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Guerrilla Guide: Pitching to a board


Guerrilla Guide: Pitching to a board


I’m at The Hyatt, all glitz and glamour and ordinary food. It’s a lunch organised by the Australian Institute of Company Directors and there are some 400 of them crammed in. The subject is ‘Marketing and the Role of the Board’ and Sir Rod Carnegie is speaking. He’s about 80, has three or four degrees, has worked all over the world and been on stacks of boards. He’s raving about a book on marketing that some old mate of his wrote. Questions are allowed from the floor.

A bloke who’s very high up in a certain marketing industry association waddles to his feet and asks Sir Rod what sort of education board members should undertake to get a better grip on marketing? Sir Rod says, and I quote word for word, “A two- or three-week course ought to give you what you need”. This is from an ‘expert’ promoting marketing.

This neatly puts the marketing function at the same level of importance to a board as a sailing trip around the Whitsundays or a short course on modern art. If I’m not mistaken, in reality marketing is as important to a board as breathing. There are no companies in the country who don’t depend on effective marketing for their very survival. No marketing, no sales, no money, no board.

But they don’t see it that way. They see it as one more (granted, usually entertaining) function on the way between the morning coffee and lunch at the club. Why is this? Boards in Australia are invariably stacked with eight accountants, one lawyer and one engineer, who probably founded the company. They are invariably over 50, most over 60. They are mostly white, middle class men. There is one woman on every five or six of them – you have to get lucky. There is a ‘professional’ marketer on fewer than one in 20. And I’m not saying he’s (sorry, but there are so few women, adding the ‘s’ is a waste of ink) a member of AMI or ASMI or ASMRS or even ADMA; he’s probably done a couple of weeks as a salesman while studying law, but he’s the only one in the gang who’s done any selling at all, so is considered the marketing expert.

Boards don’t care if you think this is silly or unfair; that it does not reflect the core dependence companies have on our profession. They are in the power position and you are not. Bad luck for you.

But here you are, month after month, needing to get the board’s approval for anything you want to do to further the company’s interests. Fail, and you end up doing sweet F all. Succeed in getting the budgets and you become a hero in marketing land and go on to have a shining career. It all comes down to your ability to convince a bunch of middle-aged men to allow you to do what you want.

Hold that negative thought – boards are not made up of stupid people. The main thrust of this article is about dealing with senior boards – men in the main who take home between a few hundred thousand to many millions a year, for only a few days of work a month, controlling the most complex machines in this country. They have fought their way up corporate ladders, or built their own ships, and now run everybody’s lives. You must get boards to want to work with – and for – you, or you will fail in your job and no doubt your entire career.

So how do you sell ideas to a board?

Remember, you’re selling to your father.

He’s an old accountant and often a grumpy one. He needs marketing to work, but doesn’t think much of it and basically thinks about money all day long. That’s why he’s an accountant in the first place.

He’s certainly not thinking much about things like dramatically building markets, changing the way people do things, inspiring workforces or ethics. On the positive side, the board (your dad) actually wants you to succeed, will give you the money if you can convince him it’s a good idea and, because he’s hideously conservative, he will occasionally save you from making a big boo-boo, which you were overexcited about. Will he be able to make that fine judgement call when it’s touch or go? Nup. Most boards have little street smarts and no real experience with sensitive markets. They will go with the tried and true (regardless of how boring it is for the market/customer), rather than the new and more exciting, almost every time.

In fact, the boards that do allow great work, stand out like the proverbial dog’s balls. That we can name only a few decent creative-based campaigns in Australia at any one time is not a reflection of the quality of creative people in this country. We have many great people in creative fields – our international success in movies, music, etc. is testament to that. Australia’s low standard of advertising creative is more about the lack of people who are able to truly convince boards to take a leap of faith. And I guess it’s also because most of the boards in Australia are more conservative than they should be. They are heavily over-supplied with accountants compared to their equivalents overseas. A ‘balanced’ board, with multidisciplined people, representing key groups like, say women, is something insisted upon in the US, the UK, Germany, etc., but not here.

Because they have very little understanding of marketing issues and often no one around at their level who does (except the few who have really relevant people on them), they will often fall for what sounds like a nice idea sold to them by someone who’s slick at selling, but is not a good long-term brand building marketer.

Boards are the ones who buy the tacky promotional idea, pick the ad that seems like a nice change (but usually stuffs up your carefully built brand personality) and cut advertising budgets during a time of downturn (because they can be cut), when history says it’s the worst time to do so. What do they know? They don’t know anything about marketing case studies – they have never studied the disciplines. And they’ll always blame you when it fails and heap praise on some other department when it works.

Why do they not give credit to the marketing department when credit is due? Invariably because they hated the kids studying marketing at uni who were better looking, drove snappier cars, bedded more exciting partners and, worst of all, made fun of the accounting students. They have never forgiven the marketers for choosing a career that was fulfilling and interesting instead of just built on balancing the books. So they spend their later years making marketing decisions arrogantly, without bothering to study the laws of marketing, just because they find they can. Better yet, because it allows them to humiliate marketers.

