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VAR: Vitally Awesome Rhetoric

Russel Wardrop
issue 168

What’s not to like about the World Cup? Awesome skill levels, great games, fantastic goals and all the drama you could wish for. Much of the drama is provided by the Virtual Assistant Referee (VAR), a system that takes the controversy out of major decisions. A game-changer for the beautiful game. Contributor Russell Wardrop – Kissing With Confidence

I have been preparing teams for pitches using video for 20 years, so it is great to see football catching up. The technology has changed but its usefulness remains the same. VAR has the power to change the course of a game of football and I have borrowed it to go back in time to have a look at a few big pitches from the past, where Vitally Awesome Rhetoric won the day and brought great rewards for clients in the white heat of the beauty parade.

Analysis Paralysis
The pitch team had been in a conference room for two days. Walls were covered in paper, tables piled with documents. No one had a clue how to move from a million pieces of paper to a compelling pitch, a bad case of analysis paralysis. We needed to break down the defensive wall.

VAR replays show the moment everything changed. I chose one visually compelling diagram, Paul Pogba’s Cup Final hairdo. I flip-charted everyone’s ten second take on it and we were off and running. These were the thoughts we used to create the two-hour pitch that would win a £250 million contract.

VAR Moment: Analysis is key to winning pitches but finding the five compelling reasons the client will pick you is more important.

Nose Picking is for Losers
Working with the creative industries on pitches is never the easiest assignment. They swear by visuals, creative ideas and love the latest fad. As an architect I can get that but what I don’t get is the arrogance that comes with thinking you are the most creative talent in the room.

The pitch team was at dress rehearsal and the MD was doing her stuff, but behind her the body language, the general demeanour were shocking. The account manager picked his nose while sprawled across two chairs.

It is amazing how often I need to remind pitch team participants that they are on patrol for the whole pitch and they must look like they are up for it. The question I asked this motley crew was, “would you give you the job?”

VAR Moment: Clients indulge in easy thinking rather than deep analysis more than you imagine. Looking the part and being “present” at all times sit on the surface but let’s not debate whether they matter: they do.

The Creative Imagination
The team’s first slide was a series of mug shots, rictus grins on decade-old photographs. My colleague Michael put the slide up and said if anyone could come up with valid reason why that slide could help them win he would run around reception naked. Fortunately, he never had to disrobe, because there was and is no good reason to show the team as your opening slide (or any slide). They’re CVs are in the written submission and they also in the room.

The creative imagination is an important feature throughout pitches, much as your talented number ten, but especially at the beginning and the end. Finding the magical first minute that compels a bored panel to look up from their phones should occupy a disproportionate amount of your time. The director of a long-standing client plays email tennis with me the day and night before his biggest pitches, looking to find the words that will get his team over the line.

VAR Moment: Making the emotional connection through creativity has nothing to do with how technically savvy your pitch is, or how it fits the brief. It should be both. What finding the right story does is have the panel talking about your pitch at 3pm on a hot afternoon.

What’s My Line?
Brainstorming had been done and there were enough zoomy ideas kicking about to fill an hour. There was also a sense this had to be a big, bold and brave pitch narrative. It was time to find some key strategic messages that would eventually morph into a structured message that individuals would go off and work on.

Then, with £90 million at stake, much of the big talk and bravery evaporated. Defensiveness, pragmatism and fear took hold and themes turned as dull as a third-place playoff played out at 35 degrees by two teams who would rather be home.

The VAR would show this team losing any chance of victory by bottling their big chance, so I put a line on the wall and asked everyone how certain they were of success by thinking of a number. They were nine out of ten. Decision made, the entire line of the pitch then set them at odds with the prevailing opinion of the client and the competitors. Job done, pitch won.

VAR Moment: picking the line you take in the pitch is part analysis, part gut feel. But you need to know it and everyone must buy into it. By the time you have moved from Brainstorming to construction you must have agreed the line. Then every word you utter must move the prospect towards your conclusion.

Pitching the Shocker
Sixteen senior people round the rosewood table. A flipchart brought in as the projector kept its dull rhythm. Michael and I were sitting ducks out front. We knew we were making up the numbers, we knew safe was not going to cut it. Everyone was bored already and no one was really in the room. VAR told me it was time to dramatically change the pitch right at the beginning.

I quickly drew my Neechaman monster – a legend in terror – on the flipchart and threw a new copy of The Penguin Book Of 20thCentury Speeches down the table. It teems with shocking rhetoric.

Right there, in the opening two minutes, was where we won the pitch. Slo-mo replays showed startled, smiling, then approving looks on the faces of the sternest critics.

VAR Moment: cutting through the rubbish is always needed in a pitch and doing so in a shocking or dramatic manner can be the most effective way to go.

The nil-nil draw is the boring, that is to say, Powerpoint-led pitch that does not cut through at 3pm on a Friday afternoon when the prospect has heard it all before. Beauty parade pitching is similar to winning the World Cup in that you can do all your prep and bring your best game yet still lose. Or you can be poor on the day and win. What a glorious journey it is, so the last piece of advice is enjoy it. You don’t want to VAR replay showing you looking miserable, do you?


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