The Spotify Pitch
How we used a comic-book and a big idea to meet with one of the world’s most interesting companies.
I have told this story to soo many people over the years, and initially I didn’t understand why people thought it was so interesting. But as time has gone on, I see why the story has appeal. It occurred to me I never documented what happened. So hopefully this inspires you to think differently — and reboot the way you do things.
Before Poe and I started OHNO.ai, we used to run a small product development business called Nazori, where we built mobile apps (mostly android) for clients in 12 countries around the world.
We tried something once that totally changed the way I thought about winning new clients. Once I share it, it will make you re-think cost of acquisition, and just how different pitching can be. You don’t always have to play by the rules. When you start to realise you can make stuff up as you go along, work can be super fun.
It all started in Texas. I remember driving to Austin with my friend David Onkles. We were on our way to SXSW. It was a 3 hour drive, so we talked about how our different companies were going. Dave ran Dotvita at the time, a Dallas based design agency, and we shared our business experiences. We were both in town to close a deal we were pitching on together. We were talking about closure rates (the % of deals you go after, vs the % of deals you win) and I told him we were tracking at about 70%.
He said to me, “Do you think that’s because you’re too cheap?”
It stuck a cord with me. Every job I ever had, especially in sales, closure rates would be around 30%. But with Nazori towards year 6, we were winning more deals than we could metabolise. We had clients get really mad with us constantly because we were overcommitted, and couldn’t take on new work. I’m not saying that to gloat, it was a real pain point, but one of our core values was Stay Small, and I’m glad we had the courage and conviction to stick to our guns.
Why we think we won deals?
At the time, I had thought perhaps it was true — maybe we were too cheap. We were over-delivering on customer service, our quality was good, and I would pitch the hell out of each deal once we decided to do it. When I reflect on it, I suspect the reason we won deals came down to mostly the following attributes, and really — these are just guesses.
I followed the Miller Heiman sales methodology diligently. Shout out to my friend Kevin Van Gills for speeding up my learning too. My management professor at NYU put me onto this framework (It’s a set of books, really) and it was the best thing I ever did at Nazori in terms of powering up the sales function.
Actively working deals
I just worked deals, and put the hours in. I found most of our competition were creative types who didn’t do basic things like manage a sales pipeline, or even just set expectations on turn-around times for proposals, that kind of thing. I’ve always believed 80% of good business is doing the most basic stuff, rocking up on time — doing what you say you’ll do.
Once, Nazori competed against a friend of mines company in Perth. We ended up winning the deal, then very late in the piece, walking away from it. But when I sat down with my friend and showed him how we won the deal, he was amazed at just how much thought we put into every part of the sales process. Nothing we did was secret. We just took a lot of the things we learned from staff at IDEO and applied it to the way we did everything.
Our pitch material was pretty good, and I took a lot of inspiration from great storytellers I knew. I saw correlations between those who told good stories with pictures, so we incorporated more visual elements than most companies did.
When I saw most presentations from the competition, they looked liked they did in the 90s. Lots of word files. Very white. Very long. Lots of words — and I hadn’t met a single person who would read those documents thoughtfully.
I decided to instead design our proposals like architects did. Whenever I saw an architect pitch their work, I thought, wow! These guys really know how to sell a vision. Let’s be more like that. I also noticed that clients would only read 2 pages. The executive summary, and the pages with the cost. If they had time, they might skim the rest. So we put lots of focus around those two pages, that’s what we optimised for, if we could make those two pages powerful then our key messages would land. The first page, the summary, was designed to be one page that could be torn out, given to anyone, and it explained the project from soup to nuts.
I also made sure to get actionable feedback after every pitch, and we’d iterate the proposals accordingly. We’d ask what they ignored, what they found good, and what they thought was the highlight. We essentially applied IDEO’s design thinking philosophy to our quoting and presentations. We’d watch people browse the proposals and observe which pages they skipped over, which ones they seemed to be absorbed by, and took that on as intel to make the proposals better. Myself and Sher-Rill (our designer at the time) spent heaps of time on this. All of this design work is hers really.
