One thing to definitely avoid when pitching!

There’s a dilemma everyone faces, I suppose, when pitching for a new business, or doing new business development… i.e. whether or not to rewrite the rules while recommending solutions for client’s marketing / advertising situation.

Conventional wisdom goes somewhat like this… Client has been doing his business – particularly marketing communications – in a way he felt the best possible, based on his knowledge, expertise and resources. Of late, client has been feeling some need to ask for some external help, or a different perspective from the current partners. That’s why he is looking for a new consultant / partner / agency. Therefore it becomes imperative for you – the new agency, consultant or specialist – to look back, analyze and see what has been the problem. And then recommend solutions that could redefine the existing marketing approaches, right?

I can recall at least 2 stories (among many others) which proved this approach should be taken with a pinch of salt!

The Airlines Case

There was a time while I was in the MiddleEast, when we were pitching for an airlines business. The opportunity came in through one of our senior colleagues, who through his excellent networking skills, had come closer to one of the top decision makers on the board – the CMO – who was kind enough to give a very detailed list of requirements from the agencies on pitch. One of these was “demonstrate abilities to understand the business environment, and draw strategies suited to the region”.

We analyzed the problems rightly, and found that many of these cropped up over many years due to faulty marketing practices. So we developed 2 approaches to address the issues and propose a new positioning.

The next challenge was – how to present these approaches – especially since these were founded upon ongoing faulty practice. Many of us opined that we should develop the pitch building upon their successes from ongoing practices, and recommend our solutions as a way to take them to higher levels.

However, being closer to knowing the CMO, our senior colleague chose to be bold, and started the pitch by challenging the ongoing practices. It opened up the hornet’s nest! Too many questions, e.g. on what basis the approaches were thought to be wrong, who’s the analyst, what kind of airlines experience we had, how many years the team has put in doing its job, etc. etc.

Though the questions were politely tackled, must we ask how the pitch went further? Fault finding at every stage! We were waiting to finish the pitch and return!

The Cement Brand Case

This happened very recently when I met an outgoing CMO of a Cement Co. He was looking for retainer based consultants to provide marketing services to support the growth of the brand – esp. in light of a new plant on the horizon. After the usual niceties about our category and services knowledge and expertise, came in the question of how we see the Cement brands communicating in the market.

Any industry professional would know that in the Cement industry, the buyer is most often not the end consumer – masons using the cement are! And there’s a vast difference in the demographics and psychographics between the two of them! Therefore in communication terms, it poses a challenge to create visual communication that talks to the buyer, while develops stronger assurances to the end-user.

Nevertheless, we rightly analyzed the competition, identifying the ones which stood out, developed common connections and gave assurances to both sets of customers. And then we were also blatant about our prospect’s brand not being able to connect much to the buyer.

Needless to say the CMO didn’t like this very much. We did not go past the screening round! The feedback gained later indicated that the CMO had internally expressed shock! How could anyone – who is not into the day-to-day operations of his million dollar business – could ever know what the customers want and how to talk to them! Or how could he even be more knowledgeable than his sales team!

Lessons Learnt

There’s one big lesson we learn from the 2 stories:

Never challenge client’s wisdom or his practices – regardless of whether they are doing bad for the company or the brands. You don’t wish to start off your journey with an ego issue!

Rather sugar-coat, honey-coat, cream-coat their past actions / fallacies while presenting your own ideas.

However, it also poses one big question! As a professional, mustn’t you aim for bettering client’s marketing efforts, generously infusing fresh blood & vigour, while proposing to safeguard and expand his market share?

Yes, you should, but with extreme caution, as it could challenge one’s core attitude of Complacency – whether it’s a Co. or an individual running the show! Curing Complacency is not easy, when one sticks to traditional ways of thinking. It needs a shift towards more innovative ways of thinking.

The Simple Art of Solving Problems

The famed inventor and the head of research for GM, Charles Kettering, once said “a problem well-stated is half-solved.” How many of us in the marketing / media / communications industry really care to heed this simple observation?Question words

We often come across many professionals, who are quite kind and quick enough to suggest solutions first. These could be as simple as from generating awareness, to as complex as kick-starting a growth for the brand through revenue generation. Most probably, the simple logic is that unless you’re able to offer solutions, nobody listens or respects you. Or sometimes, it could even be motivated by a wish to explore free-of-cost ideas from media / advertising / creative professionals.

The solutions in most of these cases, arguably, are driven by new business development objectives of the idea proposer, which justifies his time costs. While all this may continue, the whole process itself is a bit flawed! It fails to heed the rigour and vigour that characterize the Art of Defining the Problem.

A typical Case…

One of my prospective clients – then the national marketing head of a famous insurance brand – once called in the senior team members for a briefing. The one line brief was to launch an image campaign on TV within 3 months.

Naturally, asked about the need for such a campaign, and why TV only! What was the business / marketing problem he was facing? It turned out that his half-yearly accounts closing was round the corner, yet he was still far off from the target, in generating new buyers.

So far so good! But why did he think an image campaign on TV would accelerate sales? Because, he felt that a top of mind recall on a mass media like satellite TV will help in driving sales.

Now, insurance is a high involvement category. It’s usually is a matter of solicitation, and for this to happen, one really needs to work deeper, develop “assurance” values of the brand. It cannot (and should not) be treated like a toothpaste or a snacks brand, where top-of-mind recall at the shop level gains high priority.

Therefore we tried probing further, asking questions about its hero products, competitive advantages / disadvantages, the process of selling / mobilizing them through various channels, the core values of the brand and and above all its differentiator in the market. As expected, the director did not have the time (or most probably the necessary patience) for delving deeper into this.

Back in our office, on careful in-depth analysis, we discovered that in the past, the brand had experimented with every type of approach, to develop assurances of dependability. However, one or the other competitor was able to neutralize each of these approaches! As a result there was no specific differentiator available for the brand!

So the communication problem was clearly defined as a case of gradual loss of Identity within insurance category!

Once defined, the solution approach was very easy – i.e. developing a strong differentiator founded upon the core values of the brand, which would transcend competition, time, market forces, and would be very unique for the brand. Needless to add, when we presented our strategy, our esteemed client could not find any way to challenge our direction.

The Take Out

It’s a fact that while every advertising problem starts as a business problem, not every business problem ends up with an advertising solution. Therefore for any marketing or advertising to be truly doing its job, it’s very important to dedicate some time and energies into the first step of Strategy Development – i.e. Defining the Business Problem.

This problem is not just restricted to an “attitudinal” or an “image” issue – but there’s a commercial reason associated with it. While working on it, one needs to be a detective – i.e. sequentially following the analytical rigour – as well as be a doctor – i.e. utilizing the value of experience while marrying the analytical with the imaginative skills.

One needs to be assertive, asking probing questions on all fronts, to cross analyse, extrapolate and then synthesize data. Only then one would be able to truly identify the problem. Needless to say solutions follow fast! This is what I call “Art of defining a Solution”

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