we were specifically seeing agencies around the way they presented their credentials which is essential for any new business development.

What I found was it could be seen they were humble but there was also this sense they weren’t quite sure or didn’t come across as confident in the offering they were making.

Stephan:

I think there are two things to that. The first one needs to be said that they were very nervous that you’d come in, I think your reputation precedes you and always when they are sitting in front of someone who can influence their business as a search consultant they’re probably going to be on their best behaviour and I think it took them a little while to warm up and get comfortable that that’s what they want to do.

I think the other thing is agencies in general are somewhat reluctant to be as direct as they would be. They are frightened of losing the business, they are frightened of upsetting the client or frightened of saying something that may limit their opportunities.

Certainly the greatest thing I’ve learned in the ten years I’ve been doing this is, you’ve got to have an opinion, you’ve got to stand by that opinion and you want to be clear about what it is that you want to do.

If they don’t want to do it and you think you’re right you have to stand up and you have to fight for that opinion. I think agencies are far more reluctant to do that because they have so much riding on it.

Darren:

I see that as a universal problem because many agencies try and be everything to everyone in that they are trying to appeal to every possible marketer that is going to walk through the door or that they have every possible opportunity to pitch their business for.

The trouble with that and they say it to their own clients; in trying to be everything to everyone, you become nothing to everyone because you end up diluting the very essence and personality of your business because you are trying not to offend anyone so no one actually feels really passionate about you.

Stephan:

I think there is probably something to be said for the strength that agencies have. We saw a lot of agencies this week that have some really strong credentials. They have got really high marks or high credibility whether it’s in creativity or strategy or whether it’s in experience, design or whatever it maybe and they are not leading with those credentials. They are trying, as you say to offer a wider variety of services rather than leading with their trump card. They are not leading with their real strength and that’s what they need to do.

I think that’s particularly important when you consider the consolidation in the market. You consider there are a number of agencies that have been put together and they are trying to step around the fact that they are now partners with another agency and their core message gets diluted.

Darren:

We were seeing both local independent agencies or local networks for instance, and also global networks and yet what I was surprised about is that even the international networks have given themselves, quite rightly, a very sort of local personality. They’ve done very well at making themselves part of this culture.

One of the criticisms by some global marketers is that there’s so much variation when you look at global networks from market to market.

I think part of that variation is sometimes just an interpretation of the way that that branch offers have adapted to the local market place, the local culture to be part of the local community or local business community. In that perhaps some of that Canadian-ness and I use my little quoting fingers there is part of what it actually means to build an agency in this market. Do you think that’s true?

Stephan:

Yeah to an extent because we have some very specific nuances that are important to us and certainly in the Canadian market one of the key drivers is the French speaking community that we have here in Canada. So when you consider communication everything for the most part you have to consider both the English and the French.

Darren:

Well they are the official dual languages aren’t they?

Stephan:

Yeah, official dual languages that you have to deal with but we also have a very diverse cultural population so we have to think about the diversity of languages that are important to many companies like the banks for example.

Funny I noticed the other day I was trying to get some money out of the ATM and the first language that came up was Mandarin, so you have to consider there are some very specific language requirements and considerations that have to be put in place as well.

We’ve also got a very strong culture in other areas. If you think of the coffee that you like so much, which is Tim Horton’s; I’ve taken Darren to a couple of Tim Horton quick service restaurants which are ingrained in the culture of Canada and also ingrained in things like Hockey and other sports activities that are reflected in donuts and other products.

Darren:

That’s actually ice hockey just to be clear. It’s not hockey played on a grass field, its hockey played on an ice rink.

Stephan:

We do have quite a lot of ice here during the winter but we also have arenas but to be clear to everybody who is listening, maybe listening in Australia, a much warmer country, it is ice hockey.

Darren:

The other thing was and you mentioned it before, for a market this size sitting right next to the behemoth that is the U.S it was really impressive the depth and breadth of talent that the agencies could put forward.

