Everything is the Pitch

In the idealized advertising world, the pitch is the pivotal moment when you strut your presentation skills to sell a solution to a client.

Great pitches in movies are clever, glamorous, and almost magical—think Tony Stark blowing up a mountain range to sell a few missiles or Don Draper pitching nostalgia to speechless Kodak execs.

For us mere mortals, pitching can be a bit of a dark art—equal parts sales, storytelling, presentation, and in-depth study of human behavior and desire. To pitch well, we have to know our product, know our audience, and confidently stand in the gap, connecting the two.

Some people seem naturally-gifted to pitch, comfortable and confident in a boardroom of skeptical, high-powered people. And some people couldn’t convince you to cross the street if there was a pile of free money waiting for you.

If you deal with clients, you have to learn how to sell your work to them, or you won’t get the opportunity to deal with clients for very long. Being bad at pitching is a lid on your ability to grow your business, do better work, and collaborate with more interesting, adventurous clients.

So, get good at presenting, right?

Presenting is part of it, sure. But presenting isn’t the entirety of pitching. Presentations last for a few minutes, and then they’re done. Selling your work is only partially determined by your carefully-crafted presentation.

In the idealized advertising world, the pitch is the meeting. But in our client’s world, the pitch started a long time ago, before most of us were ever paying attention to pitching.

ABC. Always. Be. Cpitching.

For good or ill, we are the sum of our personal/professional experiences and our reputation, and our clients are, too. Each of us bring our own stories to the table, because behind all the contracts, conference rooms, and coffee breaks, this is about a group of humans trying to accomplish something with another group of humans.

So the pitch doesn’t start when you say it does. It’s not the day you walk into a meeting called The Big Pitchâ„¢. It’s not when you show your work. It didn’t even begin when the client got the contract or signed on the dotted line.

The pitch started before you were a gleam in a client’s eye, an email in their inbox, or a blip in their bookkeeping. You started preparing to pitch work to them before you ever met.

The pitch was happening when you planned your website, ignored how it works on mobile devices, chose which projects to put in your portfolio, took a class, stayed up late working on your presentation skills, went to a conference, or decided to write your bio in third person.

The pitch was happening when a prospective client first heard your name in passing, got a recommendation for you, or found you from a Google search.

It continued when you responded to their email, with the tone you used, with how well you made an initial connection. It was still going when you showed up 5 minutes late to that first meeting at Starbucks, made that one executive laugh, or connected with someone over a shared experience.

And it wasn’t over until the last check was deposited, the files archived, and whatever you created together was released into the world.

Each action or inaction paints a cumulative picture of who the client is dealing with and what they can expect. Every touchpoint, milestone, typo, joke, missed deadline, clever email, broken promise, little detail, halfass deliverable, and forgotten attachment — every single thing along the way is part of the pitch. It all adds and subtracts until the client trusts the work you’re presenting will solve the problem they’re facing.

At every step, you are constantly building or eroding trust with your clients. And you will need your clients to trust you when you present a challenging design solution, or something unexpected.

Or, you know, when you need them to cut you a check.

Every Thing is Everything

Trust matters. And it doesn’t only matter because it’s practical and makes things easier, it matters because it’s about integrity.

I don’t know about you, but this is the #1 area I have struggled with in my interactions with clients—giving the client a holistic experience. But even framing it that way sidesteps the issue; screwing up in business is not “just business.” Making promises you don’t keep isn’t a business issue, it’s an integrity issue. It’s a matter of character.

The simple, complicated, human act of Client Services is more difficult for some of us than what we think of as “the work.” But it’s all the work.

What good does it do to provide an amazing top-to-bottom brand experience for a client’s customers if getting that product was an inconsistent, difficult experience for the client? How can they trust I’m providing the right solution for their customers if I can’t provide it to them first?

In the last few years I’ve grown my client business, been able to take on larger, more diverse projects, and thankfully paid off a ton of student loans. I’ve also messed up, a lot. My talent, reputation, and salesmanship took me further than my integrity, character, and processes could sustain me. My clients suffered for it, and I did, too.

Somewhere in the middle of preparing for the next big pitch, I forgot the pitch had already started. Somewhere in the middle of providing a great product for the client’s customers, I missed that the whole experience is a product for the client.

My clients deserved a better product than I was providing. Every client deserves a better product, from the small beginnings until the project is done and everyone is happy.

Your Next Pitch Starts Now

After more than a decade of professional design, I know what kinds of work I’m good at and what I don’t need to go near. I can do the work well and sell the work well. But if the other aspects of working with me erode the client’s trust, their return on investment starts shrinking (and so do my margins).

If I’m not — with integrity — delivering the best holistic experience to the client, any deliverable they get they’ll have to work twice as hard to get. And anything I sell them I’ll have to work twice as hard to sell. Imagine all that mental and emotional energy being put to better, more creative use! Lack of integrity costs us.

We want our clients to trust us, our work, and our ideas. Clients want to trust that we can deliver and help them. But we have to prove ourselves trustworthy by being whole people providing whole experiences — strong, undivided, and principled at every touchpoint.

If you want for your next big meeting where you show work to absolutely wow the client, start preparing for it now, before you ever meet them. Figure out what you’re good at and what you should never ask a client to pay you to do. Make your portfolio great. Make sure your website works on a phone. Write better copy. Delegate your weaknesses to a subcontractor. Whatever the thing is for you and your business, figure out what you need to be ready and get to work. Start setting yourself up for success now.

Selling good work is hard enough already. But if the client doesn’t trust, convincing them to buy what we’re selling is almost impossible.

Don’t wait for the big presentation. Don’t put all the weight of success on one sales pitch; make the entire process your sales pitch.

It already is anyway.

Thanks for reading! If any of this resonated with you, I’d highly recommend these books as a next step: Design Is a Job & You’re My Favorite Client by Mike Monteiro, On Advertising by David Ogilvy, and The Relationship Edge by Jerry Acuff.