Perfect Your Agency Pitch: The Do’s & Don’ts From a Search Consultant

May 7, 2019

So, you’ve made it to the last round of an agency search and this brand is the mammoth account your agency has always dreamt of working with- losing this pitch isn’t an option. You’re likely feeling a wave of emotions ranging from excitement to apprehension because there’s is nothing worse than coming so far in the process just to find out your agency wasn’t selected.

With over two decades of experience managing agency reviews, President of AAR Partners, Lisa Colantuono, is more than experienced with the agency pitch process. She hears the inside perspective from marketers on what they are searching for, why agencies were passed up and why agencies were crowned the victor. And if you’re in agency new business, we have a treat for you.

After asking Lisa about her experiences in the field, she dished out many of the top do’s and don’ts of the agency pitch process. Some of which she has learned from the insights of marketers at some of the world’s leading brands, others she has observed independently in hundreds of pitches.

Get one step closer to winning that dream client by following these do’s and don’ts in your next big pitch:

Click to view full infographic

The Do’s:

1. Listen Between the Lines

When pitching a brand, there is a huge difference between passive listening and active listening- and it’s obvious which one your agency is doing. Instead of listening to respond, try listening to what they’re NOT saying.

Lisa explains, “A lot of the time the brand marketer doesn’t know what their actual problem is. They are overwhelmed, their priorities are out of order, and there is ultimately too much going on. They need an outside perspective to cut through the clutter, help them refocus and provide a fresh perspective that addresses the underlying issue at hand.  

She just completed a review in the financial sector and the client team was looking for a structured approach, rooted in segment research that highlighted how they arrived at their suggested strategy. The winning agency successfully demonstrated how the company DNA was used to inform the brand position.

Agencies who can deliver that “ah ha” moment will advance in the search process. If you can show you truly understand the brand promise, its reason for being and how to elevate that brand to the next level, you are much closer to taking home the “w” than the agency that passively listened.

2. Establish Trust

When investing in a new agency partner, brand marketers need to know they can trust you before they “marry you.”  Lisa explains that finding an agency partner is similar to finding a significant other. She adds, “ Falling in love is not just a feeling, it’s trust, reliability, competency, and shared values. Building all of that is key.”

So, how do you build credibility and trust with a brand marketer? Lisa shares a few examples:

  • Share stories
  • Be open
  • Be authentic
  • Be transparent

Lisa even went as far as to urge agencies to share the stories of their failures and the lessons learned that eventually transformed those missteps into successes. “No one learns by always being successful so part of that transparency comes with being vulnerable enough to share the good, the bad and the ugly. Find a way to twist the bad into a learning experience that becomes a benefit for your client.”

3. Differentiate Yourself

Every agency needs to have a unique positioning. As Lisa puts it, “A strong agency positioning helps you have a stake in the ground and shows you stand for something (or even against something). There should always be a reason for being. Why should they choose you in a sea of thousands of agencies?”

As an example, FCB has a positioning of “we are never finished”, meaning they are always on, always thinking and innovating the brand challenges of today and tomorrow. No one is ever finished and the work is never done. This helps marketers understand what they stand for, why they are different, and where their ethics lie. Don’t be afraid to be different- brands hire you for that exact reason.

4. Be Relevant

CMOs have more pressure on them today than they ever have before and as an agency, you need to know what keeps them up at night and show them how you can solve those problems. According to the 2018 CMO Lifecycle Tenure Analysis Report, the average CMO tenure is decreasing while demands and expectations increasing. This means that CMOs are under more pressure than ever to prove ROI early on in their role- so the agencies that can help them achieve this will have a huge advantage.

Here are some ways your agency can show the CMO that your agency will prove a quick ROI:

  • Show your work from past clients who had similar marketing challenges
  • Provide a portfolio that proves you are familiar with their category
  • Demonstrate that you fully comprehend their consumer and their purchase journey
  • Prove that you understand how their consumers use media
  • Expose how their consumers are integrating the brand into their everyday lives

5. Prove ROI

Lisa put a great emphasis on this topic. She affirms, “Bottom line, everything is about proving ROI to the CMO.” Demonstrating how your agency will prove success and impact to the bottom line will give you a major advantage as it will help the CMO convince other C-level decision-makers within the brand to support the investment.

Lisa elaborates, “The CMO needs to highlight the value your agency is bringing to the table through measurements and analytics to the CEO, so if you want to win, make their life easy and provide them with the numbers against the creative.”

6. Show Teamwork:

Lisa has managed hundreds upon hundreds of agency reviews, but one meeting, in particular, stands out in her mind to this day. She recalls, “I was once at the first meeting of an agency search and two of the agencies team members were clearly having an internal issue as when one would speak, the other would roll their eyes. They did this back and forth through the entirety of the meeting. The client caught on to the tension and to no surprise, that agency was immediately eliminated.”