You said that perhaps they are not highlighting their core capabilities but all of the agencies that we met with had a very broad offering and within that they were able to demonstrate quite good depth of capability. I thought it interesting because sometimes people are inclined to think smaller markets don’t necessarily have that breadth and depth.

Stephan:

Yeah we have some specialities here and one of the things people may not know is that Toronto certainly is known as Hollywood North because we have a lot of U.S production companies that come up here. In fact right opposite my office they are going to be shooting a movie next week, they are going to be blocking the street off. So we have a lot of production facilities here in Canada that support much bigger movie enterprises and international commercials.

We have a lot of talent that comes in not only from other countries but also from the U.S which creates that depth. That’s not to say that Canada doesn’t have its own depth but we have to compete on our own right when there are clients that aren’t internationally aligned.

Darren:

As I mentioned earlier we talked to a lot of agencies in the last week about the way they present their credentials and a lot of the agencies used the term that they were going to tell us their agency story.

Storytelling as everyone would agree, can be a particularly powerful way of communicating; do you agree with that?

Stephan:

Yeah I think that was the big eye opener for me this week. I was really surprised by how many agencies just did not tell a story. And what is frustrating about that is that agencies by their very nature are storytellers. They have creative teams that tell stories.

If you talk to some of the planners in these agencies and talk to them about their latest automotive win or the latest QSR win or whatever it is maybe they will tell you a story about that win but it is just not being told when it comes to their credentials.

They tend to vomit out a series of facts that nobody can remember or that nobody is particularly interested in rather than telling a story that supports the facts they are wanting to communicate.

All you can remember is the person with the striped shirt or the agency that had the projection failure or whatever it is and you can’t distinguish them.

Darren:

That’s funny isn’t it because while the agency world talks about the importance of storytelling to their clients; when they turn it on themselves it becomes quite problematic?

As you pointed out, most of them were not telling a story. They started out saying they wanted to share their agency story and I’d be sitting there waiting for the start, the middle and the end of the story and it just wasn’t coming.

Most times as you point out, it was a shopping list of; these clients, we have these offices, we have these capabilities, and we have this process. I’ve seen it in every agency in every market and I wonder why. Are they just sticking to a formula?

Stephan:

It could be that they are sticking to a formula but they are so anxious. It’s like there are clients also that want to tell you about their toys so if you are dealing with an airline for example, they want to tell you how many planes they’ve got, how many destinations they fly to but what they are not talking about is their story and why it would be interesting to fly in one of their planes and why it would be fun or cheaper or whatever it maybe.

They are not supporting those facts and wrapping it in a story. I’m very surprised that agencies are not putting their creative teams or their strategic teams front and centre in the crafting of those messages.

I wonder whether the crafting of the story is being handed off to a business development lead who’s obviously concerned about the facts and concerned about the wins and concerned about the awards and number of resources and the number of offices and then not handing it off to someone who can wrap that in a story. That story is the thing that people are going to take away.

Darren:

When we bought this up with the agencies quite a lot of them said “but what about the checklist”. Procurement and marketers will come to the agency with a checklist and so their justification for the shopping list was trying to match their shopping list of things to the checklist that the marketer or the procurement person is using.

I think you and I have both seen a procurement process which is basically tick the boxes and if you don’t tick all the boxes you don’t go through. Do you think that is part of the problem?

Stephan:

Yeah I think people get very hung up on the RFI or the RFP that comes in and they want to make sure they address all of those issues. That’s all well and good but that’s not really the purpose of a credentials presentation. When we asked a couple of agencies what is the purpose of a credentials presentation they sort of ummed and ahed a bit.

Well the purpose of a credentials presentation for any one listening to this that is wondering is, to get another meeting. It is not to tick the boxes and create a sleep inducing list of functions and features.

What you do is, make sure you’ve addressed all of the questions that have been asked, particularly by procurement and whether there is 5 of them or 50 of them, you want to make sure that you address them all but put them in the leave behind, the deck that you leave behind and then they can check the boxes and make sure that they have got everything done afterwards.

