Written by Stephen Boehler & Lindsay O’Neil
I learned the most important lesson about new business pitching from record producer Jimmy Iovine.
In 2013 I was a proud dad sitting in the audience at the University of Southern California’s commencement ceremony. The keynote speaker was famous music producer and co-founder of Beats headphones, Jimmy Iovine. He told a story that I’ve applied to sales conversations ever since.
As I remember it, Jimmy described his start as a sound engineer working on an early Bruce Springsteen album. After working on Born to Run with producer Jon Landau, he was asked to work on the follow up album, Darkness On the Edge of Town. He was tasked to find the right drum beat for a song, and it wasn’t an easy job. After spending six weeks working around the clock trying to get the sound that Bruce had in his head actualized with instruments, Jimmy became frustrated. Bruce wanted a specific sound that he had trouble describing, and Jimmy was failing time after time at delivering what the Boss was looking for. No matter what they tried, it wasn’t working. Bruce kept rejecting the work, which left Jimmy feeling disrespected and on the verge of quitting.
It was then that Bruce’s manager looked Jimmy straight in the eye and said something to the effect of, “you go back there and say to Bruce ‘I’m here to support you. This is not about me. It’s about the album.’ You will have a friend for the rest of your life.”
Jimmy swallowed his pride and did just that.
And, in the end, Jimmy never nailed the drumbeat.
However, six weeks later Springsteen gave Jimmy the song “Because the Night” and asked him to produce the record for Patti Smith. It was his first producer gig and was not only a huge hit but put him on the path towards being a billionaire.
What does this have to do with pitching and prospects?
This is about how you think about prospects before you deliver the pitch. A winning pitch is 99% about how you think about the prospect. And your frame of mind needs to be “this is not about you.” We have been on the client side of so many agency pitches and seen so many firms fail to do this…and every time it feels so disappointing. We know agencies can do better just by reframing their approach. They need to, as Bruce’s manager put it, be there to support the prospect and not focus on themselves.
It’s easy to walk into a pitch and tell the client all about you. You know everything there is to know about your firm. You’re so proud – appropriately – of your firm’s capabilities and track-record. And the assumption is that if your team has been invited into the client’s offices, then they want to know your story. But that is actually not the case. Prospects have only one thing on their minds: their needs. Agencies that walk in and talk about themselves lose their audience fast, whereas agencies that focus first on a prospect’s needs and challenges have a captive audience.
You need to prepare for these conversations.
To engage in a deep discussion with a prospect about their business, it helps to have an idea of what a prospect’s key business needs may be before you walk in the door. This takes serious preparation. To understand what problems or opportunities a prospect may have, you need to do your homework.
Prospects have numerous choices when it comes to service firms today, so bonding quickly over their needs is key. How do you do this?
Start with research: You can learn a great deal about a company and its industry with a little online research. What is happening in their industry? How do they do business? What are their goals? Who are their competitors? Have they recently launched new products? Is their business healthy? Are they hiring or downsizing?
Before you walk in the door, do your homework. This homework prepares you for a hearty conversation about their concerns and how to address them, not what you have to sell them. That is the conversation they want to have. Remember, if they are looking for an agency, then they are looking for someone to walk in the door and solve their problem.
Next, prepare yourself – how will you handle the conversation? Have a plan to get the prospect involved and discussing their business from the get go. Keep in mind that if you are invited to meet with the prospect, then they already likely know some basic information about your firm. They want to talk about themselves. Prepare for how you can facilitate that conversation!
Finally – when the time is right – position yourself as helping to solve their business challenges. You’ll know when! At some point, following a conversation about their business, the prospect will likely ask you to tell them about your firm. This is a golden moment – they are asking you to sell them! Clients are looking for a partner that will help their business succeed. By focusing the bulk of your conversation on their business, you create demand for the types of outcomes your firm can deliver.
It’s not about you.
Remember – it’s not about you! It is about the prospect and the prospect’s business. In the end, you won’t nail every drumbeat or pitch, but by reframing your approach to focus first on the prospect’s situation you will increase your success rate.
Steve Boehler, founder and partner at Mercer Island Group, has led consulting teams on behalf of clients as diverse as Nokia, HP, Microsoft, Sprint, Nintendo, Abbott Laboratories and numerous others. He founded MIG after serving as a division president in a Fortune 100 when he was only 32. Earlier in his career, Steve Boehler cut his teeth with a decade in Brand Management at Procter & Gamble, leading brands like Tide, Pringles and Jif.
Lindsay O’Neil, a Senior Consultant at Mercer Island Group, has participated in extensive research across all marketing practices including Media, Digital, PR, Advertising, and Social. She has led and participated in numerous agency searches for clients like Envestnet, Zillow, Barre3, TrueCar, Brooks Running and Hitachi Vantara. One of her key strengths is her deep understanding of marketing strategy and agency new business development practices.