Highs and lows of pitch life, according to Nelson Bostock’s Sarah Shilling

Pitching can be amazing. It’s the thrill of the chase, it’s exhilarating, it’s stressful, it’s heart-breaking. Sarah Shilling, who heads up Nelson Bostock’s new biz team, on what a life of pitches is really like…

A friend said to me, “Wow, pitching must be so exciting. Working as a team, having the opportunity to show a brand exactly what you think they should do, and then they hire you to do it!”

I paused. Yeah, it does sound exciting, doesn’t it? In theory. But the reality isn’t always like that…

Let me try to put it another way. I want you to build me a house. I want you to throw everything into creating that house; your best people, most creative ideas, time, effort, the works. I will then come to the house, view it, and spend the next week trying to beat you down on price. Before finally buying a house down the road. Why? Because it was actually nearer the pub and it’s all about location. Was that not clear in the brief? 

That’s what pitching is like.

There are highs and lows through the whole process. When you’re picked to pitch, you’re walking on air - they’ve chosen us! Networking at those expensive Awards nights are working.

 But then you start to unravel the detail…

We have to complete a 58 page document (Word only, please) to communicate our most creative solution to an intensely complex problem, and then upload that through a portal in a cloud, somewhere to someone… We post our response to the portal and we wait. We keep waiting. We are probably still waiting as you read this.

 Or there are those ones which involve knowing all details about your company - what the canteen serves on a Wednesday, inside leg measurements of the team, who’s the best in the agency at hopscotch. And all of that information needs to be provided on 6 hard copies, 5 soft copies, 4 brochures, 3 USBs, 2 disks and 1 email.

 Then there’s the ‘no pitch, pitch’ scenario. You go through the whole agonising, highly emotive and stressful (and costly) process to pitch, then don’t get the account because;

  • The marketing director’s mate from uni works at one of the other agencies – done deal
  • The incumbent won as it was just a procurement process anyway - lol
  • They changed the brief to a DM response and forgot to tell you
  • The ad agency already spent the budget on the Christmas party

 If you’re looking to take on an agency, here are some things to keep in mind:

 Questions need answers

  • It’s more often than not that we want to ask questions about a brief. No, sorry, you can’t. Er, OK. But why? Why can’t we ask questions that will help us answer the brief better? 

No chemistry, no point

  • How about a chemistry session, to see if we actually get on. There is no way you would meet someone at the alter on a first date – so why meet in the pitch boardroom for the first time?

Tissues wipe out mediocre

  • Can we have a tissue session? This provides us with an opportunity to test the creativity. If we don’t have tissues – there are inevitably tears at the end

Make ‘post pitch black holes’ illegal

  • Once you’ve pitched there is often the ‘post pitch black hole’. Silence. After that frenetic running around for an intense three weeks and racking up costs to commercial breaking point, after all that, there’s nothing. We wait for a response until we read it in Gorkana. Giving feedback is not only courteous but it could even help the agency to deliver something even better as a project

 Start-ups, sit down

  • While the energy from a start-up is truly infectious, if you’re not careful you can easily find yourself getting carried away. What? With absolutely no insight you want us to catapult this concept of an idea into the stratosphere? Ambition is great, but at some point you need to have the goods to back it up.

 Of course, if you stay in PR long enough, much of the above are in the minority. Here’s what you should keep in mind as an agency pitching:

 Trust your gut

  • It’s our best barometer and we often ignore it. When a client questions ‘The Twitter’ on an integrated campaign, then it may not work out long term

Set out your stall

  • It’s much easier to manage expectations if you set out your stall from day one. We often refer to them as ‘parameters of pitch play’ - your terms upon which you are prepared to enter a partnership

Level the playing field

  • Due diligence – try and figure out early on whether these are merely the motions you are going through. Ask all the questions and if you are not comfortable with the answers then politely decline

Have confidence to walk 

  • Even if it’s half way through a pitch – it’s like any agreement. You have the right to walk away. If something isn’t working, say so and if it’s not rectified then politely take yourselves out of the situation

Take the stage and sell it like an ad agency

  • If you managed many of the hurdles then the most important thing is to take the stage and have fun. Sell the dream not the logistics

Sarah Shilling heads up Nelson Bostock’s new biz team

PRmoment Awards 2019