The art of the smaller-shop pitch

Chris McCarten believes in taking risks. If his khaki cargo pants and tattooed biceps don't offer even the slightest hint that he likes to stray from the pack, the artwork on display in his Toronto ad agency's boardroom is a dead...

Chris McCarten believes in taking risks. If his khaki cargo pants and tattooed biceps don’t offer even the slightest hint that he likes to stray from the pack, the artwork on display in his Toronto ad agency’s boardroom is a dead giveaway. Sitting on the shelf is a black, miniature cardboard briefcase. Emblazoned on the front is the copy, ‘Bulldog Confidential.’ Tucked neatly inside is a faux revolver accompanied by phony cash that reads, ‘In Dog We Trust.’

The bills are actually a cheeky invitation to an upcoming 1930s, gangster-style gala in Las Vegas produced for The Bulldog Group, a Toronto-based digital asset management company, by McCarten’s Myriad Marketing, where he is president and managing director. It was also the pitch pièce de resistance that won the agency The Bulldog Group’s event marketing gig last December.

When it comes to pitching new business, McCarten says his bravado for pushing the envelope is fuelled by the knowledge that the bigger shops – with secured reputations, impressive client lists and more time and money to allot to glittery pitches – already have a head start.

In fact, that mere positioning may pose some risk for smaller shops come show time. Agencies large and small often feel obligated to spend extravagantly on their presentations – sometimes beyond their means. And if the shop happens to lose, it hasn’t just lost a potential client and a pile of cash, but that client now has its creative and strategic thinking to boot.

With his own agency’s modest 15-member staff compared to say, a competitor’s 300-employee shop, McCarten says ‘the sentiment in the back of your mind is, ‘Let’s always do a little bit more.”

And if that ‘little bit more’ means hiring a trench-coat-clad actor to flash your prospective client on pitch day as he pulls out of your shop’s parking lot (in the limousine you hired for him) – all to demonstrate your moxie for street-level marketing – then that’s just fine says McCarten.

‘The reason we do that is because we have a recognition disadvantage. That’s why we try a little bit harder, to make ourselves [appear] unique.

For many small shops, money is the real obstacle. Duncan McLaren, president of McLaren Marketing in Toronto, knows this well. In the summer of 1999, his eight-employee shop pitched on a promotional project for Montreal-based La Senza. Although it would be a one-off job, the presentation set him back more than $5,000, and he didn’t get the gig.

‘We did a real dog and pony show,’ recalls McLaren. ‘We put together a whole concept and media plan in terms of how they should communicate their program. We did colour layouts and mock-ups,’ says McLaren. ‘We bought His and Hers robes from La Senza, and put them on at the end of the presentation. They came back to us and said they wanted to buy the concept from us and execute it themselves…and then they said they weren’t going to execute it at all, and nothing ever happened.’

McLaren says his experience is a risk that agencies all-too-often take when setting their sights on new business – that is, when the client isn’t willing to pay for the pitch. The agency then has one of two options: forego the show or produce creative on spec. Just a few months after the La Senza pitch, propelled in part by his need to recover costs of doing a few unsuccessful pitches, McLaren cut his staff by five.

‘I will not do a competitive, speculative new business pitch [again]. It’s not to say that I won’t invest money in a particular situation. But what I do now is ascertain very quickly whether the client is serious about the project or assignment,’ McLaren says.

Bob Shanks, president of Roche Macaulay & Partners in Toronto, says that although it is becoming more common for a client to cover certain costs associated with a business pitch, it’s almost never enough.

‘A client will come to us on a fairly significant piece of business and offer, you know, $5,000 or $10,000 to cover our hard costs. But there is a difference between hard costs and real costs,’ he says. ‘The reality is that any of the budgets I’ve seen that have been proffered by clients have rarely, if ever, been anywhere near what is needed to cover even hard costs. It never covers ours. This is where the agencies have to take a really hard look on the return on the kind investment they make in terms of hours.’

Shanks, who previously worked for Palmer Jarvis DDB Downtown in Toronto, says depending on the category of client, it is not unheard of for agency pitches to fall in the range of $100,000 to $150,000, although those are usually relegated to the McDonald’s or the Bells of the industry.

