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How Fitch Makes Its (Fast) Pitch

Is it getting kind of bleak in the business game these days? Finding it hard to get on base, get some hits, win some praise? Forget about old Casey! We recommend this switch: If you want to score some business, instead work on your pitch!

These days, we’re all pitchers. Maybe you’re in advertising or design. Maybe you’re selling software or cars. Maybe you’re making an internal pitch for a revolutionary new product or software. Or maybe you’re just trying to gain a few more resources so you can do a better job. Across the board, it’s getting harder to chalk up the big wins. Prospective clients are hunkering down. And the few who are still out there have the luxury of waiting to pick a pitch that they really like — generally one with a lower price tag. Worst of all, the old approaches to selling — fire up that PowerPoint presentation one more time! — seem, well, old.

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If you’re looking to remake yourself as the next Cy Young (or Roger Clemens), the designers at Fitch, an international brand-design firm with U.S. headquarters located in a renovated horse farm near Columbus, Ohio, think that they’ve got the perfect pitch: the fastball pitch.

The Fitch fastball pitch is actually a high, hard one. It’s all about speed, intuition, and guts. Instead of asking potential customers for their business, Fitch designers use their pitches to fire off their point of view and challenge potential clients to love it or hate it — with nothing in between. In fact, Fitch’s pitches feature one all-important idea: to have an opinion — even if it comes out of left field. And Fitch’s pitches have one target: to nail “the big ‘aha’ that will make a client’s knees wiggle,” says Ron Vandenberg, chief creative officer of Fitch Americas. Such knee wiggling is caused by anxiety over an idea so radical — something like changing the company’s brand name — that the potential client is profoundly uncomfortable. “You’ll either completely disconnect with them or they’ll clear their calendar for the rest of the day to talk to you,” says Bill Faust, former CEO of Fitch Americas. “But at the very least, you’ll have shown that you have some imagination.”

So far, such risk taking has paid off. Fitch estimates that it has converted 30% more pitches into real business since it started using its fastball pitch, although Faust admits that the number of pitches that it takes part in has dropped due to the tough economic environment. Still, Fitch has added a number of big names to its client roster, including VF Corp. (maker of Lee Jeans) and Warner Bros., and has won work from such smaller innovative companies as movie-theater operator Pacific Theatres Corp. and Skinmarket Inc., a cosmetics retailer funded by the daughter of Bud Walton (Sam’s brother).

So forget the credentials presentation. Forget the brochures. Forget the stupid tchotchkes. Grab a strong point of view, and study these four coaching tips on how to increase the velocity of your pitch. And remember: Good pitching always beats good hitting.

1. Assemble a good pitching staff.

Like a good ball team, a good business pitch needs the right players and the right coach. In the old days, says Faust, “you’d assign somebody to grab the PowerPoints, and you’d bring the brochures.” For Fitch’s fastball pitch, it’s not what’s on the table but who’s in the chairs. So staff the team with people who will actually work on the account. “The old modus operandi was the bait and switch,” says Stuart Hunter, a creative director at Fitch’s San Francisco office. “You bring in the big guns the first day, and that’s the last the client ever sees of them.”

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It was late in the game when Fitch went in to pitch its branding ideas to Skinmarket’s executives: Fitch was a week behind the other firms on the shortlist.

To pull a come-from-behind win, Fitch knew that it needed skilled presenters — not just execs with big titles. So it pulled together a core pitch team that included Kathy Tierney, the former CEO of upscale garden retailer Smith & Hawken and current head of Fitch’s retail practice. Although Tierney had no experience in cosmetics, she knew what it took to create a place where people were willing to spend big money on plants, gardening tools — even dirt that they didn’t really need. Hunter, who would lead the creative work, brought in Jon Baines, a client-services director who would serve as Fitch’s liaison to Skinmarket. Don Hasulak, a partner at Fitch’s architecture and design branch, AAD:Fitch, in Scottsdale, Arizona, was also brought in. He had done work for Skinmarket in the past and had persuaded the company to give Fitch a chance. But Hasulak wasn’t on the team just because he got Fitch in the door. Hasulak had to be in on the pitch because his job would be to deal with the logistics of getting Skinmarket’s new retail look into 33 stores across several states on time and on budget by the first quarter of 2002.

2. Keep your eye on the target: the big “aha.”

Clients expect you to know their business. But now they also want your best judgment about how to make it faster, smarter, and better. Instead of showing off how much you know about them, use your background data to support the ideas that you’ll feature in the pitch. “The new pitch is about intellectual capital,” says Tim Straker, who is managing partner for Fitch Columbus. “In the past, the pitch was 70% legwork or research and 30% instinct. Now it’s 60% instinct and 40% legwork.”

Your instincts will guide you to the big “aha” — the clincher of an idea that will either win you the business or will, as Eric Ashworth, chief marketing officer of Fitch Americas, describes it, “get you pushed out of the room.” Consider Fitch’s pitch to a well-known global cosmetics giant. Fitch had been asked to present its credentials for possible work. Because the pitch wasn’t for a specific purpose, it could have ended up being yet another boring recital of Fitch’s past work or an attempt to show off how much the designers knew about the cosmetics industry.

