Part 4 in the series “Pitching To Win…Without Pitching”
If Seattle’s decade of the dotcom gave us anything, it was breathtaking innovation followed closely by mountains of investment capital. Or the other way around. This became more obvious each day in my tip-of-the-spear New Business Director role at Horton Lantz & Low in the early 2000s. It seemed that, almost overnight, the entire marketing landscape started shifting at warp speed. Every hungry business now wanted a fancy website adorned with 1-click storefront technologies, pop-up windows and clever meta-tags tied to search engine optimization strategies. Suddenly the fabled “big idea” pushed by ad agencies and eye-popping graphics of branding firms were being kicked to the curb. Marketing innovation harnessed by digital technologies became the bright new currency of brand managers of consumer products–and data-driven lead generation campaigns for B2B clients–across the Northwest and the nation.
As fate or good fortune would have it, I left Horton Lantz & Low with a mix of optimism and dread. I was determined to ply the new waters of digital marketing. But the currents seemed deep, dark and a bit deadly. I dove in anyway. Over a period of several months I became an expert digital marketing strategist (albeit self-appointed). I read volumes on a multitude of topics from every digital marketing web portal and e-newsletter my eyeballs could land on. But the ones that caught most of my attention were Click-Z and MecLabs, two daily e-newsletters that, though light on creative ideas, were heavy on data and analytics-driven content I was looking for.
While doing my industry due-diligence two topics rose to the surface that gave me pause, telling me these were worthy of my full attention. Three actually, though they are intricately interwoven—multi-variate testing, landing pages and keyword search.
Providentially while doing this research I discovered a quiet but potent Seattle digital marketing agency specializing in app development, web design and back-end data analytics—Peak Systems (subsequently renamed UpTop Corp (www.uptopcorp.com). I was mostly drawn to the company by their roster of super cool clients like Warren Miller Ski Films and the Salt Lake Winter Olympics. But what was most exciting was a) they were looking for a New Business Director / Chief Marketing Officer and b) their CEO lived on Bainbridge Island, which meant we were fellow ferry boat commuters to downtown Seattle.
After making contact with John Sloat (the CEO) which led to an engaging lunch interview, I was hired. John gave me one specific assignment: to help UpTop win the RealNetworks account. More specifically, win a never-done-before project to acquire new subscribers for RealNetworks’ new streaming music service, Rhapsody. For me it was a perfect storm opportunity to apply my love for music with my passion for digital marketing, sales and analytics.
What ultimately won me an open-ended Rhapsody marketing assignment and subsequent full-time job offer as UpTop’s CMO was the surprising initial success of the project. Admittedly, that success had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the dream-team to whom I handed off most of the heavy lifting—my boss John (and the UpTop developers); Scott Fasser, the project manager; Tom Kelly, RealNetworks’ Rhapsody Division VP; and last but not least Scott Simonelli, Optimost’s VP of Sales (who was the primary architect of the multi-variate testing platform that pioneered a systematic way to test offers, images, colors and headlines to ensure the optimal combination of creative messaging on landing pages were tied to the most popular keyword searches at the time, such as streaming music, Coldplay, free digital music, jazz, etc).
The Rhapsody music project was a watershed moment for me. Not only did I get a primer in back-end data analytics but it earned me more time and opportunity with UpTop to wield the most powerful weapon in their (or any agency’s) arsenal—its client portfolio. I knew the impressive website and app develop work they’d done for Warren Miller Ski Films–and more importantly, the Salt Lake Winter Olympics—would be my calling card to bigger and more lucrative new business. Providentially, this meant chasing after the biggest event within 200 miles of Seattle in the past decade—the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
Though I only realized it in hindsight, the Rhapsody project taught me the incalculable value of trusted partnerships that fostered collaboration leading to breakthrough results. This was the big take-away for me, the one I determined to apply to the Vancouver Winter Olympics account–to win it for UpTop. What I learned then about innovation in digital marketing–and am still learning–is that true digital creativity happens most efficiently and sustainably when you saddle up with people who have already blazed technology trails with proven success. In Rhapsody’s case our dream-team members were Scott Fasser, a seasoned search engine marketer; Scott Simonelli, one of the nation’s pioneers in multi-variate landing page testing; and my company, UpTop, a back-end application development firm that could slice up a page and code it with an infinite array of message and image options. And of course Tom Kelly, RealNetworks’ VP of Rhapsody Music, the master conductor of the project.