In the presentation you want to be focused on the story and supporting that story with the facts.

Darren:

Now you had a really good point because you just mentioned the leave behind, the deck. In fact you recommended that the agencies not actually print out the big deck. The reason I say that is because I remember my own experience doing new business; I had a managing director who use to pick up the pitch deck and feel the weight of it and go, oh yes that feels substantial as if that was somehow a measure of quality.

But what was the recommendation you made to agencies because I thought it was a really good insight?

Stephan:

There are a couple of things around that. Generally speaking you don’t want to print out a deck because it is not particularly environmentally friendly. The other reason for not printing out a deck is, if they are going to another credentials presentation you don’t want them to carry your credentials presentation into the next agency meeting.

God forbid they leave that thing behind inadvertently, then your competitive agency has all your intelligence, so you want to avoid that.

What’s happened now is that agencies are putting their credentials on a USB stick. Well that is all well and good but I don’t know about you but the new Mac laptop that I have doesn’t take a USB and again there is a risk of that thing being left behind.

Darren:

Also a lot of client organisations have an IT department that refuses to allow them to plug in a USB for security reasons.

Stephan:

Oh yeah and then if its password protected and the password is wrong it is a nightmare.

So what I recommend to clients and to agencies is that the credentials are put in a link and you make that link accessible. You can password protect it if you want but that way then it can be viewed online by anyone that actually wants to look at it.

The sneaky trick here if you are asked a question in the presentation and you go, oh my God we didn’t cover that off or we didn’t think about it or that’s a really good point we should have added X, the chances are you are going to be able to go in and retrofit that afterwards to make sure that you’ve answered the question.

I think that’s a much better way to address the credentials because it’s probably a fair question that you may not have thought of but you can answer, go ahead and add it in and that’s a way to do it.

If you are really smart about it you can also go in and look at IP addresses and actually see who has looked at the link.

Darren:

How much time on the page.

Stephan:

Exactly.

Darren:

How many times they came back to it, and all of those are really great ideas. It is interesting because I don’t see a lot of that technology being embraced. Agencies are inclined to default to doing the deck because it is evidence of industry or technology will be the USB.

I’ve got a huge collection and I’m sure you do too of all the agency stamp printed and USBs of all the amazing shapes, colour and sizes that they have handed out but that link idea is a terrific one.

Stephan:

Yeah, a link is a much friendlier way to go and it gives you a little bit of elbow room in case there is a little bit of crisis at the end of it. The really important thing here is that you do not want to leave something behind or something doesn’t get left behind with all your secret intelligence in it because that to me is the big risk you want to avoid.

Darren:

With sending written credentials which is quite different to the credentials pitch itself as you pointed out, one of the classic mistakes was that we were running a number of pitches and a couple of agencies were on more than one of them for various reasons and in fact the documents would turn up as PDF’s, not printed but they would have mixed up the client name because they had done a search and replace but hadn’t picked up every version of it.

Stephan:

Yeah, agencies please don’t underestimate the power and importance of proofreading because we have seen some absolute classics. We’ve seen the client brand completely different, you are talking about one car company and suddenly you are reading something about a chocolate manufacturer and it makes absolutely no sense at all.

It is glaringly obvious that there has been a cut and paste and it’s very difficult to recover from that.

Darren:

It is very difficult and again this week you shared with a number of agencies that when things go wrong it is actually an opportunity to develop a rapport with the client. How do you do that?

Stephan:

So one of the things you need to think about when you are doing your presentation whether it is 30 minutes or an hour, you should allow 15 minutes or 50% of the time to be presenting your credentials and having the dialog around your credentials and the remaining 50 % then is around having a discussion with your client and building up a rapport.

What you don’t want to do is have an hour long meeting where you rattle on for 55 minutes about your capabilities and leave 5 minutes at the end which then doesn’t allow you to either build up a rapport or to build up any intelligence on what the client is trying to do or why they are trying to do it or why they want to see you.

