AdMan: 10 tips for winning a pitch… well, not quite 10 actually


Einstein of advertising Steve Henry recommends brushing your tongue and going wacky… but not too wacky

I was enjoying myself the other day with a couple of very attractive women in an upstairs room in Soho. 

It was, of course, my Xmas lunch in the Polpetto restaurant with two editors of this very website.  Both of them had the surname Hobson, although they’re unrelated. Hobson’s choice used to mean no choice at all, but here there was a choice of two very choice Hobsons.

They were kind enough to say that they intermittently enjoyed my blog but wondered if, in addressing an audience wider than my usual advertising industry colleagues, I might be withholding some of my “expertise”.

What expertise was that, I wondered?

There is no expertise in advertising; we are all laymen and therefore all experts; there are merely medals for having survived various campaigns.

But given that this is the dead time of the year, I thought I’d dredge through my experience of this industry and give you my top 10 tips.

Actually I’m just going to give you 3 and we’ll see how it goes. I reckon there could be a lucrative publishing deal in the full top 10.

Top tip no 1: How to win a pitch

Most clients go through a laborious process of picking an agency. Long before the pitch itself there are the long lists and chemistry meetings, which take many months and which, in theory, mean that the final pitch list is going to be a pretty good line-up.  In the clients’ eyes at least. Although it might look like a bunch of ugly sisters who speak common sense as a foreign language to you and me.

All these agencies are probably going to come up with similar thinking. (Most clients will tell you that this is the single biggest problem with pitching.) 

And in my view that’s usually the fault of client briefs being too narrow.

But, whatever the reason,  there is little point in coming in with breakthrough strategic thinking or off-the-planet creative thinking at this point, because in all likelihood that will just scare the living bejesus out of everybody on both sides of the process.

However, if you’re going to go in with the same strategic thinking as the other agencies – and you probably are – how will you differentiate yourself?

Here I give you my tip.

Lob in one really weird piece of creative thinking.

You could even chuck in half a dozen, if you call them “media innovations”.  These ideally should be stuff that the competing agencies won’t have come up with.

I’ll give you an example.

I was working on a brief for a room freshener with a bunch of students recently. (Just to make them aware of how incredibly glamorous advertising can be.)

One of them suggested hanging air fresheners on the tunnels of tube stations – so that the toupee-dislodging gust which presages the long-awaited train would be accompanied not just by Dickensian dust but by a blast of ocean spray or over-ripe mango.

Now, the key thing about your weird idea is that it must never have been done before.

And this, believe me, has never been done before.

 I can’t tell you right now if it is actually practical or even necessarily a good idea (the dust is going to play a large part in that decision) but if I was the client I’d think – ‘God, I’d like to see if that worked.’

Because if it did, it would be the talk of London for a day – and how often can that be said of an air-freshener?

And then the clients (if they’ve got any morals and don’t just rip off the idea) are morally obliged to give you the business. 

Also… brush your teeth.

Pitches are 98 per cent about personal chemistry. It’s like buying a house. You can draw up a list with sensible criteria like three good-sized bedrooms, a south-facing garden and five minutes’ walk to the tube, but then you fall in love with something that fails 80 per cent of your key criteria and buy that instead.

So, look and smell your very best.

When I say brush your teeth, I mean brush your tongue – most bad breath germs are on the tongue not the teeth.

But don’t do it too vigorously, or you’ll be sick.

And that probably won’t help. Vomiting in a pitch has never yet come up trumps.

So – just one top tip in this blog.

Ah well, what did you expect from someone who works in advertising? 


Steve Henry was founder/creative director of Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, the agency voted Campaign’s Agency of the Year three times and Campaign’s Agency of the Decade in 2000. He has won most of the major creative awards, including the D&AD Gold Pencil, the Grand Prix at Cannes, the Grand Prix at the British Television Awards, and the President’sAward at Creative Circle (twice).

In 2008 he was included in CampaignMagazine’s inaugural Hall of Fame, a collection of the 40 most influential people in British advertising overthe past 50 years. He now works as a creative consultant.

Steve has just launched Decoded, a ground-breaking programme that promises to teach anybody code in one day.