The awareness of, and ability to manage one's own emotions, and have empathy for others.
As a growth officer in my early career with the mad men and women of McCann Erickson, my mom could never quite grasp what I did for a living. But, when we pitched, won and delivered the phenomenon now globally known as Priceless for MasterCard, she could finally brag to her friends at my Aunt Rose’s kitchen table. From the moment the very first television commercial appeared (You remember it, right? “Two tickets: $28. Two hot dogs, two popcorns, two sodas: $18. One autographed baseball: $45. Real conversation with 11-year-old son: Priceless.”), Mom told practically anyone who would listen that I wrote and executed the entire campaign single-handedly. My role, in fact (promise not to tell her) was that of the Pitchman.
In one of the industry’s most hotly-contested advertising accounts, dozens of agencies’ pitches were winnowed down to two contenders. In a surprising twist, MasterCard declared that the agency with the highest score in consumer testing would win. The heart-wrenching result: Our Priceless campaign did not test well. In an act of courage, and confidence, the MasterCard team awarded us the business anyway. When I asked Larry Flanagan, who went on to become MasterCard’s celebrated CMO, about their decision to award us the business for the Priceless campaign, he said, “We bonded because McCann Erikson understood the deep desire of the MasterCard customer, but they understood MasterCard’s deep desire, too.”
We all make pitches every day — for that highly-prized account; to a client who’s reluctant to accept your scary proposal; for a skeptical CFO to loosen the purse strings; or for a wary new team to believe in you. Here’s what I’ve learned about winning pitches like these:
1. You need to understand that behind every decision lies a hidden agenda.
There are no magic tricks or hypnotics to persuade people to do what you say. Rather, behind every decision the average person makes to buy something — whether a product or service, your argument or an idea — is an unspoken emotional motivation. I call this the hidden agenda. Tap this, connect to it — and you will have people saying yes.
2. You need to do your emotional homework to find the hidden agenda.
To find the hidden agenda, you need to identify your audiences’ wants, needs and/or values. Too many pitches are lost because the people undertaking them think — erroneously — that the business matters at hand are the only relevant issue. Deep desires, often unspoken — like the desire to be recognized, to feel appreciated, to create something, to be admired, to lead, to feel safe and secure — are fundamental to any business decision. The business issue and the hidden agenda are intertwined.
For the MasterCard pitch, in fact, two parallel hidden agendas were at work — MasterCard’s agenda, and the agenda of MasterCard customers. MasterCard’s hidden agenda was a desire to finally score a victory over Visa, but there was a sense that it would be very difficult to achieve. The MasterCard customer’s hidden agenda: to be good people, buying good things, for good reasons.
A hidden agenda falls into one of three categories:
Wants are about people viewing their circumstances through the lens of ambition and confidence. For example, when pitching to a Wall Street titan some years back, we determined the following want: “I want people to recognize me for having created a financial services powerhouse.”
Needs are about viewing circumstances through the lens of fear or concern. The need we uncovered at the core of the MasterCard pitch was: We need to score a victory over Visa in the marketplace, and in doing so be famous for it… but we’re not so sure we can.
Values are about people viewing the world entirely through the lens of their belief systems. The key insight that led to the development of the Priceless campaign was in the value system of our target audience, namely people who believed they were good people buying good things for good reason, and that it was not possible to put a price on things like family and life experiences.
3. You need to connect yourself to the hidden agenda.
You win the pitch when you link what I call your leverageable assets to your audience’s hidden agenda. Your leverageable assets are:
Real Ambition: This is your intention to create something good where nothing existed before. In a wonderful pitch for South African Airways, the real ambition was based on a shared aspiration for a new South Africa, where South African Airways would be a proud, visible symbol of a new, diverse nation.
Your Core Abilities: These are the special abilities you possess at the core of your being that separate you from others. For those of us at McCann who were in pursuit of the MasterCard campaign, it was our fiercely competitive winners culture. As Larry Flanagan pointed out, “Yes, we honestly believed that MasterCard could win with McCann.”
Your Credo: These are the values and the belief system to which you subscribe, and/or a shared behavior and code of ethics that you’re working within. A good example is when Horst Schulze from Ritz Carlton summed up their credo with the following sentiment: We’re Ladies and Gentleman Serving Ladies and Gentleman.
Your Real Ambition is used to connect to the your audience’s Want, creating a shared vision of what the future will become. The South African Airways pitch was won on the basis of a shared ambition of presenting the airline as a symbol for what the entire nation could become. The pitch team summed up the sentiment in a short film — a photo essay of the mosaic of the new south Africa, with the strains of a beloved Thula Mtwana lullaby, all leading up to the tagline, “We’re South African.”
Your Credo is used to connect to the client’s Values, defining a belief system that you and your client share. A pitch for Marriott International was won on the basis of a shared value system, coined, The Sprit to Serve.