The truth is, no one wants to work with people who can’t work with each other. People hire other people for things like talent, teamwork, and collaboration. Every agency needs to remember that a solid internal relationship is going to affect the external relationship. People want to work with people they like. While having the qualifications is essential, that isn’t the deciding factor for brand marketers. You must have a team that works in unison, that compliments one another, and one that collectively is stronger than the sum of its parts. Remember, the brand is hiring your team as an extension, or partner, of their marketing team. So the ability to collaborate and work well with others is an absolute must.

7. Have Passion

Your agency needs to let your passion shine in every pitch. Not just passion for your agency and its values, but passion for your clients’ business- and that’s something you can’t fake.

When asking Lisa about the importance of passion in the pitch, she explained that more time than not, passion is why a marketer selects an agency partner for their brand.

She explains, “After the final pitches are complete, a lot of times brand marketers are torn between two agencies (even if there are 3+ finalists)  in the review process. Both are qualified, both have gone above and beyond, and both seem like they would be a perfect fit. So, how do they make this decision? Well, it’s not easy. At this point, it’s not about an elimination process, it’s about the selection process. With that said, someone will typically ask “who would you rather have a beer with?” While everything in between is important, the decision always comes down to chemistry.”

8. Eliminate Silos

It’s important that when your agency is pitching that you are selling an integrated format. To the marketer it’s not about one-off recommendations and it’s not just about specialization. They want a 360° approach that can be integrated across all of their platforms. Lisa adds, “Put yourself in the marketer’s shoes and think big picture- even if something is outside of your scope. For example, if you’re hired for website design, have conscious effort to ensure it plays well with everything else that touches the brand. Provide a truly integrated solution.”


1. Be Full-Service

Going back to the topic of differentiating yourself, being “full-service” doesn’t tell a marketer what you specialize in. Sure, you might offer website development, branding, advertising, and PR- but what is your specialty? Which of those services do you absolutely dominate in? For example, Brunner in Pittsburgh is a full-service agency but a true expert with challenger brands and that’s a differentiating factor for the agency. Allow your differentiating factor to be the service you highlight, and use it to stand out. As Lisa explains, “If you can provide the expertise, backed by a value-based offer that only you can offer, the marketer is definitely going to keep your agency top of mind.”

2. Wing It

It might seem obvious that your agency needs to come prepared to the pitch, but you’d be surprised by how many agencies spend time doing homework on the wrong things. You need to be personalized in your pitch and really identify the pain points the marketer is experiencing. As mentioned before, this will require your agency to translate the marketers subliminal messaging.

Lisa explains, “You might think you know their pain points, but it’s even more likely that you don’t. One time I was speaking to the CMO of Arby’s and he said, “Agencies always think they know my pain points but they’d never guess what it is- my main concern is ensuring our restaurants have clean restrooms.” Bottom line- do your homework, tailor your pitch appropriately.”

3. Monopolize the Meetings

Throughout the many agency search meetings Lisa has managed, there is one common trend she has noticed- agency executives tend to monopolize the meeting even though the day-to-day team should be front and center… especially the lead account executive for the brand.

Lisa advises, “If you’re an agency executive, have trust in your team and demonstrate that trust by inviting them to participate in the meetings and allow them to have the floor. Entrust them to build relationships with your potential clients and show off their talents. Brands want to hear from the day-to-day people they will be working with directly.”

4. Try Winning In The First Meeting

Like any relationship, the brand will always want to date you before they marry you. So stop worrying so much about knocking it out of the park in the first meeting. Winning the pitch is a multi-step process as it takes time and a handful of meetings to establish trust. Rather than trying to win them over immediately, use these tips to establish a stronger bond through each meeting:

  • Show that you have your ear to the ground when it comes to industry trends and continuously offer them your insights
  • Act as a consultant and offer the tools to help them make better decisions

Remember, the goal of each meeting should be to get invited to the next meeting. Answer all their questions, make sure they are feeling secure with your offer, and ensure they leave with a good taste of your thinking and strategy.

5. Make The Pitch About You:

Lisa had only a few words on this very important topic. She advised, “Remember, the pitch process revolves around them, not you. We have it backward in the industry, we talk about credentials and that’s not what the search process is about. It’s about your capabilities and what you can do for that particular prospect. Your proof points are your credentials.”   

Stop spending so much time talking about your awards, your top talent, and your culture.  They’re helpful for the prospect to understand but instead focus on the prospective brand, the CMOs challenges and how your agency not only can provide solutions to those challenges, but become an extension of their marketing team that will drive revenue impacting results.  

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