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How to Respond to “Show Us Your Work”

There’s an old saying: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” According to that saying, I both can and I can’t, because I both “do” and teach. On the “do” side, I run a marketing consultancy, Forma. We’ve been in business since my wife started the firm on a drafting table in a spare bedroom way back in 1988. In our current form Forma “makes the complex compelling” by creating strategic B2B life-science marketing solutions. We also have another division in which we invent and design medical products. That’s the “do” side.

On the “teach” side, I’m a Win Without Pitching coach, helping leaders of creative firms navigate the journey that I’ve been on for years: selecting a specialization, developing deep expertise, and using this expertise to sell at higher margins.

So I have one foot on each side of the do/teach line, and I really enjoy and benefit from taking things I learn while managing a creative firm and bringing those lessons to my Win Without Pitching clients. I also enjoy and benefit from taking the things I learn in coaching the Win Without Pitching way and applying them to the for-profit, gotta-land-new-clients, gotta-make-payroll world of running a creative firm.

Another Win Without Pitching Win

Here at Forma, we recently won a plum assignment. A prospect approached us and asked if we could help them; they wanted to see our work. We won the job without showing our portfolio or having a formal capabilities presentation, let alone pitching any free thinking. This got me thinking about the phrase “show us your work.”

“Show us your work,” is an invitation from a prospect to step closer, to open or deepen a dialogue. This request can take many forms: “show me what you can do,” “tell me about your services,” or even “I’ve got an RFP, and we’d like to know if you’re interested (in giving away your high-value thinking for free).”

How should you respond when a prospect makes this kind of request? One of the bedrock principles upon which Win Without Pitching is built is this: You don’t have to take a prospect’s request at face value. If you analyze the situation, your responses can either set you up in a position of power going forward or can leave you scrambling, trying for the rest of the relationship to regain everything you should never have given up in the first place.

“Show us your work.” I can think of five responses you might give to this question. Some are logical and wise and others you should avoid. Let’s explore the range.

1) Don’t: Craft a Solution & Pitch It

“Show us your work.” You can show the prospect how you’ve already solved their exact problem – that is, you can invent and pitch a solution to their inferred challenge. The problem with pitching is that you give up all your power, and you do so instantly. Like many interactions in business, pitching is a transaction, an exchange. You give away your best thinking in exchange for the dim hope of being paid to be an implementer. And once you put your best thinking and best work on the table for free, you immediately put yourself in a position where you have to fight to be allowed to think anymore. It’s an uphill battle, and few firms can ever recover enough to be seen as strategic experts. I’ll assume you agree with this point of view or you wouldn’t be reading articles on winwithoutpitching.com.

2) Do: Go Into Diagnostician Mode

“Show us your work.” If you’re a fan of the Win Without Pitching way, you’re not going to show the prospect anything until you understand what their issues are. So your response to the prospect’s request should begin with diagnostic questions.
When the prospect asks for a portfolio review, you can seize the position of practitioner by explaining that while you could run through some past solutions, two things are true. First, some of these past solutions are already on your web site, and second, everyone will be wasting time unless you understand more about what their specific challenge is. Once you have this understanding, you’ll be able to show them work that’s directly applicable to their challenges, and this will be worth their while because you’ll give them enough information to be able to see clearly whether you can help them or not.


“Show you our work? I’d be more than happy to, but I have a few questions first, to make sure I’m not wasting your time when we do meet. Let me ask you some questions…

  • What are you looking for?
  • What’s the problem, in your view?
  • What are the issues the solution should resolve?
  • What’s letting you know it’s a problem?
  • What’s the impact on your business?
  • How will you measure success?
  • What is the payoff if success is achieved?
  • What has stopped you from resolving this in the past?”

This approach is very different than pitching, isn’t it? If they’re asking for a pitch, they’ll be reluctant to engage by answering smart questions like this. They want the best work they can get for the least amount of trouble. From their standpoint asking for a pitch is mostly gain, so they want to minimize any associated pain of having to interact with creative people asking pesky questions. This avoidance behavior is a clear signal that you’ll never be in a position of power—after all, they won’t even answer your questions.

I like to contrast these first two approaches by drawing an analogy: when a patient goes to the doctor, only one of the two ends up with their clothes off, struggling to hold on to their dignity. Don’t put yourself in that position by pitching. Instead, grab the position of power by unleashing your diagnostic curiosity.

