To pitch or not to pitch… is a question I often ask myself, writes Corporation Pop managing director, Dom Raban.

Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military strategist, and author of ‘The Art of War’ famously advised, ‘He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight’. Whilst deciding whether or not to take on a creative pitch doesn’t have such life-and-death consequences as engaging in warfare, making a series of wrong decisions can be business critical.

Pitching is a time-consuming, costly and often un-productive process. In many cases the ground-breaking, revolutionary idea that is going to win you the pitch will never see the light of day and those late nights and endless internal brainstorms are time that nobody is paying for. Watch the fivers fly out of the studio windows as you craft your response to a brief written on a fag packet by the marketing director, who forgot to ask the finance director what the budget was.

But how do you decide which pitches are worth going for and which ones are (excuse my language) taking the piss? There’s a whole load of factors you need to take in to account. Is it paid or unpaid? Will a million other companies be submitting ideas? Are you the right fit for the client? Is there a clearly stated budget? Does the client know what they want? Does winning the pitch fit in with your business plan? And so on, and so on.

Recently I’ve been trying to add some science to the process. I wanted to devise a framework that would help us make rational and informed decisions about which pitches we go for and which ones we say ‘thanks, but no thanks’ to – a cost / benefit analysis if you like. The result is a ‘decision tree’ which we’ve used to help us sort the ‘not a chancers’ from the ‘lets give it a goers’. Obviously sometimes emotion kicks in and overrides what the tree tells us – you know those times when the client is so hot that you turn a blind eye to the fact that a thousand other agencies are in the frame and the pot of gold is twenty quid. But most times the tree has helped us make rational decisions about the resource we are willing to commit to the pitch process.

We start by asking ‘Is it a paid pitch?’ Paid pitches prove that the client is committed to both us and the process and usually mean that the field of competition is limited. The fee almost certainly won’t cover the amount of time we spend on the pitch so it’s important to ask some other questions before deciding to undertake the work – but generally paid pitches are good news and often result in a ‘go for it’ decision.

Unpaid pitches are much harder. In my parallel ‘superhero’ universe I stand up and say, ‘No, don’t insult my 25 years of experience by asking me to work for free’ but back on Planet Earth I accept that if we want to win new work we have to fight for it – and that sometimes entails giving away our ideas. It does mean though, that we need to establish that we have a very good chance of winning before we go in to battle.

In an unpaid pitch our first question is ‘does the brief match our experience?’ This is crucial. We’ve been tempted in the past by pitches that, if won, would allow us to expand in to new areas. The problem is that there will undoubtedly be a company in the frame who has done this thing (whatever it is) a hundred times before and it’s just too risky going up against them in a free pitch.

Click for full size flow chart

Click for full size flow chart

Next we look at how many companies are likely to be involved. If there are more than three then warning lights start flashing – it’s often a sign that the client is unsure about what they want – and if they don’t know then it’s doubly difficult for us to guess and get it right.

If it’s an open tender common sense usually tells us to steer well clear but occasionally, when the value of the contract is high enough and our experience is a good enough fit with the demands of a well-written brief, then it becomes worth considering. In fact we’ve just won a very tasty project through an open tender process so sometimes it pays off!

Whether paid or unpaid, by invitation or open, our pitch decisions are based on weighing up factors like profitablilty, suitability, clarity, likelihood of success and an assessment of the client. Our decision tree has become a valuable tool in this process but it’s a work in progress – we’ll continue to refine as we learn more.

I hope that it’ll be useful to others facing the pitching dilemma.

[FOOTNOTE: If you’re brave enough to shun pitching altogether then you’ve probably already read Blair Enns excellent ‘The Win Without Pitching Manifesto’]

Dom Raban is managing director of Corporation Pop in Manchester.