Your Core Ability is used to connect to the client’s Need, because you have something special that solves your client’s needs. McCann won the MasterCard campaign through a collective desire and ability to win against an entrenched competitor. Key to winning was applying the core ability of McCann — an intense and renowned competitive spirit, and a philosophy that every competitor’s vulnerability can be found. In fact, the very first sentiment of our presentation was a huge slide with the words Carpe Diem, and a powerful affirmation that MasterCard’s DNA aligned with a profound shift toward inner-directed societal values — and that this was indeed MasterCard’s moment.
4. You need to deliver like a litigator.
With this foundation, you can then create your argument, gathering all your facts and supporting evidence around the hidden agenda, which should be placed squarely at the center of your “case.” Then, you can create an exciting tale where your audience attains their deepest desire, not via business-speak, but with good old-fashioned storytelling to convincingly convey your pitch.
It may seem crazy for an ad man to assert that we really don’t “persuade” anybody to do anything. I believe, however, that pitches are won — and people are willing to follow you — not because you’ve twisted someone’s arm, but because people see that you understand them, that you’ve applied the time and the sensitivity to do so, and that you possess a special gift that can help them reach their heart’s desire. And that, my friends, is priceless.
Cultural permission is the tone, attitude and language that emanates from the executive suite. It is a mantra, expressed in oft-used catch phrases and philosophies that move like waves through the organization. They get adopted and interpreted as actions to be followed. They become part of everyday lexicon and cultural idioms that people hear coming from the highest levels, and form a platform for what the organization believes and expects of its people. “Get it done!” “We will not be denied.” “Take no prisoners!” These are just a few of the things I heard coming up in the business world, and from my perspective, no good came from any of them.
As a former New Yorker, now a London resident, it has been nearly impossible to avoid the drama of News Corporation’s phone hacking scandal, which has shuttered a more than 100-year-old newspaper and, even as of this writing, has executives and politicians alike running for cover. It is yet another in a catalog of companies caught up in the misdeeds of their people. I was struck by the steadfast claims of executives that they had no knowledge of inappropriate acts, and certainly had not condoned any inappropriate actions. Yet, the inappropriate behavior seems to have happened not just randomly, but systemically.
The real drama however, unfolded not when the leaders of the company claimed, perhaps accurately, that they were unaware of and shocked by the actions of errant employees hacking phones, manipulating markets and cooking the books. The real drama happened long before — when these leaders played a major role in setting the cultural climate for inappropriate actions to unfold. In the race to find culpability, what doesn’t get talked about is the very climate that creates the conditions for people to behave badly and feel perfectly justified in their behavior. It is, in fact, the very same thing that creates an environment and provides the fuel for people to conversely do great, generous and far-reaching things. It boils down to cultural permission.
Take Enron, for example. Lurking amidst Enron’s excesses were the unmistakable cultural cues that I believe drove employee behavior. “We’re an aggressive culture”, “Guys with Spikes”, “Money is the only thing that motivates” and “Rank and Yank” are but a few of the statements heard. Is it any wonder traders thought they had the right to shut off electricity supplies and manipulate the market?
The Power of the Spoken Word
One of my greatest mentors said to me upon being awarded my first real management role, “Well kid, welcome to the club. You are now dinner conversation.” He let me know in no uncertain terms that what I said and how I said it would be discussed at every dinner table of every employee in the place. He taught me that I had a vital duty to be certain that the language I used and the themes I shared would result in a positive, constructive and motivating force, mindful always that what I said, however offhanded, would be seen as a directive — interpreted and acted upon.
The Seeds of Greatness
One thing common to the fraternity of leaders I have known is the rapid recognition of the power of the “bully pulpit.” The words you share travel like lightning and when they arrive at your people’s doorstep…they act on them. Your influence over the behavior of your people is not limited to carefully-prescribed internal communications; it lies in the daily sentiments, conversations and values you share. The best leaders understand this — like Horst Schulze of Ritz-Carlton, who shaped his employee’s decorum and conduct with “We’re ladies and gentleman serving ladies and gentlemen.” Or, Rudy Giuliani, when he was working to build a better New York, stating that “People created the problem so people can fix it,” and “What doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done.” These leaders used simple, highly motivating and prescriptive words that set the right cultural permission for their organizations. For my company, there are several phrases we use, chief among them being “Generosity of Spirit.” I believe when you set out to do something worthy for someone, it’s honorable in the first instance, and comes back to you in the second. It shapes a climate…and a bottom line.
Choose Your Language Carefully
Try this: Write down the various phrases and expressions you use regularly. Look them over, and ask yourself what permission you think they invoke? What behaviors do you think your employees will take on when they hear them?
If they exist, write down the legacy phrases that float through the organization. Are they healthy? Do they need erasing?
If you don’t have a stable of rich language, then there’s an opportunity for you to craft it, and add this language to your overall internal motivation and communications program to inspire and mobilize your people. This language, carefully articulated and shared, offers rich opportunities to codify and crystallize what your company is about, and what your company seeks. It will provide the cultural permission you wish to give.