NABS Fast Forward 2017 Week 1: Karen Blackett OBE on Pitching - NABS
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NABS Fast Forward 2017 Week 1: Karen Blackett OBE on Pitching

Word by Jo Arden, Chief Strategy Officer, MullenLowe London and NABS Fast Forward 2017 Judge

Karen Blackett presenting

It’s another beautiful late-summer night, and we are at News UK headquarters. It seems impossible that another year has passed since the bitter-sweet celebrations of NABS Fast Forward 2016. But it has, and we are back. This is my fifth first night and it only gets more exciting.

Mark Creighton is energised and as inspirational as ever as he starts his third and final year as chair. Diana Tickell is the brilliant ambassador for NABS and the nurturer of new talent she is known to be. Mentors and delegates alike are meeting friends, old and new and everyone is literally and figuratively leaning in to hear from our first night speaker, the tremendous Karen Blackett, NABS president.

Inarguably the expert on the topic of pitching, Blackett is here to talk about the practice and principles of winning business. Over the next 45 minutes she shares 25 clearly articulated thoughts on everything from being organised at the outset, to having a post-pitch contact strategy. There’s not a duff note among them – delegates and mentors alike are scribbling furiously.

But there is something much more meta running through what Blackett says, and it strikes me that this might be the root of her brilliance. What Blackett talks about ultimately comes back to trust.

A number of the 25 tips are based on a beautiful equation which she credits to the book The Trusted Advisor by Maister, Galford and Green.

Trust equation

The book is 16-years-old but could not be more relevant, or more important today. The equation, above, proposes what the contributing factors to trust are and her unpacking of them gives us all pause for thought.

On credibility, Blackett talks about the importance of being true to ourselves in the work we choose to do and the clients we choose to work with. Only by being honest with ourselves about what we stand for, and what we can do well, can we hope to inspire trust in our clients and have fulfilling work lives.

On reliability she talks about the importance of doing what you say you will do before you go further (and she has a great anecdote about nailing a pitch by developing brilliant work for the three brands in the client brief and then taking the liberty of doing the same for one which was out of scope – I know what brief I’m writing tomorrow!)

On empathy she talks about really understanding what is driving your would-be clients. Central to this is not stopping at questioning the brief – but questioning the client herself, asking what their motives are on a more human level; something easy to forget as we race to tackle the surface issues by taking everything as read.

Self-orientation is interesting and the older-hands in the room visibly cringe as Blackett talks about the dangers of talking about yourself, not about your client. Framing this as a factor that can undermine the otherwise good work you have done, brings it sharply into focus.

But it’s not just the overt discussion of trust that strikes me. It is that is seems to me to be the red thread that runs through her narrative. Blackett has some excellent tips about picking the right people for a pitch team and allocating very specific roles (the hero, the lead, the co-ordinator, the doctor, the naïve reader). But in talking about those roles she also reinforces that only by having trust in each other to do those roles well, and with respect for the people we are pitching with (and to) can we hope to win.

Even the surprisingly positive appearance of Donald Trump in her talk centres on the reason that so many people inexplicably voted for him and why they still have faith in his leadership. He has congruence, she explains: his body language, actions and his words are in harmony with each other and, on a deeply human level, which gives people reassurance that he means what he says. So if you like what he says, you trust him to deliver on it. Terrifying, but true.

Creighton and Blackett are clearly very fond of each other; the respect is tangible. In his thanks and closing he’s talking about Blaclett’s particular strength in nurturing talent. There was a time he says when she pushed him to do more, to be more and to have faith in what he could be. She did it by challenging him to be restless and push his own potential – she suggested he trust in his own abilities.

There’s an important lesson here not only for our delegates, but for everyone. That trust in yourself, your team and what you can collectively achieve is the foundation of doing good work – maybe even pitch-winning work. And with seven weeks until pitch night, that is what everyone in the room has in their sights.

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