Web designers - how to make the perfect pitch

29th Mar 2009 | 07:00

Web designers - how to make the perfect pitch

Prepare and deliver a presentation to win new business

Preparing for your pitch

For many agencies, pitching is seen as a necessary evil, that painful, time consuming process required before the 'real work' can start. But agencies and their staff shouldn't be scared of pitches.

With the right approach, pitching can be a fascinating and rewarding process, and not just from a financial perspective.

Clearleft's Richard Rutter spoke to some leading design agencies and combined their thoughts with his experiences at Clearleft to guide you through the pitching process. Here's what he found...


The process normally begins by receiving a Request for Proposal (RFP) from a potential client. The RFP is a project brief, which asks for a proposal document in return. The client selects which agencies it wants to see based on these proposals, so clearly they're important documents to get right.

Often the quality of a proposal will be proportional to the quality of the RFP. On that premise, rather than being the trigger to writing documentation, an RFP should be viewed as the first opportunity to talk to your prospective client.

Finn Taylor, co-founder of Liquid Light, an award-winning web design agency based in Brighton, says he will always try to meet a client before writing a proposal. "I want to have a good informal discussion about their business and let them talk about what they're doing," he explains.

"That way, when my proposal document arrives, it's tailored around thinking about their issues. With an informal discussion, you get to pull apart and challenge the expectations of what they want. This often means that you find a whole bunch of issues they haven't considered, and you end up reinventing their brief based on that discussion. Ultimately you get a much more insightful document that raises solutions to their problems."

Liquid Light co-founder Rob Day goes on to say that this first meeting reduces to 50/50 the need for a formal pitch. "Everything they need to know about you they get from that first meeting." he explains. "If they've had good face-to-face interaction, then they'll think they can work with that person. It generally seals the deal."

Warning signs

But before you go trekking across the countryside to see a prospective client, you need to find out a few key facts. Primarily, you need to ascertain if the pitch is actually real. Sometimes agencies are invited simply to make up numbers, so it's important to work out if the decision has already been made.

See if the contact will engage you in a conversation about the project. If not, that might be a warning sign, both for the reality of the pitch and your future relationship. Next, you need to cover the two fundamentals of delivering projects: timescale and budget.

Sometimes the timescales that clients set are arbitrary and unrealistic. If this is the case, explain how long projects usually take to do properly, and their deadline may change. If, however, the deadline is set in stone you need to be sure you can meet it. Busting deadlines will only lead to stressed staff, an unhappy client and no chance of repeat business or referral.

Discussing budgets at such an early stage can be a touchy subject, but you need to know. There's little point working on projects that won't make any money. If the client won't tell you the budget directly, explain the kind of services you're likely to provide and suggest a ballpark range. If they dismiss you out of hand, you've just saved yourself a whole lot of work and an unnecessary trip. Otherwise, it's time to get down to work.

Do your research

If you're going to spend time writing proposals and pitching, you need to know what you're talking about. This takes time, and preparation counts for everything. So if you're going to take the plunge do it properly, or you might just be wasting your time.

You need to have a sound understanding of the client's business objectives. You need to know what they're looking to achieve, and what they want the user to do. They may be hoping to sell a product or service. But how? What message are they trying to sell to the public? Who are they reaching out to?

Read their website, learn their message and discuss it with your colleagues. Research the client's competitors. And talk to the client – ask them those questions directly. You need to gather enough information and insight in order to develop a strategy and design that will meet and exceed the client's expectations.

How much time should you spend researching? According to Marcus Lillington, from Headscape and the Boagworld podcast, "it depends on the potential size of project, the perceived chance of winning, and how much emphasis is placed on 'creative' thinking as part of the brief. Most potential clients will base their selection on how much effort you've put in and, of course, the quality of your ideas."

Structuring and delivering your pitch

Structuring your pitch

One of the most useful pieces of research you can do is to find out who's going to be in the meeting. That will guide the kind of pitch you'll be able to give. If it's going to be 12 people, you're going to have to do more of a formal presentation. If it's a three-person meeting, you'll be able to have much more of a discussion. Either way, try to clarify what format the client is expecting.

Often clients are happy to leave the agenda up to you, but occasionally they'll demand a formal presentation, so make sure you know that in advance. "If the original brief didn't spell out what's expected of you at a presentation, then make sure you ask beforehand," says Paul Boag from Headscape.

"The critical element is how much time you have. It seems that panels are providing less and less time these days. Ask if there are any areas that they particularly want you to cover and if there are any areas of your proposal that were weak. The usual formula is that you get an hour. Half of this should be a presentation of your ideas, followed by 30 minutes of questions. This isn't that much time, particularly for a big project, so a formal, slide-based presentation can be a useful way of structuring your thoughts."

Engage your audience

"Remember, though, that the people you're meeting might have been sitting there for two days, seeing five agencies each give hour-long formal presentations," Boag cautions. "By the time you walk in, their brains may already have shut down. You'll need to wake them up, and a dull ream of bullet points isn't going to achieve that."

