Growing Wings on Your Unicorn – Making Agency Credentials Compelling

Making Agency Credentials Compelling

Credentials – either written long-form, delivered in ‘chemistry sessions’ or both. They’re often maligned, just as often misunderstood by both agencies and their potential clients, running a pitch.

We do a lot of work with pitches, and increasingly, a lot of work with agencies seeking advice on how to better their pitch efforts.

When talking to either client or agency, I find myself using the same analogy a lot – the analogy of the Unicorns.

At the beginning of the pitch, the typical process will have a number of agencies lined up and ready to go into an RFI stage. All of these agencies, at this point, are claiming to be Unicorns. The client is faced with six or however many agencies, all basically saying ‘we are the PERFECT pick for you – we’re your UNICORN!’

The agency that wins the pitch is basically the agency who turns that rhetoric into substance and in so doing, grows wings – over the process of the pitch it becomes the one flying Unicorn, leaving the others stranded on the ground.

The first, and (arguably the most important) opportunity to grow wings is at the credentials and chemistry stage. Often, from the client panel perspective, this is the hardest stage to assess, relying as it does on a mix of experience, intuition, interest level and strength of belief in what is ultimately more biased towards rhetoric, at this point.

So, how does an agency navigate this to best effect? How does it start growing wings from day 1?

From the agency perspective, other than the obvious, here’s a list of things to consider. All of which, in my experience, agencies get wrong, more often than right.

Cement your Proposition and Make it Memorable

Oh, the number of agency credentials documents or presentations I see with an upfront proposition statement on page 1, never to be seen again.

Or multiple statements that could be propositions, but we’re not actually sure.

Or multiple statements that don’t really fit together that well, or merge into a series of confusing sub-sections.

Or propositions that aren’t reflected in validation (case studies, testimonials, processes, whatever).

If you have a strong proposition: put it on page 1. Explain it in plain English. And then refer and repeat, refer and repeat. Everything you talk to from that point on should clearly demonstrate the proposition. The client leaves the room: and then, when they’re trying to assess six different presentations, have clear recollection of ‘oh yes, they’re the XYZ agency!’

Everything Should Point to the Client. Always.

It’s a truth. Clients are only genuinely leaning forward when the agency is talking about three things. First, when the agency talks directly about the client’s category or business. Second, when the agency talks about the implications of whatever is on the page, for the client. Third, when the agency is talking about money.

In credentials, only the first two are likely to apply, so let’s consider them. How, in a show not tell way, can the agency always be coming back to talking about the client’s business, or implications for the client’s business?

It shouldn’t be surprising when I say that it’s rooted in storytelling. Thread the narrative of things like tools, systems, smarts through the insights they generate for the client.

Instead of having a section about ‘our tools’ – which with the best will in the world isn’t always going to be inspiring – introduce the tools by showing them in action, to uncover learnings about the client. Instead of three charts on process, show how you’ve applied your own process in development of this actual session.

Bear in mind though, that these narratives, while based on real work, should not be arrogant. In a chemistry session you’re not there to tell the client their own business, tell them what’s wrong with their business, or solve anything.

You’re there to demonstrate how you’ve already applied yourselves to their business, engage them in discussion about what you’re seeing and how it chimes with their knowledge, and demonstrate your capabilities to the extent that they’re hungry to see more.

Be True to Yourself – Tread the Assertiveness Line

It’s a well known cliché that ‘chest beating’ agencies are rarely going to win a pitch. But equally, agencies that are too passive – seeming to beg for the business, being obsequious or obviously fake in rationale – ‘working on your toilet paper brand would be the absolute highlight of my career!’ – or clunky in matching the agency to the client – ‘oh my goodness, would you believe that we have exactly the same values as you – we both love to run towards the fire!’ – are all turn-offs to most.

In my opinion, of the six agencies lined up for credentials and chemistry, one is likely to be a great fit, one is a terrible fit, and there are four that are more ‘meh’ than ‘yeah!’, in the middle.

I’m forever saying to agencies that in the credentials scenario, they really want to be either number 1 or number 6.

Because, disregarding a complete agency stuff-up, those are the two agencies memorable, and who have been true to themselves. Some of the most exceptional agencies in Australia play this assertiveness line brilliantly – I’ve seen them rank 6, and I’ve seen them rank 1, but more rarely do I see them rank in between.

Their story is straight; their assertiveness is clear and not tipping into arrogance; and they’re not disingenuous about who they are or what interests them about the opportunity – which, if pitched right, can be very powerful and engaging to a potential client.

Give the Client Some Control – Don’t be a Check-Boxer.

It’s obvious to say that ‘mixing things up’ can improve stand-out. Some pitches are mercilessly flogged to within an inch of directiveness in briefing – ‘you have 12 minutes to talk about process, 6 minutes to talk about case studies’.

We fundamentally disagree with this approach and, client willing, will always try to give an agency latitude to shape a chemistry session to their own design, provided that the big bucket-points are checked.

There are various ways of running chemistry sessions and I won’t list them all here, but it is always good to give the client a level of in-room control over where they want to focus or go to next. It makes for more engaged people, and also gives the agency valuable early learnings about what this client is interested in, and how this pitch could be navigated as a result.

Be a Black Run Skier – Go Off Piste

Some of the most powerful chemistry meetings I’ve seen is where the agency senses that the client isn’t engaged by what’s on the chart, stops, takes a step back along with the initiative and, with input from the client, goes in a completely different direction.

Reading the room is such an important skill in pitching. Of course, a chemistry session should be discursive and inclusive in nature, that’s a given – but it’s so easy to be caught up in needing to get through the charts.

Where the client senses true leadership in an agency is often where that agency has the confidence to abandon script (if it’s sinking) and go with the flow (of interest).

Detail is Dull – But Don’t Disrespect It

It stands to reason that everything I’ve said here points to the agency being humans, the use of plain language to aid powerful storytelling or narrative, and in so doing, avoiding the dull or over-worthy detail (all of which can be left in a leave-behind).

However – don’t assume that there isn’t a client in the room (procurement, anyone?) who may ask you about detail. Don’t get thrown off-guard and be prepared to talk to the detail, if specifically asked (it’s what appendices are for).

Are you ready to fly?

So, there it is. Take a brutal look at your current approach to credentials and consider – are we really nailing it? Come talk to us if you’d like a more detailed discussion about your credentials, positioning or pitch process. And, assuming you grow those wings – have a nice flight.