There's much more to pitching than just turning up on a client's doorstep with a good idea. Preparation is the key to success, says Mark Penfold
Here's the thing: if you don't sell your product then you don't get paid. You can be as creative as you like, but if it doesn't sell you might just find yourself hanging out with the Salvation Army crew, developing a taste for free soup.
The daunting concept of pitching is as old as the creative industries themselves, and it has been developed to a fine art by the best in the business. From film through to design and new media, there's no escaping it.
The good news is that you only have to learn the basics once because, according to design marketing expert Shan Preddy: "The same principles apply whether you're a freelancer working from your back bedroom for just one client, or a global player who has offices around the world."
Who are you?
"Before you start marketing at all, you must have a very clear idea of where you want your business to be," Preddy insists. As a respected consultant and the author of How to Market Design Consultancy Services: Finding, Winning, Keeping and Developing Clients, this is her area of specialisation. So pay attention.
"If you don't have a clear vision for the business, your marketing is never going to be that effective," says Preddy. So, there are some questions you need to ask beforehand: What exactly are you aiming for? What are you going to specialise in? And what do you want to be known for? Answer these thoroughly before you put yourself under the spotlight.
Though it didn't have the benefit of Preddy's guidance, that's just what interactive agency Junction 18 did when considering incorporation. "Initially we were unsure of the market to go for," admits the firm's head of design, Mark Doyle. "The dot.com boom was over and web work was suddenly becoming hard to secure, so we decided to go down the interactive e-learning route."
Which brings us neatly to Preddy's second point: "Be very clear about what you or your company has to offer, what your strengths are, and what your weaknesses are compared with your competitors'." In other words, try to find an angle that suits you and concentrate on it - you can always branch out in other directions later.
For Junction 18 it was simply a case of spotting the right opening, and Matt Button, co-founder of design consultants DS.Emotion, tells a similar story: "Back in the early days we focused on a particular industry - property marketing," he explains.
DS.Emotion has now moved into the coveted "youth" market. "Today, if there's a pitch in the offing, we like to think of ourselves as one of the top three in the country," says Button. Consequently the pitch isn't complete without the company. This is the situation you're aiming for if a pitch is unavoidable. "I can't endorse specialising enough," he says.
Supply and demand
"You can only make a sale where your product meets a need that's felt by someone else," explains Preddy. "If that need isn't there in the first place, no amount of selling skills will do you any good." You must know what the market needs and make it perfectly obvious to everyone concerned that that's exactly what you've got.
The amount of preparation that's required even before you make that first call, send that first email or knock on that door, will determine your level of success. There's an old army saying that Preddy is fond of: "Fail to prepare, prepare to fail". In other words, you must know who you are, what you do, who wants it and what they're like before you even think about contacting anyone.
"If you start with how they'll find you without the prep you're playing a dangerous game," says Preddy. "It might work, but you're not giving it the best shot. You're not taking aim. So decide on the best way to reach them, find out what kind of language they use - really target your communication for a specific individual."
When Paula Benson and Paul White set up London-based graphic design agency Form in 1991 they already had a good selection of contacts in the music industry, and they loved the work so it made sense for them to focus their efforts on that market. Still, it wasn't an easy process, as Benson recalls: "It was a case of dragging our portfolio around London for several months and literally just seeing as many people as we could."
That doesn't mean you should take a scattergun approach, but visit a well-researched list of people, who are in a position, or may at some future time be in a position, to buy design work from you. "The only thing that works is to focus," says Matt Button. "DS. Emotion has tried the wide-band approach and it just doesn't work. By focusing you get to know more people in a specific business."
After three years' hard graft, that's where Junction 18 has now found itself. "A lot of the work we get now is through word of mouth," says Doyle. There may still be a pitch involved, but in marketing terms there is no substitute for a recommendation. That's the guiding principle behind Button's belief that, "our most powerful tool is our case studies."
So you've decided who you are and what you do, and you also have snappy answers to those questions of Preddy's. You've targeted your market and you know everything about them. The next stage is the fulcrum of the whole process. You must decide on your marketing strategy and approach.
However you first make contact, it must be as effective as possible. Once again, Preddy is ready with a battery of questions you need to ask yourself: "What do I want them to know? What do I want them to do next? How can I put this over so it will be relevant to them?" Follow up that first contact, too. "People don't always make up their minds instantly," she says, So be prepared to play the long game.
Button says you should use a steady, structured approach to your canvassing: "Even now we have a board in our office that reminds us of the letters that need sending out that week," he admits. These letters are prompted by articles about new developments or a new brand that needs promoting. "You find out the name of the right person, do your research, then write to them," says Button. The goal is to make them understand that by asking you in they are going to improve their business.
The next step
Assuming everything so far has gone according to plan, and there's actually some work to be had, you will now find yourself in one of two situations. The most desirable is that you'll just be asked to take on a project, no messing. But most likely you'll be asked to pitch for the work in competition with other firms.
"We're being asked to pitch a lot more now than we ever were," says Benson. "Things have definitely changed. It's just the marketplace at the moment. There isn't so much work about; budgets are getting smaller and there are more designers than ever." Clients therefore feel it's acceptable to ask designers to pitch ideas without promise of payment. This, everyone is agreed, cannot be a good thing.
Pitches come in two distinct flavours; there's the "credentials pitch", a kind of professional introduction, that gives the prospective client a chance to find out how you work and for you to find out more about them. The second is the full-blown ideas pitch with a full brief where you will be expected to pull the creative rabbit out of the hat. This again has two flavours: paid and free.
"We're asked all the time to come up with ideas," says Benson, "but we decided a few years ago that we won't do free pitches." Form, along with a growing number of designers, has come to the conclusion that to work for free is to devalue your product. And, as Benson points out, if you don't value yourself, why should anyone else?
Preparing for the big day
If you're lucky enough to be paid for your pitch, or you've decided to go ahead and produce a pitch anyway, the next thing to consider is just how much work to put in. That, of course, depends on how much you want the job and how likely it is you'll get it.
Doyle makes an interesting observation: "Sometimes you feel the whole thing is just a formality, that they've tendered the job out because they have to." Under those circumstances you should of course cut back on the man-hours.
Button learned this lesson the hard way: "The longest pitch we've done took five people for three weeks to develop. This was for a big charity and, unfortunately, we didn't win it." The lesson here is a hard one. "You can go in having worked for weeks but your idea could be pipped by someone else who might have come up with theirs in an afternoon," says Button.
According to Preddy, you should not see the time you invest as an invisible cost. Log the job as you would paid work, add up the costs and call that your marketing budget.
Before committing the money, consider whether it would be better to spend the money on a well-thought-out campaign rather than on marketing yourself to one person.
Face to face
"Our job is a bit like a psychologist's," says Benson. "Sussing out where the client is coming from, working out what's going on in their heads." On the big day there will be a complex set of unknowns sitting across the table from you, and it's your job to convince them they need you to work for them.
You have to be professional and efficient, though. Right down to the way you actually present. Doyle says you should check your technical equipment repeatedly: "Make sure your laptop works, you know how their stuff works, and, importantly, be on time." Identify who's going to be there and what they're going to ask. "It helps if there are two of you so you can back each other up, but you don't want to outnumber them," Doyle adds.
For all that, it's impossible to stay fully in control. "Sometimes you get a shock when you walk in there," laughs Doyle. "Once, we were expecting four people, and when the two of us arrived there were about 20 people there." You can't be fazed by it. Any one of those people could hold the keys to your next job. "You just have to give them what they want," says Doyle.