Acing the Pitch: How to Pitch New Clients

Editor’s Note: This article was originally featured in the December 2007 issue of HOW Magazine.

Pitching new clients is an intimidating—but crucial—part of the design game. That’s why you need a play-by-play game plan for making your next design pitch the clincher.


illustrations by Dave Wheeler

The dog and pony show. The presentation. The design pitch. It’s the necessary evil that can strike fear into the hearts of the most seasoned pros. Mush mouth, failed equipment or faulty software, questions you didn’t anticipate, a hostile audience—they can all come into play during a new-business pitch. And you’d better be ready when they do.

The typical client/designer relationship lasts roughly only three years. So, new-business pitches should be a regular item on your schedule. But before you start firing up your Powerbook with your brilliant PowerPoint ditty, there are a few things you should know to help ensure your pitch is error-free.


Before you can make a pitch, you’ll need someone to pitch to. Sure, that sounds like a given, and it is—to a degree. But many designers make the mistake of pitching anybody who walks in their door or jingles their phone. Wooing prospects and giving presentations can be expensive when you consider the costs of materials, lunches, dinners and other methods of entertaining prospects. Add to the mix the cost of capabilities brochures, websites, research time and meetings, and the expenses start to add up faster than the bill for beers at the ballpark.

So be selective and qualify prospects. Only pitch those prospects you know are a good fit for your practice, those you know you can do great work for and that you have a good chance of landing.

Qualifying is important for David Schimmel, president/creative director of New York City-based And Partners. “We try to determine whether there’s a good fit between our company and the prospect,” he says. “Do we have the qualifications to help them properly? Does the client have realistic expectations? Is there potential for a relationship, or is the project a one-off? Is the client the right size for our company? Are they in an industry that we want experience in? Is there an adequate budget? Is the chemistry between us positive? Also, who are the decision-makers and what is their involvement in planning? We avoid beauty contests and try to avoid requests for proposals as much as possible.”

Some of the things you’ll want to know [about clients] are whether or not
they’ve worked with a designer before, the scope and goals of the
project, the budget, if they have any existing research, who the competing
firms are, and—if they have an existing client/designer relationship—
why they’re looking for 
another designer.

The qualifying process is easy for Amy Russell, principal of Element Graphic Design in New York. “I focus on the legal industry, so targeting prospects is pretty straightforward,” she says. “I look for firms that are large enough to need a steady stream of promotional materials and that understand the value of professional-quality design. I look for those firms that have a solid handle on what they’re trying to accomplish with their promotional materials.”

During the qualifying process, you’ll want to ask a lot of questions. In essence, you want to look at all the reasons why you shouldn’t work with the prospect. That may sound counterproductive, but doing so will help keep you safe. Some of the things you’ll want to know are whether or not they’ve worked with a designer before, the scope and goals of the project, the budget, if they have any existing research, who the competing firms are, and—if they have an existing client/designer relationship—why they’re looking for another designer. If the prospect can’t answer these questions, you might want to think twice about working with them. There are times when it’s a good idea to let some other designer take them to training camp.


After you’ve found a prospect that’s a potential good fit, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and do some digging. Initially, a few well-placed phone calls and perhaps a meeting or two will help lay the groundwork. Odds are, you’ll also want to fire up your browser and do some web searches to gain insight into the prospect’s company, industry and competitors. You may also want to check in with others who’ve worked with the prospect, including photographers, writers, illustrators and printers.

They can give you some understanding about the prospect’s working style and ability to pay. “We ask questions and read every relevant item we can get our hands on,” Schimmel says. His staffers
individually research the prospect’s existing communications, competitors’ materials, trade and business magazines, analyst reports, annual reports, websites, Hoovers business report forms, speeches and more. Then they discuss the information and their impressions as a team.

Prospects will want to know your level of expertise, your experience
in their industry, whether or not you’ve tackled a project like the one they
have in mind, the size of your staff, what kinds of resources are
available to you and how creative you are.

Dave Willmer, long-time former executive director of The Creative Group, which specializes in matching creative talent with companies. “If we’re meeting with a potential client, we want to know as much about the firm as possible—what challenges they face, who their competitors are, what kind of corporate culture they have, how their industry is faring, etc.,” he says. “All of this information helps us understand how our services can benefit them. A lot of people make the mistake of going into a meeting to talk about themselves and their business, but it’s more important to talk about your potential client’s business and what, specifically, you bring to the table that will help them succeed.”

