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Theater in New Business Pitches

I keep a file of lessons learned from new business pitches in my desk.  And, I actually do refer to it from time to time.  The interesting thing is that lessons learned in one pitch do not always apply to other pitches.  Each pitch is its own animal.  But there are some basic guidelines that seem to hold true across every new business pitch.  For example, in a highly competitive pitch situation, agencies need to work hard to distinguish themselves from the pack.  Smart strategies and big ideas do not always ensure a win – especially if they get lost in a sea of words.
The use of theater in pitches can help bring ideas and strategies to life.  And it can certainly help ensure that your agency is remembered after the client has sat through long days of back-to-back presentations.  But have you ever had “theater” backfire on you?   We almost did. 
We were pitching a large regional consumer brand.  It was a very important pitch for us and we pulled out all the stops.  We did research and came up with what we thought would be a winning strategy.  Our presentation was packaged to showcase our big ideas.  And, as part of the presentation, we’d planned to bring in several consumers who represented our target audience to talk about their self-perceptions and how the client’s product fit in their lives.  A powerful endorsement of our strategy and spec work. 
We were rehearsing our presentation one final time the evening before our presentation and everything was going off without a hitch, when the pitch leader was paged out of the room.  Turns out the client we were pitching was calling to tell us they wanted to low-key the presentation.  In fact, they wanted us limit our attendees to three staff members.  This caught us entirely off guard, since we had been in communication with the client throughout the pitch process and felt we had a pretty good handle on them.
This late in the game there was little we could do.  The pitch leader ran our plan of bringing the consumers in the room to talk about the brand, and the client highly recommended against our doing so since it would be too over-the-top for others we’d be presenting to.  So, we modified our presentation accordingly.  In the end, our presentation and ideas stood on their own merits.  We won the business. 
That experience did not turn us off on theater entirely.  In fact, we’ve used it in other presentations quite successfully since.  But we are always mindful of the following when incorporating an element of theater in our pitches:
Theater cannot be forced.  Theater for the sake for the sake of theater will come off as gratuitous.  Ideally, it is best used to demonstrate understanding or unique point of view on a client’s brand or customers, or to bring a breakthrough strategy or idea to life.  And, most importantly, know your audience.

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