How to win a pitch when you're a freelancer or small agency

It's the million-dollar question: how do you win a pitch when you're a small business? Well, pitches come in two different flavours – you either take part in an informal pitch where you present your work, or you get invited to 'pitch' your ideas for a specific brief and compete against other creatives.

Image licensed via Adobe Stock

Image licensed via Adobe Stock

How you win these pitches is determined by several factors – and my suggestions might surprise you. Here are some tips that have always worked well for us.

Prepare your ideas, but

If you're pitching to a specific brief, don't religiously follow the company's list of requirements. Sit back, consider their products and services and come up with a list of alternative, or additional, suggestions that might help the client. Sometimes, it might be impossible to prepare any ideas without first speaking to the company – but this doesn't mean you shouldn't prepare.

I always tend to prepare by thoroughly researching the company, getting under their skin and finding ways to help them improve. My ideas might not follow the brief – but at least I'm demonstrating my expertise by showing the prospect what I think they should do, rather than just being a sheep and following their instructions.

I'll then also have a list of questions ready to ask, and I'll make damn sure I ask them – explaining to the client that while I've done my best to prepare for the pitch, I felt that I needed to meet them and get to know them before suggesting anything else. Then, based on their answers, I'll come up with creative ideas on the spot and impress the client with my experience and creativity. You can do the same!

Business is about people

In all my experience of business, I've found that being myself is key to winning people over. Warts and all. I don't put on any 'act'. I don't try and be something I'm not. I'm just Katy, the geek who still loves Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. People like people who are themselves. Who show the human side. Who aren't pretentious. Remember, people can always sniff out the bullshit.

In which case, when you – relax, smile and be yourself. Be friendly and don't be afraid to crack the odd joke. Keep things light and, more importantly, be genuinely interested in the people you're pitching for. They're only human after all. And people will always want to work with people they like.

Be passionate

Getting excited about someone's business is a sure-fire way to win them over. But don't just pretend to show enthusiasm. Be enthusiastic about the project. Be as passionate as they are about their company becoming a success.

Ask lots of questions, tell the client that you noticed they'd done this or that. Listen to what they're saying and ask further questions. By showing real and sincere passion, people will be excited to work with you.

Use the right language

Words have more power than you think. By saying 'our' and 'we' early on, you're already subtly, including yourself in the client's team. It's also very positive language, as it shows your confidence while at the same time allows the client to think of you as the winning agency.

Give examples of success

Remember, pitches aren't just about showcasing your ideas – they're an opportunity to sell yourself and show credibility wherever possible. It means you should have a few success stories or case studies to hand, where you can talk about how you've helped other firms to grow.

In my experience, it's good to throw in examples of your work throughout the entire pitch. Especially when you're talking about applying the same ideas or skills, for example, if you're talking about building a website – why not explain how you've helped to increase visitor numbers for someone else by understanding the customer relationship process. Or if you've designed new branding, talk through how this has helped to grow one of your clients. Don't be afraid to show off your success stories.

Talk up your USPs

Every freelancer has unique selling points. These are your strengths and where you add value above the competition. If you've got specialist skills that are rare to find – shout about them! If you've got something that no one else can offer – make sure you tell the client!

If you're not sure what your strengths are, do some market research. Ask happy customers why they like working with you. Check out your competition and see what they're not doing compared to you. Don't, whatever you do, mention the competition. You'll just come across insecure and petty if you're pointing out the weaknesses of other freelancers or agencies.

Anticipate common questions and prepare your answers

Prospective clients will always ask specific questions during a pitch – and if you're not prepared, it can put you on the spot. Avoid this by anticipating what the client will ask. Remember, they're after reassurance that you're the right person for the job, so be ready to answer their questions. The following are common questions with suggested answers to help you get started:

"So tell us more about yourself and your background?"
This answer gives you a chance to sell yourself. Tell the client how long you've been established, mention some big brands you've worked for, talk about your team (if any) and – most importantly – talk about why you love working with clients. Mention your passions and how you like to help people. Don't waffle; keep things light. Practice this critical 'pitch' at home and get smart at selling yourself.

"Can you give us a ballpark figure?"
A lot of clients will allow price to play a significant factor in their decision making. My advice? Don't reveal your day rate or how much you think things will cost during a pitch. Say how you'll prepare a proposal and costings based on the outcome of the pitch, and if they'd like to go ahead and work with you.

"Have you had any experience in this field before?"
Your answer will be determined by whether you have experience in that particular industry. If you do, then you'll have plenty to talk about. And if you don't? Well, have a case study ready where you can demonstrate how you helped another client in an industry where you had no prior experience. That should do the trick.

When leaving the pitch

Once you've had your meeting, and you're leaving the client's office – don't be tempted to discuss the pitch on the phone or with colleagues until you're some distance away and out of earshot. You'd be surprised the number of times I've heard people lose pitches because someone blabbed in the lift and said something inappropriate about the client.

If you win?

Congratulations – you won the pitch! Keep the momentum going by organising a follow-up meeting to discuss and negotiate your involvement with the client. Propose what you intend to do.

And if you lose?

If you weren't successful on this occasion, don't throw your toys out of the pram and vent your frustration all over Twitter as some strange people do. No one likes a sore loser, let alone a complete lack of professionalism. Instead, accept you didn't win and follow up with a 'thank you' email to the client, saying something like:

Hi John,
We just wanted to email and thank you for allowing us to pitch last week.
It was great meeting you and your team, and we hope you succeed.
Best wishes,

You're not complaining that you lost. You're just keeping things light and friendly. And you know what – people will remember you for it. Because if things go wrong with the freelancer or agency they picked? Well, there's a chance they'll come back to you for being so humble.

Take inspiration from the losers

Finally, everyone has interesting stories about agencies or freelancers who lost a pitch. Ask around to seek inspiration on how not to pitch and you'll gain a better understanding of how to succeed. Ultimately, you'll begin to understand that actually, pitches involve people. And people, well, they just like people who 'keep it real'... who are kind, passionate, sincere and hard working.


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