With this information in hand, you’re in a much better position to explain and describe your design process, fee structure and overall project-management system and style. Doing so in a clear manner will help ease the prospect’s concerns. And since they’re the ones who will be opening their wallets, needless to say, they’ll have some questions. Make sure you address those up front.

Prospects will want to know your level of expertise, your experience in their industry, whether or not you’ve tackled a project like the one they have in mind, the size of your staff, what kinds of resources are available to you and how creative you are. Be sure to have answers to these types of questions.



Developing a connection with the prospect, building trust and growing the relationship are pretty dang important. In most cases, designers produce a tangible product at the end of the gig, but much of what we do in between is largely intangible. We trade in ideas and concepts. We speak of color and typography, form and function. To the prospect, these may sound like Greek or Chinese, which is fine if they happen to understand Greek or Chinese. Most likely, they don’t. So, a large part of your job is putting them at ease and earning their trust.

How do you go about creating trust? A good first step is communicating your successes in the form of a case study or two. Some designers share case studies during the relationship-building process. Others build relevant case studies into their pitch presentation.

Related reading — Common Ground: 5 Tips for Communicating with Clients

Many designers go into a presentation, show their wares and say something along the lines of, “Here’s a brochure I did for MondoBig Corp. It’s a four-color piece, printed on this nifty new paper stock from Papers ’R Us. It won a gold in the Ain’t It Slick Awards.” The prospect likely thinks, “[Yawn] I don’t give a hoot.” This sends a message to the prospect that you care more about artsy, designy stuff and winning awards than you do about helping to solve the prospect’s problem at hand.

A better idea would be to share the results of the project. Perhaps you could say something along the lines of, “Here’s a brochure I did for MondoBig Corp. The goal was to help position MondoBig as a leader in the widget industry and drive new-business inquiries.

We printed and mailed 2,500 pieces. That resulted in 125 inquiries, a 5% response rate, more than twice that of a typical mailing. From those inquiries, Mondo-Big brought in a bazillion dollars in new business.” I can guarantee that you’ll have the prospect’s full attention and will begin to prove that you know what you’re doing.

For Willmer, trust is everything. “There is no relationship without trust,” he says. “Before you meet with the client, you can build trust by showing that you’ve done your homework and you have a sense of their business needs. During the pitch, you can help win their trust by listening actively—again, a common mistake is to talk more than you listen. After the pitch, you can win trust by providing thoughtful ideas and insights that work for the client.”

Pitch or Walk? Before you consider a pitch, ask yourself a few questions and be ready to walk if the answers aren’t right:

  • Have I worked in this industry before, or will there be a steep learning curve? 
  • Will I be working with the primary decision-maker?
  • Does the prospect have the earmarks of being a difficult client?
  • Will the project be challenging?
  • Will the project play to my strengths?
  • Does the prospect value what I have to offer?
  • Does the prospect appear to be organized and clearly know the goals for the project?

Here’s the cold, hard reality: There are, most likely, a load of other designers in your market who are ready, willing and eager to serve as your relief pitcher. A large part of the client/designer relationship comes down to a personal relationship. Clients and prospects are people. People buy from people—and usually from people they like. So be likable. Find ways to connect with your prospect. Talk to them. Scope out their office. Are there any items that would indicate a common interest? Talk about their job and industry challenges. Show a genuine interest.

“We try to be sensitive to our audience and read their reactions,” Schimmel says. “We ask questions about their business and the communications issues they’re grappling with. It’s imperative
to be a good listener and be genuine.”

You should also always under-promise and overdeliver. If you do this simple thing, you’ll always be the hero or heroine. Your clients will trust that you can deliver the goods. Ultimately, be sure to communicate that both the prospect and their project are important to you. Stress that you’re interested in building the relationship and not simply making a killing on a single gig. These are the folks who’ll enable you to eat and pay the rent. Yup, they’re pretty important—let them know that.


“There’s no one-size-fits-all formula for presenting to a client,” Willmer says. “If we’re in a meeting with a formal organization, we might use a PowerPoint presentation when describing our services; with a small company, we may simply meet over lunch. It’s important to do what’s right for that particular organization. If you’ve done your research and have listened well during initial conversations, you should have a good sense of what will work.”

Whether you decide to use a PowerPoint or Keynote presentation, boards or another vehicle, take the time to properly prepare. Presentations are close friends with Murphy’s Law; if they can go wrong, odds are, they will. So, it’s your job to do a run-through and then run it through again. You don’t want to lose the game because you didn’t take the time to practice.