Darren:

I was referring more to when something goes wrong, you know you are 5 minutes into your 30 minutes and the TV set doesn’t connect anymore or the fonts have all distorted or all the videos you have in your presentation when you play them there’s no audio. What is the opportunity then because you’ve actually seen someone do this particularly well?

Stephan:

We did. There was a CEO of one agency at a presentation and just as she was getting going she broke the heel on a very high heel shoe and she had to do her presentation in her stocking feet. In addition to which there was a power failure which knocked out both the projector and her laptop so the presentation was essentially not there.

That actually did two things. One is it showed the client how to recover from a difficult situation because most agencies are on their best behaviour, everything works seamlessly and everything is very slick and the coffee is wonderful and the pastries are wonderful and everyone is sitting up and behaving well. But that doesn’t always happen.

But what it does do is allow you to close the laptop and say you know what, we’ve got a technical problem here, let’s have a conversation about your business and why don’t we just tell you who we are because that’s going to be an authentic conversation. It is going to be wrapped in a story and you are then going to be able to have a conversation about their business and it’s going to be a much better discussion and I stress the word discussion rather than a one way presentation and you will probably have a much better meeting as indeed this client did.

Darren:

So that’s one of the key things isn’t it about credentials presentation or meetings is that it’s about building trust. When the client has walked into the agency and they may know all about the facts or reputation of the agency but this is a real opportunity to start to build trust.

We know from the academic research or the behavioural economic research that the three key points of trust are authenticity; people can pick up when you are not being yourself.

The other is talking to the logic of the listener; so talking to the things that they know and feel.

The third one is demonstrating empathy; really being able to show you are there for them, not there for yourself.

Now how many times in the presentations this week did we see people actually managing to do those things without naming names because that would be unfair?

Stephan:

I think we both caught each other rolling our eyes when process slides went up for example. In fact you may have been snoring when that happened.

Darren:

Fake snoring.

Stephan:

Well yeah, fake snoring but the point is firstly nobody is interested in a process slide, they are incredibly boring but there is no way to build up empathy with that. You very rarely see clients begin to nod or they want to ask a specific question around it. There really is nowhere to go when you do that.

The key to building empathy is to see the body language, to see the nodding or to see them say yes and in our experience x, y and z and you start to have a discussion and that’s how the empathy and the trust builds up.

When you are presenting nothing but facts there is nowhere to go. You’ve got 5 others to see. I don’t know how to deal with that other than say thank you very much.

Darren:

And that is the problem because I think marketing, advertising, media has become so focused on facts and figures and statistics and data that perhaps the agencies have lost sight of the very core and reason of their existence which is the art of persuasion.

Stephan:

We’ve got a lot of data floating around now and everyone has access to some data source and particularly media companies are going to have their own unique proprietary source and they can share that but ultimately what are we trying to do here.

We are trying to talk to humans to make humans do something, so we need to make sure there are the insights and creativity that goes with that in order to demonstrate to the consumer that the communication’s actually meaningful.

Darren:

I agree with you because I think the proof has become more important sometimes to the agency and yet it’s less important to the client.

There’s a great book and the title is ‘Pitch Anything’ by Oren Klaff which I absolutely recommend to anyone to read if you are into the business of pitching. What he said is the actual presentation should keep the audience in the sort of primitive reptilian mode of answering what’s in it for me and does this put me at any risk?

And that as soon as you put them into frontal lobe mode, which is analysing, then you will never actually get a decision because what he’s saying as human beings, we are attracted to people that we want to work with.

You hear this a lot from investors in start-ups that often they will invest not in the idea but in the people that had the idea because it’s the people that are actually going to make it happen or not.

So perhaps getting back to that idea that we can put all of that data, all of that information, all of that analysis and insight into a document or readable form where you will be in frontal lobe form of reading and analysing it but in the pitch avoid it like the plague. What do you think?

