9 lessons on sales from binge-watching "The Pitch"

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed November 27, 2013
Here's 9 spoiler-free lessons on sales, from my recent binge-watch of AMC's "The Pitch"

Woman shouting into loudspeaker and modern blue icons and symbol
With the U.S. heading into Thanksgiving weekend and a good chunk of the world recovering from Dr. Who 50th anniversary marathons, it's time get in on the binge-watching trend with some well-laid plans for the weekend couch.

If the combo of entertaining and educational strikes your fancy, you might want to consider taking in some episodes of AMC's The Pitch. With two seasons completed, The Pitch is exactly what is sounds like: a reality TV series where two ad agencies compete against each other for a coveted account.

Each episode tells the entire story arc for that pitch; winners and losers are revealed at the end.  Usually it's two new agencies each time, though there are a couple of returnees. The point is that each episode is self-contained and not dependent on prior shows. (see options for viewing The Pitch at the end of the post)

The Pitch can be wrenching: teams losing deals or flailing in the moment is reminiscent of workplace lows none of us would revisit. But the glimpses into the creative process behind campaigns are often fascinating. And as for lessons on selling, there are plenty.

I'll share the top nine tips with you here, but worry not - for those of you who haven't seen the series, I will share no specifics on any of the episodes or agencies in order to preserve most, if not all, of your viewing enjoyment (if you are someone who is especially sensitive to any clues to TV you have not viewed, you might want to watch the series first and come back to this piece afterwards).

The top nine

1. Relationships are overrated, brilliant ideas and market expertise are not. I don't recall a single agency that lost a deal on the pitch because of a defect in their relationship-building skills (e.g. 'I can't work with him because he's a jerk'). Nor did many teams win because they had crafted a better working relationship - though the 'relationship factor' seemed to weigh in as a tie-breaker when both pitches were excellent. Otherwise, the potency of the idea and market/brand expertise was far more important. The clients' attitude seemed to be: if you understand us and deliver outstanding product, we'll put up with your crusty eccentricities.

Example: the one agency that literally moved the prospect to tears with the emotional resonance of their work product lost in favor of the agency that understood how to reach the customer's youthful demographic target better.

2. 'Genius' without context is commercially useless.  A couple teams with creative 'geniuses' lost deals because the creative output lacked an intimate connection to the target audience. You might think: 'I'd hire a genius anyway because they can always create another brilliant idea that is better.' Nope. If the agency in question was self-absorbed and didn't fastidiously grasp the brand and its customers, the relevance of future ideas was also discounted.

3. Focus groups and customer research is overrated compared to creative output. I need to tread carefully on this one; clearly having a deep understanding of your client's customers matters greatly. But many of the winning teams were able to learn most of what they needed to know by asking the right questions during the initial meetings. Yes, additional research sometimes provided an edge, but in other episodes, the client had done the research and it was already there for the asking - for the agencies humble enough to ask.

One asterisk in the 'big data' realm: The agencies that had broader demographic data-gathering expertise (especially about the social and online buying behaviors of their customers) had a more potent creative and sales weapon than those agencies content to interview a handful of folks in 'focus group' fashion.

4. The waterfall approach to pitching is a fail. In a number of the episodes, there is one additional meeting with the client and each agency prior to the final presentation. Some of the agencies were unwilling to share half-formed creative ideas during those meetings, insisting on waiting until the final presentation for a 'waterfall' of polished brilliance.

The problem? If the idea was way off, the team in question missed a valuable chance for a course correction. Several firms that were willing to share half-formed ideas during the follow-on meeting (and got hammered by the weaknesses of those ideas) were able to course correct and win the client. It was amusing/sad to watch some of the agencies focus on providing baked goods and butt-kissy gestures during the additional on-site meeting rather than focusing on giving the pitch-in-progress and getting invaluable feedback.

5. Giving away intellectual capital is non-negotiable. The agencies on The Pitch all seemed to grasp that giving away free work product and market insight was mandatory to make and win the pitch. I don't see this as widely understood in enterprise sales -yet.

6. Presentation skills don't matter, authenticity does. I'm overstating the point, but some of the winning presentations had glitches, technical and otherwise. In some cases the deal was won thanks to a soft-spoken team member who chimed in with the right information. The prospects were looking for credibility more than perfection.

7. Brilliant ideas matter but so does execution. Perhaps the disruptions in the media industry play a part here, but the prospects were often swayed by the firms that displayed four things: 1. brilliant ideas relevant to audience, 2. work product that put those ideas in media context (e.g. YouTube videos), 3. Insight/data on how to reach the target demographic online and 4. A convincing plan to engage that demographic.

8. Reputation and track record count, but not age and agency size.  The most inspiring thing about this series might be the limits of incumbent advantage. Older agencies beat younger, hipper ones and vice versa. Small agencies beat big agencies, urban agencies beat suburban ones and the reverse. Male-led teams sometimes won female-focused brand accounts. Bottom line: marketing expertise and creative execution trumped entitlement factors like agency size and age.

9. You win some, you lose some - but did you learn?  I don't worry about these agencies suffering a deadly blow from losing because that's part of their game. However it was interesting to see that none of the agencies did an on-camera post-mortem of why they lost. Possibly they ran out of air time to show that aspect, but many of the agencies that lost seemed to be in some level of denial (e.g. 'the client made a bad decision not choosing us'). Failure only helps if you can move beyond hurt pride and ruthlessly explore the 'why'. Perhaps that's another TV show.

Final pitch

If you only have time for one episode, consider checking out Season 2, episode 8. 'The Fuller Brush Company', where something completely absurd happens that shocks even the grizzled advertising veterans on the program.

There is always a danger in dealing in generalities; a careful view of the show indicates that the keys to each deal are far more nuanced than what I outlined here. It's worth bearing in mind that all of the client companies featured in The Pitch are B2C brands like Little Caesars and 1-800-Flowers. Most are still mass market/volume sales focused, albeit with a heavy interest in certain demographics and a determination to foster long term relationships with their customers.

Just about all of them are looking towards digital media, social channels, and brand interaction for part of their advertising spend. That means an unfortunate preoccupation with viral media content - not a pursuit I recommend in the B2B space. But the digital media disruption is instructive, as it means stepping outside advertising comfort zones such as network television or print ad spots.

In turn that leads to a pressing need for guidance on new distribution platforms. Work product - yes. But now: advisory. The need for guidance through these new media markets was a constant theme and a key to many of the winning pitches.

Don't know about you, but I see a strong correlation to enterprise sales, where I expect sales 'advisors' to become more valuable than 'hunters' in the years to come. Check out the show and see what you think.

Viewing info: I watched the first season of The Pitch via Netflix streaming, and the second season via Comcast Xfinity on-demand (I am a paid subscriber to both). The entire second season is viewable on AMC.com for the next five days, including the final episode, The Fuller Brush Company, which contains the absurd surprise. AMC has published streaming options here, though they do not include Netflix for some reason, which carries the first season.

Image credit: Woman shouting into loudspeaker and modern blue icons and symbol © ra2 studio - Fotolia.com

A grey colored placeholder image