Sales

How a room full of advertising executives got their comeuppance — and how to avoid the same doom

Ian Whitworth /

disruption old business quiz

Scene Change co-founder and Motivation for Sceptics blogger Ian Whitworth. Source: supplied.

You won’t get far in business if you can’t present or pitch.

It’s an essential part of leading people and getting your name out there. People rise to great heights possessing only presentation skills, in both the management and dictator spaces.

I’ve spent a lot of my working life watching and delivering presentations of all kinds. I can’t think of another area with such thrilling scope to either shine or burn. I really enjoy the coliseum nature of presentation lessons, where errors get publicly carved into your memory for life, like a trident to the chest or a solid lion mauling.

There’s no lesson as effective as trauma you inflict on yourself, and clocking up hours of stage time is the single biggest factor in how good you get. But it’s also good to consider some brutal lessons others have learned.

The most vital lesson is to put as much effort into knowing your audience as you put into your material.

That guy is pretty embarrassing

My friend Jim built an incredibly successful retail chain in domestic appliances. He did it with decades of madcap, come-on-down, low budget TV advertising. It was low on touchy-feely emotion and production values and very high on outlandish product demonstrations, sometimes using bowling balls.

Jim starred in every ad himself, thus saving a fortune on actors, savings that could be passed on in the form of ‘crazy-low prices’.

Through sheer consistency, he grew the brand into the dominant gorilla of its category. He still gets asked for autographs on planes. In person, Jim is charming and hilarious, reserving the antics for his TV persona. One day he took a call from an ad agency prospecting for new business.

‘We love your brand,’ they said. ‘Great product, great strategy, it’s all good. Except for the talent you’re using on the TV commercials. Frankly, between you and me, that guy is pretty embarrassing and he’s really holding your brand back. Can we come in and present some impactful new ideas that will be a real game-changer for your business?’

‘That would be excellent,’ Jim said.

On the day, the pitch team turn up excited. All the old-school agency cliche boxes are ticked. Slick account suits. Creative director in a tuxedo jacket over a Mickey Mouse t-shirt. Many, many hours and dollars of preparation. Jim walks out into reception with a cheery greeting.

Oh. My. God. It’s him! The corny TV character they’ve come to assassinate with their leading-edge creative strategies. The blood drains from their faces at the epic scale of their blunder.

Like a laboratory frog, the dead pitch twitched on the boardroom table for 15 interminable minutes before they upped laptops and ran.

‘We’ll… uh… just go now, we’ve probably taken up enough of your valuable …’

‘Not at all, what other ideas do you have? I’m all ears.’

It was pretty much the most enjoyable meeting of Jim’s career.

You probably enjoyed it too because, face it, everyone loves a story where advertising wankers get their comeuppance.

You look like you love fish

Can you imagine the conversation in the cab on the way back? The arguments over whose fault it was. The calculations of how many creative hours had been poured into this doomed venture. That, folks, is the oldest mistake in the book: putting all your time and energy into what you reckon they’ll like, and forgetting to research your audience. You’ve built a gleaming building on foundations of porridge.

Successful presenters want to know in advance: who’s in the audience? What’s their level of expertise and interest in your subject? Who’s been on before you? What direct personal benefits will your presentation bring them? How long is their attention span?

Each has a massive effect on the reception you’ll receive. Get it right and stardom awaits.

So many businesses do elaborate pitches without researching the personal tastes of the client. It’s like taking someone out to dinner for the first time, ordering all their food, and expecting to pick their favourite for each course. ‘You look like you love … fish! Am I right?’

Stop ordering potential clients the fish and talk to them. You’ll waste a lot less of everyone’s time, including yours, and build your business a lot faster.

This article was first published on Motivation for Sceptics.

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Ian Whitworth

Ian Whitworth is a reformed branding and advertising creative director turned entrepreneur, who co-founded corporate audiovisual company Scene Change.

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