Find your voice and get your story straight
The coherent pitch (making sense out of ambiguity)

The coherent pitch (making sense out of ambiguity)

Header image edited and cropped from a rights-free photograph from my Canva Pro subscription

8 out of 10 clients

I’d say that eight out of ten clients prefer coherence over creativity when they’re assessing agency pitch presentations. Ten out of ten clients would prefer not to choose, but the pitch process doesn’t always afford that luxury.

The coherent pitch

A coherent pitch is one that has just a few components with short, straight lines between each one. There’s a short, straight line between the client’s brief and the agency’s framing of the problem. There’s a short, straight line between the problem and the strategy to solve it. And there’s a short, straight line between the strategy and the creative work. Everything hangs together and makes sense. There’s a tight story which the client can remember the next day. Not only that, the client remembers the feeling of everything making sense, which was probably one of their main desired outcomes from the pitch process. A coherent pitch is deeply attractive, to both the head and the heart.

A coherent pitch in which framing, strategy and creative work each score seven out of ten will usually beat extraordinary but unbridled creative work. I can’t prove this but it tallies with my personal experience across thirty years. If you have a coherent pitch with above average quality across the board, you’re in with a shout. Extraordinary but unbridled creativity is a wild card at best, and it’s more likely to be an embarrassment.

Making sense out of ambiguity

Delivering coherence in an advertising pitch, or in a corporate strategy for that matter, is a craft skill. It takes art as well as logic. I was talking to someone recently who’s made a career out of being an interim CEO. We were discussing strategy and I asked them what the word meant to them. They said, “My job is to make sense out of ambiguity.” I love that. It’s a definition that elegantly captures how simple and how difficult strategy is. Good strategists are artful and crafty.

An interim CEO is brought into an underperforming organisation to turn things around. They have about three years to make a diagnosis, prescribe a way forward, make changes, marshall resources, deliver progress, and hand the thing over in better shape than they found it. 

When things go well, these turnaround stories seem so simple and so obvious after the event – like, duh, what else could they have done? Of course it was anything but obvious before the event, but that’s what happens when you make sense out of ambiguity. It’s like one of those wooden puzzles; so beautifully simple and elegant when all the pieces are locked together; so fiendishly difficult to know where to start when all the pieces are laid out on the table in front of you.

Strategy as story

A coherent pitch or a coherent strategy makes for a good story. It lends itself to narration. And, by extension, a good strategist will have an instinct for story. George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the 2017 Booker Prize, has this to say about short stories:

A good short story is, among other things, a highly organised system. Its parts feel in connection with one another. There’s very little waste or randomness. Many decisions have been made along the way, by different means, some conscious, some not. It feels fraught with intention, full of direction. It doesn’t necessarily know what it is, but it won’t settle for being, well…less coherent (organised) than it could be.

George Saunders

To my mind he could equally well be talking about a good pitch or a good strategy.

Equally interesting and equally relevant is what Saunders has to say about achieving narrative coherence. It’s not about fitting the end of the story to the beginning and middle. He says:

Consider that, if you’re having trouble with your ending – you’re not. Your issue is actually the beginning and/or middle of the story.

George Saunders

The beginning and middle of your story, of your strategy, of your pitch, are not fixed until the end is fixed too, and all three parts are in perfect harmony. It is entirely valid to change the beginning or the middle, or both, as part of resolving the ending.

The dark art of post-rationalisation

A perfectly coherent pitch usually involves some tweaking or re-engineering of its beginning and middle to make sense of the big idea that (usually, but not always) comes at the end. This is what Michael Lee, Chief Strategy Officer of VCCP, described as the dark art of post-rationalisation in a recent Account Planning Group masterclass.

Personally, I don’t see the post-rationalisation of strategy in the context of a creative idea as anything to be furtive about. A brilliant, relevant creative idea has a powerful organising effect. It is a significant new data point in the team’s quest to make sense out of ambiguity. It is often the answer to the question that you should have asked in the first place. So, informed by the creative work, go back and ask a better question at the beginning of your pitch.

Coherent pitch, coherent strategy

This continual honing of beginning, middle, and end works for corporate strategy too. Roger Martin’s strategy framework is presented as a cascade, which suggests, to the uninitiated, a logical progression from top left to bottom right. Martin talks about the “pervasive sequencing error” that occurs when people interpret the cascade literally, especially when they decide on Where To Play (WTP) in isolation, before they think about How To Win (HTW). Martin is a stickler for working on the two components together, refining and adjusting until they are a perfectly matched pair.

Roger Martin’s strategy cascade (Copyright Roger L. Martin)

It is this process of back and forth between WTP ideas and potential HTW matches that creates something real and powerful at the heart of strategy: the WTP/HTW matched pair. It is an iterative process. The search needs to be patient because the prize is great: a HTW that is perfectly suited to its WTP; a WTP that by its limitations makes the HTW the strongest it can be.

Roger Martin

Similarly, for a coherent pitch, you need to recognise that your strategy and your creative work are an inseparably matched pair, and you need to do the hard, artful, crafty work of making them so. If that means a little bit of post-rationalisation here and there, then so be it.

If you found The Coherent Pitch useful, you might also like Getting Your Story Straight, a deceptively simple framework for b2b and service brands.

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