Stephan:

I don’t know.

Darren:

The other reason I bring it up is every time I see for instance media people put up a lot of data on the screen and you actually pulled this up, there was not even media agencies, but creative agencies that had slides on the screen with so much information.

First of all you couldn’t see it, I could because I was at the front.

Stephan:

That’s right I was sitting at the back and I couldn’t actually see it. You are absolutely right but it’s not just in the presentation. What really bugs me is when you go to an agency website and from a search perspective we are just trying to figure out how many resources the agency has, whether there is a client conflict, who owns them just to get the big picture facts so that we can rule them in or rule them out.

And you are bombarded either with creative right off the bat that is not relevant to what you are looking for, or you can’t actually find what you are looking for because their navigation is so bad and that sends warning signals that the agency just doesn’t know how to communicate. Maybe it’s not just their own credentials but maybe it’s also the client’s information as well.

Darren:

There’s a lack of empathy as well isn’t there?

Stephan:

Yeah.

Darren:

Because they’re not actually thinking about the people using the site and what they’re using it for.

Stephan:

Yeah. They do need to have creative websites. They do need to attract the best talent and I understand why they put creative front and centre but they really need to think through who’s looking at the site and why they’re looking at the site and make sure that the options for that are there.

But that’s very different from the presentation when you’ve got the client in the room—they’re already over the first hurdle, they’re in the room, they’ve got a sense of who you are. Now they want to get into something which is compelling and you want them nodding and creating a dialogue as quickly as possible so they’re going to come back for that all-important second meeting or to give you the business or more information or add more people into the next meeting.

Darren:

When we talked about credentials presentations, the agencies went straight to the pitch process and yet there are so many other opportunities for an agency to have a really powerful agency story to win business outside of pitches.

Would you agree with that? I know we’re both seen as pitch consultants, but agencies should be trying to win business without having to pitch for it all the time.

Stephan:

Totally. You can have a new business conversation in a 30 second elevator ride; ‘who do you work for?’ ‘I work for agency X’ ‘Oh, why are they such a great agency?’ And you want to have that down pat so you can communicate that in 30 seconds and hopefully get the business card from whoever you’re talking to and say, ‘I’d like to come in and talk to you because that’s a compelling story’.

For us, it’s a little bit difficult for people who don’t understand what a pitch consultant does. And pitch consulting is only part of our business. Very simply I say I’m a corporate psychiatrist. We help marketers solve problems. That tends to get people interested and then we can hand out a business card, exchange details and bingo we can get into it.

I don’t want to bombard them; we’ve got offices in different countries and we do this thing and that thing—it’s too much and nobody is going to remember it. I’d be remembered as the person who couldn’t get their story straight and was muddled in their offering.

Darren:

That’s quite a good pitch but do you have your own couch that you carry around?

Stephan:

Absolutely not.

Darren:

When we started it was P3—helping people achieve commercial purpose through creative process. Then it became TrinityP3. Most of the pitch or credential conversations we have these days are more about marketing is such an incredibly powerful discipline for any organisation but there are so many challenges that stop it achieving that power.

We’ve identified 6 of them that we help overcome and that’s our pitch. It’s not quite as sharp as yours. I also find working on a global basis that there are so many more challenges that are arising all the time for marketers. It’s great to get the opportunity to work together again and spend this week talking to the agencies of Toronto. Hopefully we’ll get the opportunity to do it again and talk to some more agencies.

Stephan:

It’s been fantastic having you here. I said I don’t have a couch with me but what I do carry with me is a business card – worth a dollar each – so I don’t like to hand those out unless I’ve had a meaningful conversation and I know that person is likely to call me. So my $1 business card is very important to me. That’s my investment.

Darren:

You invest a dollar in people who you think will come and use your services. Look it’s been great chatting. We’ve run out of time but one last question for you. I get asked this all the time as a pitch consultant so I’m going to ask you. Who’s your favourite agency at the moment?

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