Try to pull out relevant pieces from your complete body of work. These should be pieces that either show your work in the prospect’s industry or the type of project you’re pitching, such as an annual report. Doing so will go a long way toward positioning you as an expert and creating a comfort zone for your prospect.

And remember to think like a prospect. Consider how you can address their concerns and issues with suitable presentation support materials. Also consider the questions they may ask and how you’ll respond. If you put yourself in the prospect’s position, it becomes pretty easy to figure out what they might ask.


A pitch isn’t the time to solve a client’s problem. It’s the time to differentiate your practice, demonstrate your value and lay the foundation for the relationship. And Partners focuses on strategy and results. “We’ve created a successful balance of strategy and creativity in solving problems for our clients. We discuss our work in terms of outcomes and, in doing so, we connect the dots for prospects,” Schimmel says.

Differentiation means figuring out what you can offer that competing firms may not, Willmer says. “Differentiating your business requires taking a good look in the mirror so you understand what you’re offering that’s unique or hard to come by. You need to give the client a compelling reason to choose you.”

According to Willmer, it’s wise to pick two or three specific strengths to highlight, rather than talking about numerous selling points. “People typically will remember no more than three major points about your organization, so you want to choose a couple of aspects of your business to reinforce rather than trying to hit on everything,” he says.

For example, when Willmer pitches his own company’s services, he typically emphasizes that the firm’s staffing managers have creative backgrounds and that the company conducts extensive research on hiring and career issues. “Those are two things that most of our competitors cannot say, so those messages make a real impact,” he says. Willmer notes that choosing a couple of key points to focus on also keeps the conversation on track. “It’s easy to ramble when you’re talking about your business because you’re so close to it and enthusiastic about it,” he says. “But clients aren’t necessarily interested in knowing all about you. Their interest lies in what you can do for them.”

Differentiating your business requires taking a good look in the mirror so you understand what you’re offering that’s unique or hard to come by. You need to give the client a compelling reason to choose you.

During the presentation, it can be easy to lose your focus. The CEO throws you a knuckleball question. Your laptop decides it’s a great time to go belly up. Sometimes it’s tough to keep your composure when your presentation isn’t going smoothly. To help ensure you don’t strike out, have a backup plan in place if things start to sour. Will you be able to keep the presentation going without visuals? Can you spin a curveball question in your favor? Test your equipment inside out and backwards. If you’re using a laptop, consider bringing a backup computer. If you’re using boards, be sure the mounted work is square and board edges aren’t crumbled or bent. If you’re using a
portfolio case with sleeves, be sure the acetate is clean and clear. Do everything you can to present yourself and your work in the best light possible.

It’s also important to remember that the first few minutes can make or break a presentation. One formula for public speaking is to tell them what you’re going to tell them. Next, tell them. Finish by telling them what you told them. So, start off with your key points. Elaborate on them during the body of the presentation, and wrap up with the key points again.

When it comes to the number of players on the field, Willmer believes it depends on the ball game. “In a large corporation where you might be meeting with a group of people, it could be appropriate to bring in a small group of people who could potentially be working with the firm,” he says. “However, in a smaller company, you might stick with one or two people. You don’t want to overwhelm the potential client. You also don’t want too many cooks in the kitchen.” Schimmel says he brings other team members along if they have an expertise or an appropriate role in the meeting.

Also, consider your uniform. Even if the CEO shows up wearing a T-shirt and cargo shorts, you should be wearing business attire. “I recently did a pitch to a fairly large IT company,” Mantione says. “My prospect showed up in jeans and a T-shirt. I didn’t see that coming. I wore a business suit and I was glad I did. Even if the prospect is casual, I think it’s important to present myself as professionally as I can. After the relationship is established, I may consider dressing down if that’s the client’s manner.”


As you close out the ninth inning, be sure to restate your key points and ask the audience if they have any questions or if anything is unclear. Be sure to follow up afterward with a note thanking them for their time and the opportunity to present your practice or firm. Ideally, send a handwritten note. Those are rare in these days of e-mail, so they make an impression. Also be sure to follow up with any requested information, additional project samples, client testimonials, etc.

If you’ve done your homework, prepared well and followed these tips, you’ll likely be in good pitching form. Someone once said, “Everything is difficult until it becomes easy.” Pitches are no different. The more you do, the easier and better they become.

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