February 27, 2020
Observations and insights from a recovering business development director
I survived ten years working in business development, and boy, do I have some stories to tell.
Like the time I fell asleep on the curb waiting for the FedEx Office to open. Or the time I had to fly from Florida to New York on Christmas Eve, leaving my new girlfriend alone with my parents. (Sorry, Sarah.) Or the time a surprise second pitch popped up in Dallas while I was already in Dallas, so I had to purchase (and expense) new underwear.
I fondly remember the incredible people I got to work with. People like what’s-her-face. And the two guys with the shirts. And who could forget the tall one?
When I think about the people on my favorite and most effective pitch teams, they share a few important traits. First, I tend to remember their actual names. Secondly, and more importantly, they didn’t rigidly adhere to their prescribed roles. They flexed and adapted. They complemented each other in ways that eased the process and enhanced the final product. They innately understood how the pitch world is different from their usual world, and they modified their focus and their behavior accordingly.
It’s a phenomenon I call The Virtuous Circle of Highly Unusual, Highly Successful Pitch Teams. Here’s how it works.
The account lead thinks like a strategist. Winning a pitch requires more than great client management; we need to understand what makes the client tick. What drives her? What gets under her skin? What’s the problem beneath the problem? Why did she just say that? What is she not telling us? On my favorite pitch teams, the account lead clearly defines the objective and deeply understands human nature—just like a strategist would.
The strategy lead thinks like a creative. The strategy has to be right, and it has to be supported… but it has to be much more than that. It has to be memorable. It has to be sticky. It has to be beautifully written and artfully presented. We want the client to walk out of the room with that strategy stuck in her head like a catchy pop song. We want her humming our strategy during the next two agency presentations. On my favorite pitch teams, the strategy lead is a master of language who crafts and perfects her story with dexterity and care until it soars—just like a creative would.
The creative lead thinks like an account person. Why doesn’t great work win every time? Because creativity is subjective. We may be selling cereal to 10-year-olds, but they’re not our audience for the pitch. The client is. When creatives are in it to win it, they tend to ask questions like, “What does the client need? What kind of work has she bought in the past? How can I authentically connect with this client and exceed her expectations at every step of this process?” On my favorite pitch teams, the creative lead focuses on understanding the client’s objectives and delivering work that will win—just like an account person would.
See? It’s a virtuous circle because everyone rotates their focus—and therefore their role—ever so slightly. It’s a veritable do-si-do of pitch-winning power.
It feels like I should end this article with a piece of advice, so here I go: to all the business development directors out there, remember that 90% of your job is casting. Find the chameleons. Draft the utility players. Encourage the shapeshifters. And tell them all to pack an extra pair of underwear.
Michael leads strategy for many of VSA’s fastest-growing clients, including Google, LinkedIn and Liberty Mutual. As one of VSA’s strongest storytellers and problem solvers, he is lauded for his ability to uncover, interpret and share data in a way that illuminates actionable insight. Michael believes every client meeting is a pitch: an opportunity to inspire, change minds and find solutions.