New biz bangerz. Pitchin’ & bitchin.’ Long days and longer nights.

If you’ve spent any amount of time at an agency, you’ve seen or experienced the adrenaline rush horror show that is a new business pitch.

While the work itself is often an intoxicating cocktail of creative energy and grinding frustrations, the results can be just as mixed. And during my years as a social strategist and creative director in the agency world, I sat through – and unfortunately participated in – a lot of bad pitch presentations.

I’m not talking about the validity of the strategic approach or the quality of the creative. I’m talking about the tone deafness of our attempts at connecting with our prospective clients and their needs.

Let me explain: During one pitch to a popular online dating site – as our client services lead finished up the 15-slide recycled upfront – I got to thinking about how new biz pitches and online dating are actually pretty similar.

Imagine you swipe left on a potential love interest whose pictures and profile look really good, but when you meet for a date they spend the first 30 minutes talking only about themselves. And as the conversation continues it becomes clear your date has little interest in getting to know you.

This is where most agencies fail to understand the vital importance of a customized, client-focused pitch deck.

Instead of taking the time to truly understand the needs and challenges of the client and putting together a thoughtful case of how the agency can help solve those specific problems, most new business presentations are stuffed full of empty buzz words, meaningless awards and a reel full of TV spots made with unlimited budgets.

But the goal of a pitch deck isn’t to just show the prospective client what your agency can do, it’s to show them what you can do for them. And that distinction should influence how you approach every section of your pitch – from the upfront, to the strategic imperatives and creative execution.

Great first dates generally mean you both walk away with a sense of what the other person is like and what he or she is looking for.

Good news for you agency new biz daters: Your prospective client has already told you all about their needs, wants and expectations in the RFP your presentation is answering. All that’s left is to update and tailor the pitch deck template you’ve been using for years to reflect the relevant information your client wants.

It really couldn’t be much easier to make a great first impression in your pitch meeting – all you have to do is show them you were listening.

The upfront

Let’s be honest: No one really likes building decks because they’re time-consuming and patience-testing. Plus, it’s easy to recycle pre-existing, already completed slides you might have used in a past pitch.

Chances are high that somewhere on your agency’s shared drive is a file titled “upfront slides” or the like. You know, the 5-15 slides that go at the front of every pitch deck where the only change made for a new pitch is the switching of headshots on the “The Team” slide.

The upfront is where your agency tells its story, introduces its teams, highlights the brands you’ve worked with and most likely includes a reel and/or a few featured case studies. It’s an important aspect of a pitch deck to serve as a brief introduction as well as a demonstration of your agency’s capabilities.

But if you’re featuring case studies and projects in this section because of a noteworthy brand name or because it won an award, I’ve got news for you. It’s not having the effect you want it to.

You did a 30 second inspirational YouTube spot for Volkswagen last year? Awesome. Your stunt for that non-profit won big at Cannes? Cool.

Does your potential client have the budget for live action video production? Let alone the brand recognition of Volkswagen?

Did that stunt increase donations to the non-profit? Or better yet, is your new client even a non-profit organization?

Smart clients don’t care that you’ve done work for Google; unless Google is a similar brand with similar challenges – and a similar budget. If you’re featuring a case study where the goal was to increase brand awareness but the client has a consideration problem, that case study needs to go. And in its place needs to be a project for a brand or brief that’s similar to the one you’re pitching.

Keep the upfront as brief and concise as possible. It’s important to introduce your agency and provide some context, but the client wants to get to if/how you can help them as quickly as possible.

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The strategic approach

This is the section of your pitch deck where you introduce the thinking behind your work – the insights that lead you to the forthcoming big idea/recommendation/plan.

It’s also where you can best demonstrate your knowledge of the client, their audience(s), and the unique challenges of both.

Naturally it pays to do your homework here.

Every participating agency was given the same brief, so you can’t just use the information provided to you. You need to uncover specific, detailed and – in the case of creative – human insights that can lead to an execution or recommendation that truly stands out.

There’s just one problem: you’ve got 24 hours. Or a week. Maybe two.

Most new business pitches are fast and furious and you don’t have much time to conduct both quantitative and qualitative research to get to the level of insight you need to produce exceptional work.

What you do have access to is the world’s largest focus group, as well as a wealth of in-depth data through social media analytics.

Establish industry benchmarks, conduct a content audit, collect competitive intelligence and discover how consumers think, feel and act through social listening. Go beyond the original client ask and find out what people really think about a brand, industry or trending topic. Use social data to back up your work and demonstrate how your recommendations positively impact your client’s needs.

The benefit?

You’ll uncover an even deeper, more influential layer of challenges and opportunities for your prospective client. And with more insights at your fingertips, you can even tell your client something they don’t already know about their brand, industry or clientele. The demonstrated effort and unique expertise will help your agency stand out.

The creative recommendation

Years ago I had an ECD review a pitch presentation my team was working on and tear it down because it was missing a “film” component. When I noted that video content wasn’t in the client’s budget, I was memorably informed that it was my job to go back and convince the client that they needed it.

This is the part where you present your ideas: Campaign platforms, creative executions, media activations, etc.

But you’ve got to remember: Great ideas that are off-brief are not great for the client.

Just like in the upfront, these recommendations have to make sense for your prospective client and the brief you’ve been given.

Of course, if part of your recommendation is that they need to add or remove something from their initial ask – that’s fine.

In fact it’s smart to approach the brief with a certain level of scrutiny. It demonstrates both expertise and initiative.

But if you start pitching ideas that feel more self-serving than solution-based, clients will see right through it.

Bring their brief and the insights you’ve uncovered to light in a smart, creative, yet realistic way that makes sense for them and their situation. And please, please, please make your recommendations something they’d actually be able to implement.

There’s nothing worse than finding out you didn’t win a pitch with no explanation or feedback from the client.

It’s in those cases many agency folks chalk the “loss” up to clients who didn’t really know what they wanted. Or maybe more humbly that the competition was just stronger.

But chances are part of the reason was that you didn’t convince the client you understood them or their needs – or had the necessary experience and/or expertise to meet those needs.

The next time your agency has a new business opportunity, remember the principles we’ve discussed here and make sure you’re putting the client at the center of your entire pitch.