Make sure your slides serve a purpose and engage the client as you go through them. "We use Keynote slides in our pitches," Lillington says, "but we always encourage questions and tangents along the way."

At Clearleft, we love creating beautiful slides for our conference presentations, but in pitches we prefer a rigorous discussion. We want the client to see the whites of our eyes. We really want to get them involved and enjoy themselves.

Liquid Light takes this approach too. "If you can have a round-the- table discussion then really it's a dating game," says Taylor. "You've just got to get each person on side. Work the room one by one, making sure each person's key issue is dealt with. If it's the right chemistry, you'll feel good, they'll feel good and that's when you'll win the project."

The more formal approach doesn't preclude working on the chemistry, either. In Headscape's pitches, says Lillington, "we'll make a certain point that changes the whole vibe of the pitch. Clients often place a lot of emphasis on a particular area that they're interested in and if you make a big point out of it before they ask – bingo!"

Formal presentations can feel like a safer option than the conversational approach. With discussions you may have to wing it a bit and you're bound to encounter some tricky questions. But don't feel afraid to say "I don't know". Bluffing will only get you so far. Just promise to follow up with more information and make sure that you do so as quickly as possible.

Occasionally you may be thrown a deliberately nasty question aimed at the heart of your company. In this case, focus on your track record, throw around a few big names, emphasise your processes and stick to your guns.

What to talk about

Whether you're putting all your points into fancy slides or jotting them down as discussion points in a Moleskine, you're there to convince your potential client how good you are, and that you're the right agency for the job. Have a story to tell about the kind of services you offer and the business benefits they provide.

You need to stand out from other companies pitching, so don't be shy about sharing your story, although you shouldn't make it the focus of the meeting. You need to spend the majority of your time talking about the client, not you.

Set the scene

If you're pitching with a discussion rather than slides, it's usually worth setting the scene first. Explain that, while the client might be expecting a presentation, they're smart enough to have shortlisted companies they know can deliver. Point out that what they really want to know is which company they want to work with – which agency is going to understand them and come up with the best solutions.

Quickly outline your company (just cover the basic make-up in about five minutes) and then start discussing the client's project. Clients need to know that you're design competent, technically competent, can deliver on time and to budget, and have project management systems in place. They want a sense of safety and security, but they should have got this from your proposal document.

What they need to know from the pitch is that you understand their goals, and that you know how you can fix their problems. They need to be assured that you'll listen to their issues and, most importantly, that they can work with you on a personal level. "Assuming you have tangible evidence that you're good at what you do, I believe the most important factor in winning pitches is creating rapport with the client," says Lillington. "Ninetynine times out of a hundred, they won't hire you if they don't think they can work with you or they simply don't like you."

Go to the meeting knowing how much you don't know. Arrive curious, and armed with questions. Maintain eye contact and keep your ears open. "If you pay attention and think on your feet," says Paul, "it tells the potential client that they can expect you to listen and be flexible."

You're aiming for the client to walk out of the room and say it was one of the most useful meetings they've had in years. You want them thinking: if that's what you can do in the first hour, what are you going to do in the first three months?

Designing on spec

No discussion of pitching for work would be complete without mentioning the thorny subject of speculative designs. For clients, the prospect of getting a hat full of free 'ideas' before signing a contract seems like a great plan. It's how things worked in the advertising industry for years, but in web design, we're not selling creative imagery – we're selling a process.

Nearly all design organisations, including British Design Innovation (BDI), the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) and the Chartered Society of Designers (CSD), strongly advise their members never to design on spec, and most professional web agencies heed that advice.

As Taylor says: "It's truly bad for the project. Designing on spec is very hit and miss – they just might not like the colour yellow. Worse still, if they do like the design, then you're stuck with it, even if it's wrong. You can't do the design process and you can't charge for it. Clients are not buying a design, they are buying a process to get to the right design. It's the process that gets you something you're happy with." Lillington agrees. "Any designs included as part of a proposal are created to impress the client and not the website's target audience," he stresses. "Producing good web design is a partnership between client and agency."

If a client does ask for speculative designs, explain why it's not a good idea. You'll often be able to convince them. Explain that the design process is about taking a wide cast of viewpoints and bringing that together into a single thread through an iterative process. Once you know the result of the pitch, and particularly if you didn't get the job, always follow up and ask for feedback from the client. It's incredibly disappointing when you lose a pitch, especially when you've put your all into it, but you must learn from the process each time.

The right chemistry

In the end, winning pitches is about researching the client and who you'll be meeting; talking to the client early in the process; working out their problems and finding solutions; being friendly and helpful; and, of course, listening. But ultimately it comes down to that intangible something called chemistry and occasionally a bit of good fortune. So good luck, and look forward to your next pitch!


First published in .net Issue 187

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