From The Other Side of The Table: Dos and Don'ts When Pitching Business

Ten years ago, I was asked to sit on a selection committee for a corporate client that was hiring an ad agency. I sat through three days of presentations and heard “we do the best creative” and “we get the best rates on media buying” over and over and over again. An attempt at a scoring system was supposed to “objectively” guide the process. But ultimately, the committee reached a consensus based on highly subjective, but highly important factors – relevant experience and cultural compatibility.

For the past few weeks, I have been involved with a PR firm search for a nonprofit I’m involved with on a volunteer basis. Much to my chagrin, the process started with an RFP before I got involved. I will unequivocally state that issuing an RFP is the worst way to hire a firm. Period. I’ve written multiple blog entries on that so I’ll let those speak for themselves.

So, I got to this stage as part of a committee that reviewed a stack (pictured above) of about 15 proposals. Many of them were ill fitting. For example, global firms that wanted to fly in “experts” from around the world (on a nonprofit budget). I guess their business development staffs needed to justify existences that week by showing that proposals were submitted. A graphic design firm submitted a proposal for what was clearly described as a PR project. Many firms put rigid retainer price tags on their work, as if a rough description in an RFP was etched in stone. All of those proposals were quickly eliminated.

While confidentiality precludes me from sharing details, here are some dos and don’ts based on what I observed during the proposal review and presentation/interview process. They may sound basic, but only a pinchful actually “got it” in this case:

-If you’re selected to present, do make sure everyone at the presentation has a meaningful speaking role (beyond reading off PowerPoint slides or running the laptop). Otherwise, you’re sending a message that you have dead weight in your organization.

-Do your homework. If the organization you’re pitching has been mentioned in news coverage, know about it. If you’re selling your connections in the community, use them to get insider knowledge you can incorporate into your proposal and/or presentation.

-Do distinguish yourself. All firms are going to say they “have great relationships with the media” and “are great writers.” One way to do that…

-Do speak the language, if possible. If you have worked with an particular type of company before, prove it by speaking to them in terms they understand in their business, not PR jargon.

-Do use recent examples. Communications is changing fast. So if you are going to prove you have the right experience to get the job, prove it with examples in the past few years. If something is going to be older, it had better be monumental.

-Do ask questions. Do use those questions as jumping off points to speak to your capabilities. Remember – you’re in PR – you’re supposed to know how to do that.

-Don’t suggest six people should be working on a relatively small piece of business. That just shows you have a lot of people with nothing to do.

-Don’t shove social media down the throat. It’s a tool. It’s one tool. It’s not going to solve anyone’s problem on its own (unless it’s a social media project per se).

-Don’t name drop. Unless you are prepared to bring those names to the table, right away (and you’re probably not).

-Don’t list specific media outlets you would place stories with in your proposal. You work in PR. You’re supposed to know how to manage expectations.

-Don’t list client projects as case studies for clients that fired you, in the same sector you’re pitching. You don’t work in a vacuum. Word gets around.

-Don’t assume the potential client sees the world the same way you do. Playing up hard that you’re a “big firm” may not matter to an organization that only wants to work with 2-3 good people, whether it’s 2-3 of 2-3 or 2-3 of 50. A good question to ask is “how many people on our end are you equipped to work with on your end?”

I used to think that writing proposals was challenging. But, compared to this exhausting process, I’m not sure anymore. One thing I do know, this decision is coming down to two factors – whose experience seems the most relevant and who seems like the best cultural fit.