The Magic of Pitch Theatre

By Matt Hopkinson, Head of Creative INITIALS CX

Things fell apart quickly at the onset of the pandemic, and pitching for new business was no exception.

The overnight switch to online pitches meant a whole new set of dramas to worry about; from agencies getting to grips with projecting their message through a screen, to clients struggling to work out whether those remote 2D characters were people they’d like to work with.

It’s a lasting change. While most of us are now comfortable being back in the room, the halfway house of hybrid chemistry meetings and pitches seems here to stay.

Things we lost in the pandemic

As a fan of face-to-face it’s easy to pick apart aspects of the remote approach that make the magic of the pitch process lose its lustre. Such as:

  • The great board-mounted campaign reveal reduced to a (sometimes glitchy) click on a screen
  • The thumping pitch soundtrack surrenders the beat when funnelled through a Mac speaker
  • The end of slick presenting; “Can you see my screen?” may as well be an agenda item

Okay, I’m being cynical. All agencies had to adapt without drawing breath. For us, pitch planning was well under way for a global travel brief, with numerous designers and concept teams on the case, when lockdown struck. But we adapted and, ironically, ended up being really successful as restrictions wore on.

I’ll also admit that online pitches offer the obvious ease of booking a slot and convening all parties. Travel and such physical production costs that exist are slashed, in addition to reducing the negative impact on the environment they bring. And, with a little ingenuity, it’s still possible to be winningly creative with your response.

But best of all, it makes the ‘big show’ potential of face-to-face pitching even more of a mouth-watering novelty than it was before.

The enduring magic of pitch theatre

The pageantry of the process brings a certain intangible electricity, when you know that a counterpart somewhere in another agency – perhaps even across the world – is sweating over the same question in search of an original thought to sell on the day.

This makes the idea of a sprinkling of extra creative sparkle to get the edge over the competition even more tantalising. From experience, this can take many forms – it could be in the presentation of the idea; the leave-behind that sparks further conversation; or even preview content that drives excitement long before the client arrives.

Theatre doesn’t have to mean dressing in costume or jumping out of a cake. It can be a well-worded letter, a dedicated social channel, or bringing the campaign to life with a real-life execution.

A good experience in the pandemic where we had limited contact throughout the process with a set of clients across the country was to create a dedicated Instagram account which we invited them to follow. This way we could drop a breadcrumb trail to the overall concept.

When you’re face-to-face, think beyond the Powerpoint (or Keynote or Prezi, if that’s your thing). Pitch theatre magic is a case of surprising and delighting the client, just as they want to do the same for their customers. But when you’re essentially going off-brief remember that the experience should add value to your response. Don’t let vanity get in the way.

A great example of this was when a creative I know used post its to draw and deliver their narrative – supposedly creating the deck and the idea right in front of the client. Seemingly turning thin air into tangible gold.

Equally important, as all good stand-up comedians, masters of ceremony and keynote speakers will tell you, is timing. I heard of an agency team responding to a brief about ‘taking time’ that pulled up a presentation, sat back, stirred their drinks, and made the client wait. Taking their time – genius.

And whatever you do, read the room. If it occurs you need to pivot or drop an idea, or the tone of your delivery, be prepared to change tack or the situation might turn sour. No one should be lighting a firework at a funeral.

To illustrate, we had two automotive pitches on the bounce. One week, we got all the clients out of their seats and walked them around a room as if on a tour of a virtual showroom. They let down their guard. We won.

The next week, full of confidence, I found myself in a different boardroom wearing a Stig-style motorcycle helmet. As soon as it was on, it felt wrong. But I couldn’t get it off, so had to see it through. A lesson learnt.

Try bringing the magic to BAU

The magic of pitch theatre is certainly an intangible thing, everyone has their own good, bad and ugly anecdotes however, the art of theatre isn’t just the big idea in reply to a brief, or the delivery of it. It’s also in the preparation.

To respond to one brief, we rode across a rail network for two days straight as a pitch team, creating the work and a video diary in the process.

Ideation, planning and delivery all play into pitch magic. For us, the magic lies in combining two things. We have the spirit of an independent; we aren’t defined by or answer to a higher power to define our ambition. And when that energy and tenacity is combined with expert consultants on the ground, in every field of the customer experience, it means we have the space to leave our clients wide eyed by not only fantastic work but also the way it’s delivered.

As a final tip, life is brighter for agencies – and clients, for that matter – if you can bring a little bit of magic to everyday activity. Putting pitches aside, you should be adding a little sprinkling of magic dust at every opportunity. We shouldn’t only pull out our bag of tricks for a new client lead: dazzle and delight your existing ones, too.