A competitive mindset can sometimes be at odds with a creative one. David Brooks, author of The Social Animal, made this claim in a New York Times op-ed piece last year. (All links to external sources are at the bottom of this article.) When you’re constantly trying to outcompete others, says Brooks, it’s less likely you’re looking for whitespace where nobody is competing. That statement broadly sums up two opposing cultural strategies to success: you can outcompete the competition or you can out-think them. You see this simple strategy choice played out everywhere, including the sales strategy of your firm.
In an article for Forbes last year, innovation firm owner Mike Maddock explained how the path to extricating a firm from a culture of pitching includes hiring salespeople who are less competitive. It may seem counter intuitive, says Maddock, but overly competitive people see everything as winnable. And that’s the problem: if you see every opportunity as a competition to be won, it’s less likely you’re taking the time and space to think about how you might try a novel alternative approach or attempt to game the system entirely.
In Brooks’s article he suggests that creativity, not competitiveness, is at the heart of capitalism. But it’s difficult to see whitespace when external pressures rob you of the required patience and freedom in time and thought. Competitiveness and patience are at opposite ends of the same spectrum. To see an opportunity to do things differently you must first be freed of the need to compete, granted permission by yourself and those around you to contemplate other options. The vital time and space required for such creative thinking is denied to many people by the cultures of their nationalities, school systems, families and, perhaps in firms like yours, their workplaces. It begs the question, might pushing your employees (or yourself) to pitch, sell or close be obscuring a better path?
I was having breakfast in an Australian hotel restaurant last year when in marched a class of about 40 Asian (Hong Kong Chinese, I think) school kids, each no older than ten years. I marveled at how well behaved they were, thinking that if they had been North American the scene would have been one of utter chaos. Their breakfast was an exercise in quiet order however, with almost no disruption to me or the other diners. While I was impressed and grateful, I also realized that this order came at a cost: creativity. It struck me that conformity and competitiveness are in many ways the same thing: living, and trying to win, by other people’s rules.
None of us would expect designers and their brethren to be thusly constrained; after all, as creative people, their job is to see the elegant solution. I’ve long been struck however by how uncreative these firms are in their approaches to new business. (The first version of my website, thirteen years ago, leaned heavily on sheep imagery until someone pointed out I should quit insulting my target audience.) Why is this? There’s no question that the outcompete strategy is by far the dominant one for creative firms when it comes to new business. Is that simply because it's the most efficient strategy?
Play the Game or Game the System?
While outside pressures have influence, our strategy choices are inherently autobiographical, driven by our own internal motivations and perspectives. We get pretty good at rationalizing our choices (at least to ourselves) even in the face of overwhelming evidence of the effectiveness of an alternative strategy.
When it comes to agency business development, is one of the two strategies – playing to win or gaming the system – superior to the other?
That depends. Generally speaking, the fewer players in any competition, the more viable the outcompete strategy is, but as the playing field gets crowded it makes more sense to game the system entirely. This is especially true in an environment of multiple competitions in which there are no prizes for second place and the resource allocation costs for competing are high.
The most efficient strategy in such an environment is to, as quickly as you can, find out which competitions you might be able to game (change the rules) and play only those. Hence, my oft-asserted notion that the RFP is but a game. The goal of the game is to try to break, disrupt or otherwise affect the procurement process. If you can, you proceed. If you cannot, you abandon and move on to the next competition.
A study done by sales consultancy Huthwaite on the procurement of legal services in the UK seems to support this. It showed that when you change, bend or otherwise affect the rules of the competition your likelihood of winning increases significantly. (So much so that if you’re the incumbent and you are able affect the purchase process you’re all but guaranteed to win.) Indeed the book The Challenger Sale is rooted in comprehensive research showing that salespeople who push back on a client’s thinking or process in a complex, solution-oriented B2B sale (like creative services) are far more likely to outperform their peers who do not.
Still, the typical strategy among creative firms is to enter as many competitions as possible and play by the rules with only occasional, notional attempts to bend them.
How is it that this outcompete strategy remains the prevailing one for a creative business? Shouldn’t, as Brooks suggests, the creativity of the individuals involved cause them to choose the alternative path of trying to game the system – a path that by almost every measure seems to be more effective?
The answer may lie in the title of Mike Maddock’s beautifully articulated Forbes piece: Thank You, Sir. May I Have Another? How To Stop Abusing Your Staff (And Yourself). In the article Maddock explains how he thinks pitching created a culture in his firm that perfectly fits the social theory of the cycle of abuse. It keeps people coming back for more.
Long reformed of his pitching ways, Maddock can attest to the cultural differences of firms employing these contrasting strategies. A firm that eagerly seeks to prove their creativity within the confines of the rules that have been laid out for them can’t possibly have a culture similar to that of a firm that ignores the rules.
Not everyone wants to be part of a pitch-free culture, though. A principal of a highly regarded UX design firm who has built a successful business without ever pitching said to me recently that he was going to look for an opportunity to pitch something, and not because he thinks it’s the path to improved business development success. No, he’s learned from employee exit interviews, he said, that his firm lacks a little camaraderie or cohesiveness that might just be fuelled by the trench warfare of late night pitch preparations. Some departing employees, it seems, were unhappy with the fact that everyone went home to other lives at six o’clock.
While the firm’s owner is probably right about the benefits of working through the night together on a common cause, my guess is he’s only going to need to hear, “It was a difficult decision but you came in second,” once or twice to realize there are other late-night team building exercises that don’t come at quite the same cost. Ecstasy and Twister come to mind.
How to Win More Pitches
The question of to pitch or not to pitch needn’t be a moral or ethical one. When the firms are plentiful, eager and undifferentiated, the client has all the power and uses it to get firms to pitch for free. It’s simple free-market economics.
A firm that cannot win without pitching is a firm that isn’t seen as meaningfully different or is too eager to win and not willing to push back and leverage the behavioral concessions to the procurement process that their difference might bring.
Any concession gained from the client when trying to game the system is an indicator of how different the firm is seen to be and therefore how likely it is to win the business. While the ideal scenario is a complete derailment of the pitch, some firms simply seek enough concessions to indicate that they are the preferred option. For those determined to play the pitch game, these are the competitions worth entering.