If there’s a main reason I’ve enjoyed success as a business development specialist, it’s that I read a lot…perhaps more than most of my friendly competitors, if not all of them. As a daily habit I scan trade periodicals, websites and e-newsletters featuring business trends and industry news. This morning ritual has yielded a treasure trove of leads over the years. And on that fortuitous morning when I read a small piece in the business section of a British Columbia Newspaper on the upcoming Winter Olympics I knew I’d hit the mother lode. I discovered that in preparation for the 2010 Winter Games the Vancouver Olympics Organizing Committee (VANOC) had just been assembled. The article went on to say the committee was in its infancy but would soon be recruiting staff and vendors to help facilitate the logistics of the Games. To me that meant one thing: my company, UpTop, needed to be THE tech firm that brought the logistics together with one massive database solution—our specialty. It’s what we’d done for the Salt Lake 2002 Games years before. So in my mind it was our business to lose. How could we not chase after this with abandon and transfer our database solutions from one Olympic Games to the next? It seemed like a walk in the park.
From that moment on I began the chase. The most important step in this Approach Stage, as I’ve mentioned earlier, was gathering as much insider information as possible. This meant finding someone within the VANOC organization who could give us a competitive advantage to learn what the SWOT profile was (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) and where we could swiftly move in– quietly without any competitors around–to build relationships from within, along with the critical information we needed to present the best solution to our prospect.
As more good fortune unfolded, my first phone call to Canada connected me with the new office manager in Vancouver who had just been awarded the 4-year contract role to manage all administrative aspects of the Games. This included hiring an army of volunteers and paid staff to coordinate traffic, transportation, Olympic village accommodations, security and a million other details. The blessing for me was that she was not only incredibly capable and informative, but extremely warm. We made friends quickly, and over the ensuing dozens of phone calls and emails we established a mutual trust that paid rich dividends. One of the pay-offs was learning that Canadian companies—transportation companies, foodservice providers, construction firms and the like—would be given strong preferential treatment when it came to awarding contracts to bring the Olympics to Vancouver, Canada.
So again I went to digging…this time to explore suitable a British Columbia software development company with whom we could saddle up and fill in the technology expertise we lacked to build a gargantuan database to manage the logistics of the Games—and more importantly, give us the advantage over any and all competitors who wanted a stake in the software infrastructure to organize the Games and the resources to pull them off.
I was thrilled when my research pointed to a small software development firm headquartered in Victoria, BC that had just the chops we needed. They had an impressive portfolio and list of clients, and their leadership team was quite affable and open-handed. Between the many conference calls and trips from Seattle to their Victoria offices we forged a strong, trusting partnership. And in a matter of months…well, the rest became history.
In keeping with this series of Winning Without Pitching, I can’t exactly say we won the business without a few competitors nipping at our heels. In fact, as was my customary way, I sheepishly asked the administrator one day, “Would you mind telling me the names of the other companies in the running for this software development project?” In hindsight I wished I’d never asked. The moment my administrator-turned-new-best-friend mentioned the names of two global technology companies we were contending with–IBM and Fujitzu Business Solutions—you could hear my bubble of optimism pop like a bomb, then a slow fizzling sound as our “we got this” positivity became a vanishing vapor.
Though chasing projects on the scale of the Olympic Games–with the odds in your favor (including the best team and the best solution) hardly guarantees a win–in this case, shockingly, it did for our UpTop team. We won the business. And we learned later we won handily, with subsequent fees generating well over a million dollars for the agency. I guess that’s why the company was aptly named UpTop.
For me personally, the learnings of the Olympic Games pursuit–and the RealNetworks win–were vast. But to strip it down, here are a few simple take-away points you may be able to apply to your own hunt the next time you see a big piece of new business in your cross-hairs…
- Apply successful, relevant experience—In my experience, prospective clients have a difficult time imagining success with your firm if you haven’t shown solid marketing case studies and a portfolio that validates your expertise. No client wants to be a guinea pig.
- Be a relentless researcher—Make research a daily habit. In the above illustration I talked about how my research led to landing a big project, then a big job offer. It led me to discover Optimost that was the partner I presented to our client as the best technology partner for testing. We got in on the ground floor of the Olympic Games before any competitor knew about it, and we found the perfect partner to give us the local competitive advantage to help break parity with our rivals.
- Speed—In business development, speed is critical. Everyone pays attention when you’re fast with solutions and clear in your communication. It raises the bar for everyone to do their best and keep things moving quickly and efficiently. It’s called professionalism.
- Partnerships—You know the saying made famous by Aristotle… “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” That especially applies to team members with expertise far beyond your own capabilities. That goes back to speed and efficiency and professionalism, which is what clients are buying.
- Collaboration—When smart and experienced people band together amazing things happen. Ideas from one category or discipline can be cross-pollinated with others from different team members. The result is what everyone should be shooting for…genuine innovation through synergy.
- Likability—Very little of the above happens when pitch or implementation teams don’t get along. Common courtesies foster trust and respect. When people are liked and appreciated they do their best work. It’s where the Golden Rule applies in spades.
These tips and tactics may seem rudimentary to most. But it’s taken me two decades to live these principles out with any consistency. If you’ll take these concepts to heart perhaps you can hasten your personal learning cycle and win your pitch–with or without pitching—almost every time.