So you seri­ous­ly want to be a client?

A light-heart­ed take on the pitch process for SOFII’s How to be an effec­tive client showcase

Written by
George Smith
June 16, 2011

In the 1980s and 90s George wrote regular columns for several magazines including Professional Fundraising and Direct Response. This article first appeared in Direct Response magazine in 1983 in response to correspondence on a previous piece about the embarrassing inequality of the agency/client pitch process (we will feature that article on SOFII soon). One correspondent suggested that it should be the other way round, that it would be, as George put it, altogether more honourable if the agencies were to ask for presentations from potential clients on the basis that agency oiks are probably better grounded in the things that matter than client oiks. This prompted George, while reeling aghast at the heresy inherent in this judgement, to pen the following fantasy. The idea of clients lining up to pitch to an agency in the desperate hope that they’ll take the account is just too delicious…

Scene: the offices of Headroom and Associates, a specialist direct response agency somewhere in London. Motorcycle messengers lurk among the rubber plants. Writers lie supine on chaises longues, brushing madeleine crumbs from their velvet jackets, art directors compare cushion fabrics, account executives ring their brokers, the atmosphere is one of civilised torpor, a bit like the staff room at All Souls when they’ve filled in their football pools.

Enter: three people, sweating. They carry briefcases, a projector and an easel. They wait in reception for thirty-five minutes, are refreshed with coffee in plastic cups and are then ushered into the agency’s boardroom.

Headroom: Come in, come in. I’m sorry you’ve been kept waiting but we really are very busy here at the agency right now. You’ll be the first to know how difficult it is to choose a new client. Let me just make the introductions. I’m Max Headroom, the MD. This is Richard Shops, our creative director, Beulah Hill, head of gerunds, Miss Swollocks from invoicing and chicanery, Mr Janus from dispatch and research and, lastly but not leastly, Wilf the cleaner. Anything to add, Dick?

Shops: No, I think you said it all, Max. But I just would like to repeat how difficult it is to choose a new client. It’s been hell.

Headroom: I think that’s a fair point, Dick. And I think it’s right that the client knows how difficult it’s been for us. (Turns to client party.) Okay, over to you. As you know we have short-listed six prospective clients from our original universe of 38. We’ve heard a lot about you and look forward to hearing how and why you will be the right client for us to work with in the next few years. So, fire away.

(Headroom folds arms, narrows eyes. His colleagues follow suit, picking up pens and clipboards and blowing smoke rings).

The client party presents. They show the ads they have produced to date, graphs demonstrating seven-figure appropriations for the next decade, offer biographies of their key staff, show slides of their factories, extracts from their bank statements, snaps of their sales conferences in Acapulco, ending with a testimonial from Les Shepherd and a commitment to be extremely liberal on production bills. Finally and rather glumly, they remove their coats and are seen to be wearing t-shirts bearing the legend: ‘You’ll make a few bob out of us all right, Maxie baby’.

Headroom: Very good, very good. I do like to see a little panache in a prospective client. Any questions? Wilf?

Wilf the cleaner: About coffee cups. We have had a lot of problems at the agency with coffee cups, lipstick, cigarette stubs in the saucers, that sort of thing. How do you deal with this, as clients?

Client one: We bring our own cups.

Client two: And wash them up. Bring our own coffee if necessary.

Client three: Or not have coffee at all. Whatever the agency feels is right.

Wilf: I see (makes conspicuously large note on clipboard).

Shops: As a creative bod, I’m naturally keen on super great ads involving location photography in somewhere like Tunisia. Does your account promise lots of that?

Client one: We pride ourselves, Mr Shops, on our ambitious location photography. Not just photography either – we recently had a special PMT run up in Bali that the agency were able to organise for us.

Ms Hill: Through you, Mr Chair, I’d like to ask the client about their attitude on seal clubbing. Do they have a company policy on the clubbing of seal pups, I wonder?

Client two (after a moment’s thought): We abhor it. Ghastly business. Certainly never employ anyone who clubs seals. Never.

Ms Hill (shouting): So you would take away the livelihood of Newfoundland fisherfolk, would you? Good, honest, hard-working people who are being victimised by every bleeding heart in the world. I suppose you’d like seals to take over the world, would you, living next door to you, stinking the place out with their smelly wet coats and their stupid moustaches…

Headroom: I really must stop you there, Beulah, I really think the client’s attitudes to seals is a trifle ultra vires.

Ms Hill (through gritted teeth): It might be for some (makes very large note on clipboard).

Ms Swollocks: I was interested in what you had to say about your bank balance. But you confined your remarks to your current account whereas, of course, we have to be interested in other sources of revenue from you. I take it you have deposits, equities, offshore funds, that sort of thing?

Client three: Certainly we have; lots and lots of them. Not to put too fine a point on it, we are very well endowed pecuniary-wise.

Ms Swollocks: So you have no objection to bonding large sums with the agency, for work in advance, that sort of thing?

Client three: Gosh, no. What’s ours is yours if you were to take us on.

Headroom: Well, I think that’s a sensible note to end on. I’ve certainly enjoyed our little chat and I know I speak for all my colleagues when I say how impressed we’ve been with your company. But we are seeing lots of clients over the next few days and I can safely tell you that it’s going to be a very difficult choice. Our options range from selecting one of you as client, drawing up a further short list or not choosing a client at all. It’s as simple as that. But you should hear from us within a month one way or another.

Client party: Thank you for giving us the chance to present our company and finding the time…

Headroom: Oh, piss off. Next!


© 2011 The White Lion Press Limited. This article is extracted and adapted from Up Smith Creek, an anthology of more than 79 articles by George Smith penned during his time as a columnist forDirect Response, Professional Fundraising and other journals. It can be obtained from price £12.99 plus P&P. Or email Marie.

About the author: George Smith

The late George Smith (he/him) wrote his first fundraising ad for Oxfam in 1962. In his twenties he was appointed European coordinator for a major-league American advertising agency and, in contrast, was elected as a local councillor in an inner-London borough. He formed the Smith Bundy direct marketing agency in 1973 and served as chief executive for 20 years. During those two decades his copywriting skills were applied to many diverse commercial direct marketing clients, yet fundraising was always a specialism. In 1990 he was awarded the UK’s DMA Gold Award for work on Greenpeace.

Between 1987 and 1993 George was chief executive of the International Fund Raising Group, responsible for the celebrated Noordwijkerhout conference and a growing number of events around the world. He was also a director of Burnett Associates Limited. His monthly articles in Britain’s Direct Response magazine were published in 1987 as a collection called By George. He became chairman of the UK’s Institute of Direct Marketing (IDM) in 1997 and is an honorary fellow both of the IDM and the Chartered Institute of Fundraising.

George Smith also wrote Asking ProperlyTiny Essentials of Writing for Fundraising and Up Smith Creek.

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