In a crowded race, standing apart can be a tall order. Luckily, some of the magic lies in simply being authentic and staying open-minded, writes EP+Co’s Kat Shafer.

People shaking hands illustration

The client-agency relationship needs to be a two-way street / Adobe Stock

Like it or not, pitching and winning new business is the lifeblood of advertising agencies everywhere – which is why you might think an obvious secret to being successful has somehow managed to elude you. But the truth is, and as much as we’d like to believe otherwise, a perfect formula for guaranteed results just doesn’t exist. That’s why I’ve spent my nearly-20-year career refining the next best thing: time-tested tips that I know will give my agency a fighting chance on pitch days.

If racking up some wins – and helping your team feel more confident in the process – is on the agenda this coming pitch season, here’s some advice from someone who’s tried it all and then some:

1. Remember that this is a free-choice marriage

You wouldn’t start a relationship with someone you don’t click with, or worse, can’t stand. In fact, you’d probably cut things off before life got really hard for the both of you.

It shouldn’t be any different with new business. So before you even think about putting all that work into an RFP, find out if the chemistry between the agency and the potential client is any good.

Here’s how: after you’ve responded to the brand’s RFI, plan your first date – or rather, meeting – to gauge personalities and do a temperature check. If you can tell it’s not going to be a fit, you can call it then and there. But if everybody feels a spark, use the time to get comfortable with the faces you’ll be seeing on game day – and get a leg up on the competition.

2. Start dumb, and get smart quick

If you start out thinking you know who your potential client is and what they need, you’ve already lost. So forget everything and approach each new business opportunity with a clean slate.

While you’ll never know the business as well as the clients do, you can get up to speed fast – and that’s the goal. So do your research about them, their industry and their competition, and use these findings to inform the entire pitch. Showing you always approach creative with insight-driven strategy is an excellent way to prove yourself an ally they simply can’t afford to lose.

3. Make it a conversation, not a presentation

It sounds obvious, but bears repeating: creating a hostage situation is never the goal when it comes to pitching new business. That is to say: avoid trapping your audience in a presentation at all costs.

Instead of droning on about what your agency can do, focus on talking with the room. Ask questions. Involve everyone. Get good at reframing the pitch as a conversation and you’ll be shocked by how much more smoothly the process goes. From feeling more relaxed yourself to giving the client an idea of how you think, how you work and what a two-way relationship would really be like should you win the account, you’ll ensure the experience is more enjoyable for everyone. Win-win.

4. Don’t be afraid to be real

Telling a group of strangers that you’re trying to impress where they’re failing or falling short feels counterintuitive. But most brands are looking for people who care as much about perfecting their brand image as they do. And that means poking holes and being proactive, free-thinking problem-solvers.

Even if the RFP doesn’t ask for it, your pitches should always include an analysis of what the brand could and should be doing better. Be transparent, but don’t forget to back up your opinions with evidence. You need to show that your insights will drive the right solutions.

5. Don’t be a chameleon

Finally, and most importantly, never try to change or disguise who you really are to win a potential client. Aside from getting into a situation where you’re not able to deliver on your promises, you risk the opportunities that come from owning what makes you unique.

Stand on your agency’s purpose and mutually beneficial client relationships will thrive, taking your reputation and new business wins to the next level.

Kat Shafer is chief client officer at EP+Co.