Rupert Brendon, president and CEO of the Institute of Canadian Advertising (ICA) in Toronto, concurs. He says on average, a pitch to a corporation of that magnitude would be in the $160,000 range. According to Brendon, a 1997 ICA/KPMG speculative creative financial audit indicated that out of a dozen pitches from small, medium and large agencies the largest ‘out-of-pocket, external cost’ he saw was $265,000. He says the lowest amount gleaned from the study was $5,000.

But Shanks also says the days of clients seeking flashy, exorbitant performances are fading fast, and that what clients are really looking for are ideas that wow.

Unfortunately, it’s a catch-22 because the wow factor carries a price.

Another issue faced by smaller agencies, such as McLaren, is that they have a harder time attracting larger clients to their portfolio.

‘It’s very difficult for a smaller agency to be successful in a larger client environment because that’s when you start specializing. The larger client now has 20 departments and 20 specialties and I think the smaller agencies probably do better when they handle a greater mix of products. When you try to go after the bigger plum as a small agency it becomes much more difficult to maintain that,’ McLaren says.

According to Jay Bertram, SVP, corporate development for Cossette Communication-Marketing in Toronto – a 300-employee agency boasting such corporate behemoths as Bell Canada, McDonald’s and General Motors – both big and small shops each experience the same struggles when it comes to pitching for new business. He believes the prerequisite to a successful pitch is when the agency is true to itself, reflecting its own company style and culture.

‘It has nothing to do with the size of the shop; it has to do with the fit. You can have a good fit with a small shop or a large shop. What clients want are smart people with smart ideas who can partner with them to solve their problems. It’s that simple,’ Bertram says.

Indeed, not all agencies have to break the bank when conceiving smart ideas to present in a pitch. Last year, when presenting for Toronto-based, mutual fund company AGF Management, Bertram and Jim Garbutt, Cossette’s VP and CD, brought along their 10- and 12-year-old daughters to introduce the pitch process, and ultimately make the point that it’s a family company with values.

Andy Macaulay, partner and planner for Zig in Toronto, says independent shops pitching new business should try to incorporate the following ‘watch words:’ into their program: ‘Focus,’ ‘Relevance’ and ‘Enthusiasm.’

‘As a smaller company, ‘Focus’ means you should really know who you want to work with and the definition of that shouldn’t just be anybody who has a pulse and a wallet; you really should be very specific about who you go after or are willing to talk to,’ he says.

When Zig pitched Guelph, Ont.-based Sleeman a year ago, Macaulay says he recognized a unifying factor between the two companies that he felt would bode well for a good agency/ client marriage.

‘We reinforced consistently that we’d like to think we are to our business what they are to theirs, in the sense that we’re a relatively new company that thinks we have a better product and we’re up against very deep-pocketed, highly competitive competitors,’ says Macaulay.

He adds his company likely won the Sleeman account based on two things: chemistry and track record. Applying a creative approach to the early stage of the pitch was also instrumental.

Macaulay believes that while understanding a client’s business is paramount to the pitch, you still ought to have a little fun. For Zig, that ‘fun’ involved sending Sleeman 10 of the finest pizzas from a local pizzeria, with a note that said, ‘We hope that the only thing that goes better than pizza with Sleeman is Zig.’

Macaulay says one of the best and most acceptable roles an agency can play in the pitch process is that of the ‘external catalyst.’

‘We always try to demonstrate to a client that we can look at a problem or at their business in a way that they hadn’t thought of before. That doesn’t require a lot of time, research or anything else,’ he says.

According to Myriad’s McCarten, as long as a new business pitch demonstrates an agency’s understanding of the client’s business and who its audience is, and these messages are wrapped around some memorable creative, it can be enough to offset the disappointing experience of losing to the competition.

‘When we’re up against Cossette or J. Walter Thompson, or whomever else we might have a recognition disadvantage with, we’ll make sure our presentation at least stands out. [The client] may still choose to go with who they know but I guarantee you they won’t forget Myriad. And the next time they read about us or hear about something we’re doing, they’ll remember that they met us and they’ll remember our pitch.’