3) Don’t: Go Into Portfolio Presentation Mode

“Show us your work.” You can show the prospect how you’ve solved similar problems in the past, by showing them your portfolio, but unless you’re careful, this becomes a beauty pageant, where the emphasis isn’t on how you were able to recognize the pattern, analyze the problem, and then develop appropriate solutions, but on how beautiful or hip or restrained or cutting-edge your solutions are. Again, there’s not much emphasis on thinking or diagnosis, unless you work hard to realign the conversation. Seen in this light, you want to show your work as the embodiment of how you frame clients’ problems, not as the embodiment of your command of Photoshop or HTML or UI, or any other acronym.

4) Do: Show How You Would Go About Solving the Problem

“Show us your work.” One of the most powerful responses is to show the prospect the intellectual property (IP) that you’ll use to solve his exact problem if he’ll pay you to do so. This IP might be your proprietary tools, codified insights, or specific models you’ve developed to handle challenges faced by others—challenges just like he’s facing right now.

In many senses, this IP is the real, lasting work of your firm and it’s a powerful response to the “Show us your work” request because it says you’ve solved these types of problems enough times to have seen the patterns and codified a path to high-quality solutions.

Your name isn’t on any of the solutions you develop for your clients—your clients’ names are all over that work—but your IP has your name all over it (at least it should). It will “reek” of the sweet smell of expertise. You’ll look like an expert because only experts have seen enough of the same kind of challenges to be able to recognize and classify them, and it’s only highly skilled experts who can use their accumulated experience and insight to develop custom tools that they can then apply as they solve this class of problems in exactly the right way.

There are two main types of expertise: subject matter expertise and process expertise. Your IP should encompass both the path you take to your solutions (process expertise) and the proprietary tools you’ve developed to solve problems along the way (subject matter expertise). By using your IP to explain how you would help solve the client’s problem you demonstrate both types, something very few competitors will be able to do.

5) Do: Show How You’ve Solved This Problem Previously

“Show us your work.” Demonstrating meaningful IP as a failsafe pathfinder to high-quality outcomes is powerful, but the highest level is to go past that and prove you use your IP to consistently deliver high-quality results. This is your ultimate goal and the best possible response to the “Show us your work” question.

If it’s time for the closing conversation, you can highlight how effective your IP actually is by framing your case studies around it. You do this through what we call process-framed case studies—a staple of the Win Without Pitching approach.

The light really goes on for prospects when you show your IP delivering results across multiple case studies because as impressive as your IP might be, many creative firms do a good job of faking IP models, inducing a bit of scepticism that isn’t removed until you show that your model has been applied across different engagements. That’s when they know your IP is more than smoke and mirrors developed by some sparkle-fingered creative type.

Showing prospects your process in this way puts heavy emphasis on your ability to recognize and respond to patterns in your clients’ challenges. These skills of pattern recognition and analysis are ones that are shared by all experts, so framing the issue through the lens of your IP allows you to seize the high ground, where you can lay claim to both process and subject matter expertise.

We’d Be Happy to Show You Our Work!

“Show us your work” is often one of the first serious indications of interest a prospect will give you. The way you respond sets the tone for the remainder of the engagement.

And all of this is fine in theory, but does it work in practice?

Well, in that recently-landed plum assignment I mentioned, two of the major corporations in our sector were merging and looking for a firm to develop and implement a marketing strategy through the merger. Interestingly, each of these companies was using a different one of our major—and much larger—competitors. Despite our competitors having the inside track, we won the job without pitching any free thinking or even sharing our portfolio, beyond what was already available on our web site.

What did we show them?

We showed them our IP. In response to a request that sounded an awful lot like, “Show us your work,” we sent some white papers we’d written, ones that described the specific types of challenges they were facing in the merger. We had some conversations in which we used the IP laid out in our white papers as a tool for framing both their challenges and the different approaches we could employ to develop possible solutions. We sent them a draft schedule showing how long we thought it would take, and we won the project.

If there’s any one secret that I know that many agency principals do not, it’s that our codified IP is the real work we do here at Forma. It’s what lets us sell higher margin engagements at almost no cost of sale, all while responding differently to the request to “Show us your work.”