Your father is sexist

Most of the people reading this rag are in a marketing role, more often than not, a senior one. Years ago this meant most of the readers were men with a degree in marketing, who had done some selling/brand management and were now heading up the department. Nowadays this is not the case. Increasingly the marketing management role is taken by a woman. This works for boards. It reflects the fact that boards don’t believe marketing is a man’s job. They think that ‘PR chicks’ should make the marketing decisions. They often have a much softer spot for a daughter figure than a male, who may try to come across as an equal. They don’t like males who are from different tribes. They despise men who dress differently to them. Drab suit during the week, polo shirt, jeans and riding boots on the weekend, or else. They like younger women who seem nice and pliable like a good daughter. Given exactly the same situation and plan being sold through, a female marketing manager will invariably get the nod over a male because boards don’t find them as threatening.

This is tricky if you’re a bloke. Which is why most male marketing managers dress like accountants to lessen the threat factor – out of a sheer need to survive they end up at least looking like they belong to the same tribe. It also means that if you’re a bloke and you want your ideas to sell it’s often good to take to the meeting a younger female member of your team to keep the board happy that a woman is involved. Note I didn’t say, God forbid, actually making decisions.

Sell to the power brokers

Boards are extremely political. Like a footy team with half-backs, centres and full-forwards, everyone has their place. One accountant will be more engineering-oriented, one more tax-minded. You must work out who’s the most powerful and make sure they are onside. You must also work out the best method of getting to them. You may find you need to convince person C who is always listened to by person A, before actually fronting person A.

Sell to them as individuals

Boards are made up of individuals. If you get a chance to discuss the issues, sell to them one-on-one before the main presentation; you’ll be able to get more of them onside. If you can sell to more than half beforehand, and especially if you can get the main players onside, then you have a hope. Forget the fact that you think it seems political – they revel in it. Forget the idea of ‘impact’ – they hate being taken unawares. Everyone on a board likes to think they have the jump on everyone else.


One of my favourite clients repeats his monthly mantra every time he sees you on the basis that there’s always someone in the room who doesn’t know the game plan. It works a treat to keep everyone focused on the right issues. When you see your board, it’s probably been a month or so since the last time. In that period they’ve had 30 breakfasts, been to 150 meetings, driven around town 75 times. They’ve forgotten most of what you said last time. So run through the messages you gave them last time first. “As you’ll recall” is a good way to start.


Use the term ‘we’, never ‘you’. The board sees a marketing person as you see a Martian. You dress differently, are much younger, you studied things they don’t know about and they know you know more about the subject than they do. You must make them feel they are on your team and you on theirs. To get them onside, you must find ways to make them feel they are part of this whole thing and they have a real say. Get them to ‘build the baby’ with you. Smart marketers get the board to debate marketing issues, giving them the right information and allowing them to make the same conclusions. A good plan, set up the right way, will get through, but it has to come from someone you trust. And that means someone on their team. Be on their team.

Give them the background info

Boards are not stupid. They didn’t get where they are now by being dumb. They got where they are by not making mistakes. So if you give them all the information as appendices behind the summary argument, they will respond to it.

Put it on one page

Sir Winston Churchill (who is as much a hero to boards as Sun Tzu, Dale Carnegie, Henry VIII, John Howard and John Wayne) once said if you can’t get it on one page, it’s not worth saying. So put the main argument on one page. Just back it up with a folder three inches thick.

Use PowerPoint

I hate PowerPoint. I’d rather have my teeth ripped out with rusty pliers than use PowerPoint again; however, as PowerPoint focuses them on issues and makes them read the points, taking the emphasis off you the marketer and onto the issues themselves, PowerPoint works. Just keep the points to only three to four per slide, the presentation short (and I mean 10 slides max) and the pictures/graphs big.


I know it’s boring to talk to yourself in the toilet. And you look mad if you walk down the street talking to the trees, but nowadays when you’re driving everyone thinks you have someone on loud speaker, so you can practise to your heart’s content in your car. Everyone good practises.

Start with money

Most marketers start with the need and idea and by the time they get to the budget issues, the board has invariably decided it’s going to be too expensive. A very wise, very successful marketer once told me to start with the money first, and it works. They get involved with how much you are going to make and how little it will cost, and are often hanging to see how.

Discuss risk

Assessing risk is noting the probabilities of various things going wrong and looking at the possible consequences. Most marketers shy away from raising issues related to risk due to a belief that if they don’t mention one or two aspects, the board won’t think of them either. You are far better off putting things on the table and beating them to the opportunity to say no. If you have given issues the right amount of thought you’ll have a reason why you’re still prepared to go forward. Say the bad thing and then say why it must be discounted and how you’ll get around the risk. This is always where a decent budget can be justified so much easier than in the creative bit.

Handle all the objections

Think up all the possible negative arguments and have a response prepared. Know your stuff, or you look like a fool. People have no confidence in fools. They will never trust them with money. No matter how silly you think an objection is, it is valid if it is raised. That the CEO’s wife doesn’t like the TV program is important in his eyes, regardless of what you think about its relevance.

Get agreement if you can

If possible, ask for a vote of confidence or approval of budget. But know your process – if your board agrees things on the next meeting, don’t try to rock the boat. Your relationship with your board needs to last for years. Better to present the facts and expect them to agree, than to be too pushy.

Stick to times and follow up

Boards have no time. People who respect their time allocations get huge brownie points. Precise meeting notes, as carefully worded emails, work too.

Learn from your experience

You’ll always get a few goes with any board, once you’re where you are. It’s a good idea to map out what worked and what failed for future reference. Make notes – especially work out whom you need to work on and how.


Always summarise the argument at the end.


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