To pitch or not to pitch?


Mark Newton

Managing Director

Posted on November 3, 2015

We’ve noticed a big change here at Talisman in the last 12 months: we’ve been attracting many more new business enquiries. And it’s not just a handful – our enquiries have increased more than four fold.

Obviously, we’re delighted, but a by-product is that we’re now invited to do more pitches and tenders. With a pitch, we at least get to present face to face, but tenders can feel like delivery to an anonymous black hole.

It’s brought me back to a career-long dilemma: to pitch or not to pitch?

No easy answers, but here’s my latest thinking.

Know who you are

Some agencies are born to pitch. They have dedicated pitch teams, so they probably score better than average. And when they win, they can easily recover their pitch costs because they charge crazy prices for their work.

We’re not one of them and we don’t want to be.

Look at the odds

The irresistible urge to pitch for every opportunity has to be kept in check and rationalized. We’ve found the best way to do this is to develop an objective scoring system to assess the probability of winning, rather than just a vaguely ‘weighing things up’. If we’d figured this out sooner, we might have avoided some painful errors.

A good example is the tender we did last year for a top five accounting firm. Seduced by the name and budget, we spent 200 hours preparing our submission only to fail to make the shortlist. A closer investigation revealed we’d been one of 27 agencies invited to pitch. 27 agencies x 100 hours x £80 p.h. means that accounting firm tender triggered off around £250k of free labour-, for more than the value of the job.

We stood close to zero chance from the outset.

What’s it worth?

Pitches rarely make commercial sense, at least for the agency. Once we embark on a pitch, we inevitably get sucked into spending more time than we can spare or had originally planned. There’s no point pitching in a half-hearted way. You can plan with an optimistic mindset and the intention of giving it a controlled amount of time, but then the actual time spent can all too easily end up doubled. This labour cost can rarely be recovered, even if we win the job.

You have to really want it, value it for more than its profit potential, to make this kind of investment and risk anywhere near worth it. And you have to be honest: is this really what’s best for your team and your business?

See it for what it is

We were in the middle of a pitch last week and I woke up first thing in the morning with a crazy idea. Next time we’re asked to pitch, I thought, I’ll decline immediately, wasting not one ounce of energy on it, go straight to the bookmaker and place a £4k bet on the favourite in the 4.30pm race.

The more I think about it, the more I reckon it makes more financial sense than accepting a pitch offer. It’s just another kind of gamble, after all.

Find a new way

It’s now been a year since I made the decision never to employ another sales person. It’s forced us to find a new strategy for new business, and I don’t regret it for a second: it’s been more successful than I ever could have anticipated.

Perhaps pitching is similar thing. More and more, I wonder whether deciding never to do it again might be just what we need to find new, better ways of winning work.

We’ll see.