Instead, Fitch shot a documentary-style video titled “What Would You Attempt to Do If You Knew You Could Not Fail?” The video chronicled the dreams, fantasies, and hopes of all kinds of women. For both the client and for Fitch, “it was about challenge and risk,” Ashworth says. The pitch also went beyond the original creative brief. The powerful idea of challenge was the big “aha” that Fitch wanted to present to the cosmetics company.

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Fitch’s pitch was fast — but also subtle. It showed the cosmetics company’s executives that the firm understood their female market in a way that was smarter and more profound than traditional analyses or data-driven assessments. The women in the video never talked about the way that they looked or what kind of makeup they used. Instead, the women fantasized about hiking to the top of a mountain or learning to speak Italian.

Even deeper was the message for the corporation. “We were not just saying that they should challenge their customers,” Ashworth says. “We were saying that they should also challenge the company and the brand. We wanted to inspire the corporation to think about what it would do if it knew it couldn’t fail.”

The umpire’s call on Fitch’s risky pitch? The design firm won the chance to work with one of the biggest cosmetics companies in the world.

3. Make your presents make a point.

A lot of salespeople send thank-you notes or gifts to clients after making their pitch. And most of the time, that gift is a cheesy tchotchke or a mindless memento. That’s not how Fitch closes its pitches. Once, the design firm sent paper clips, sporks (the plastic spoon-and-fork utensil), and Swiss Army knives to a potential client. The point: Get the client to think about the “being practical” image that it wanted to project. “We wanted them to think beyond the words,” Faust says.

For cosmetics retailer Skinmarket, a gift in the form of a custom-made 72-page oversized magazine helped clinch the deal. Hunter and Tierney worked for days on the Skinmarket magazine. It was a visual representation of their ideas for the redesign of the Skinmarket stores — which the company calls “beauty and style lounges.” They envisioned the stores as a magazine, with new, hot products located up front and a casual area in the back where young women could hang out, listen to music, and try on lipstick and nail polish. Constrained by time, Fitch’s Skinmarket team invited fellow San Francisco employees to bring their teenage daughters into the office for informal chats about makeup. It was enough to give life to what would otherwise be just dry facts about what Tierney dubbed the “participation generation.” It also gave rise to a risky idea.

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Inside the magazine, Hunter and Tierney proposed a different branding approach for Skinmarket to consider. They suggested that the company make “Skin” the main brand, with the words “market,” “online,” and “catalog” in smaller type to create a cohesive brand across different mediums. (Hunter’s concern: Skinmarket could be mistaken for a brand that was more about S&M than teenage girls.)

In the end, Skinmarket executives weren’t convinced. They liked their brand name just the way it was. But the idea did get their attention. “I applaud their bravery,” says Tony Hirsch, Skinmarket’s president and CEO. “With competition as fierce as it is today, doing what’s acceptable probably isn’t enough.”

4. The pitch is really about the batter.

At first glance, Fitch’s approach may seem like an ego trip — a chance to showboat for potential clients. But Fitch is winning not because of what it says about itself but because of what it says about its clients. “A pitch should be the catalyst for a relationship instead of a run-through of case studies,” Ashworth says.

When Fitch went in to make a pitch to Pacific Theatres, a privately held Los Angeles-based movie-theater operator that was looking to update its branding strategies, it had little to show off. In fact, Fitch had almost nothing to say about itself because it had little experience in the American movie-theater industry.

That was a big plus to Kate Baker, the vision keeper of ArcLight Cinema Co., Pacific Theatres’ new movie-theater brand. “I wanted a design firm that was more interested in discovering what our needs were than in showcasing everything they had already done for someone else,” she says. “I wanted people with ideas. I didn’t want people who would just give me what I thought I wanted.”

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Baker got a full dose of Fitch’s ability to disagree when she had them pitch the design for a company Web site. “They wanted a Web site because everybody had one,” Hunter says. Instead of pitching design specs, Hunter created what he calls “knowledge ecology,” a process for thinking through how Web sites, interactive kiosks, or any other digital initiative would add to the core idea of ArcLight’s brand. Regardless of the medium, Hunter argued, the objective was to provide ArcLight’s customers with a great movie-going experience. “I expected a pitch that would say that a site would cost this much and look like this,” Baker says. “Instead, they asked us, ‘How does this site fit into ArcLight’s overall reason for being?’ “

Fitch’s overall ArcLight pitch? “We wanted to restore the emotion and the spectacle of going to the movies,” Hunter says. “Right now, moviegoing is like a sausage factory. They stuff the ticket in your hand and push you into the theater, and when the movie’s done, they deposit you out back by the Dumpsters.”

Fara Warner (fwarner@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer based in San Francisco. Learn more about Fitch on the Web (www.fitchworldwide.com).