Pitching as the Underdog

Bob Wiesner | December 4, 2018

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In a competitive new business pitch, you need to know who you’re up against. If the prospect won’t tell you, don’t bother participating. After all, how can you help them when you’re hired if they’re going to withhold critical info from you?

But what if they tell you who’s being considered, and you find out you’re the one that doesn’t fit?

In many pitches, the prospect puts together a list of potential providers based mainly on qualifications (or relationships). It most cases, the winner will turn out to be the provider with qualities that are expected. Category experience, size, geographic location, capabilities, etc.

So you see the list, you know who the others are. And then there’s you.

Your firm has an obvious shortfall (or two or three) in comparison to the others. You realize you don’t fit. And might also realize you don’t have that compelling relationship with the decision-maker.

Why were you invited?

You’re probably in it because some prospects like to throw in one or two longshots to see “a range of options.” Or they’ve seen your work or heard about your reputation. None of these alone are winning hands.

What are you gonna do?

Option 1: Just Say No

If you think the odds of you winning are really long, you’re probably right. Are you gonna invest money, time, energy and emotion anyway? I’ll bet in the clear light of day you’ll realize there are way better opportunities out there for you to pursue. My default choice for you – bow out.

And, anyway, if you say no – and the prospect has some unspoken reason for wanting you to compete – let ’em come begging. You might be able to change the rules of the pitch or the prospect’s expectations to put yourself in a more favorable position. Or at least go from underdog to evendog. It’s the Cialdini “Scarcity” principle of influence: People want what they can’t have.

It takes guts to say no. And a belief that there are better prospects out there that are more worth your resources.

But what if you lack the courage to say no, or don’t have any other viable options? Or you’ve gotta stay in for political reasons? Or your firm’s owner refuses to back down?

Option 2: Leverage Your Oddness

Here’s an interesting perspective from an HBR article on networking. And we know it’s true from our best experiences in collaborative teams.

Great ideas and great solutions are more likely from teams comprising diverse thinking. When everyone thinks alike, you get very narrow, expected ideas. When team members bring different perspectives, creativity and innovation ensue.

That’s your play.

You leverage your different experience, capabilities, location, size, culture, approach, etc.

Tell ’em that if they want a solution that looks like every other solution in the category, go with a provider that has the same experience in the category that the prospect has. The prospect will get a solution that’s pretty much what they expected. And could’ve been provided by about any firm in the pitch.

You, on the other hand, will have no problem busting category conventions. Swimming outside your lane. Coloring outside the lines. Going beyond the guardrails.

As the underdog, if you’re gonna pitch, you might as well be the biggest, most different underdog they’ve ever seen. Provocative. Maybe a little scary. The badass alternative.

I’m not saying this takes you from underdog to overdog. But it could be your best and only play.

Photo by Zach Lucero on Unsplash



When invited into a high stakes, gotta win it pitch, give us a call. WCG has 25 years of experience coaching teams to wins in major pitches from advertising to audit to management consulting to pharma to the Olympics.

We’ll give you an honest assessment of your chances to win. We’ll work with you on what you’ll need to do to overcome your underdog status or fully leverage your strengths.

Then we’ll work with the team to create a persuasive, concise, evocative and memorable pitch. The team will be outstanding performers in every prospect interaction, especially in finals. You’ll rely less on raw tonnage of information, technical specs, budget, visuals and data. More on storytelling, engagement, connection, and persuasion.

It’s a great recipe for winning.

Photo credit Jacob Lund, iStock

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