Qualify out aggressively.
I qualified lots of deals out, and having that luxury was a sign things were going well. There were times where deals were hard to come by, but it would usually only last for a few weeks, then some monster would come along and everything would be fine again. We were incredibly lucky given some competitors of ours ended up going into administration.
Know what the customer looks like
We had a really clear picture of who our ideal customer was — crystal fu*#ing clear. We had a scoring mechanism we used when we spoke to clients that helped us decide which accounts to say no to. Clients had to score above a certain point for us to pursue it. It was a simple method I learned from the Miller Heiman sales training and it goes something like this.
Write down all the best jobs you ever did — and define best as
- The most money (profit, really)
- The staff loved working on it
- The client loved the work.
Then, you simply write up all the clients that fit those attributes in a big list.
Then, you do the opposite, you write down the worst deals. The ones that go south, the clients hate you, the staff cringe at the very mention of the project. We’ve all been there — no judgement.
Then you try and identify characteristics that are common in both groups. How big were they? Are they from a particular industry? What about how they discovered you? What we found was with the jobs that worked really well the following things were true.
- The clients listened well in meetings. (this turned out to be the biggest factor)
- They were usually under 200 staff.
- We could speak to the owners of the business. (only somewhat important)
- They understood that a discovery phase at the beginning of the project was normal. This was a tricky one. In all our projects, we had to do a bunch of research and investigation work, mostly to work out a cost. Some clients just wanted a price without providing much detail, but it’s a bit like asking how much does a ‘house’ cost. The answer is most often — it depends. What kind of tap-ware do you want? The details matter a lot.
- They were fine that we charged by the hour, not as a fixed cost.
- They were not publicly listed.
- There was no tenders. (this was usually the biggest red flag)
- There were no non-disclosure agreements.
There appeared to be a huge correlation to customers who used tenders, and non-disclosure agreements, and projects that didn’t go well. I’m not sure why this was the case (I have some suspicions) but for whatever the reason, when those came up, we tried to avoid those projects as best we could. This took us a lot of time to learn.
There were other things, but those were the main things I can remember.
Having this scoring system meant we had a very quick way of identifying if client projects might pan out for everyone. So if a client called, didn’t listen, came from a public company, and said there would be a tender, even though the deal might sound really lucrative, and we seemed well positioned to win it, we would just say no, then and there, on the phone, and all I wasted was 20 minutes. This gave me more time to focus on the deals we really wanted to win, and allowed us to invest much more time than our competition did, which made us better positioned to win.
Why we changed it up when it was working
But then we decided, at the height of it all, to totally change it up.
We had one small office in Perth which we shared with JWT, one of the largest and most successful ad agencies in the world. They were nice enough to let us use some of their space, and some of their approaches rubbed off on us. It was easy to see how creative departments work, and how much effort was going into doing good creative work. You watch this often enough and you start to think — why aren’t we doing things like that?
Before we opened that office location, we already had a relationship with the advertising world that inspired us to make some changes.
Larger advertising agencies (not JWT actually) approached us to do work frequently, and for those that don’t know, this is a large norm in the industry, especially with highly specialised digital work. The ad agencies will tell clients they are working with partners but really they win the deal, and shop around the work to those who have teams ready to go, which is mostly smaller digital agencies.
The work would be subcontracted to us, and we would do 100% of the technical work. In these instances, the ad agencies take on a more ‘managerial role’. This kind of outsourcing to smaller agencies tends to overcomplicate things, and is mostly a way to offload risk and staffing costs. When it gets complicated and messy is who is doing the work, and the terms of that engagement, are often not transparent to the end customer. The more people try to hide details from the actual customer — the worse it seems to get.
This isn’t true in all cases obviously, but it’s mostly true (or was), from what we saw.
When you do these kind of gigs, one thing thats impossible to ignore is the revenue share discrepancy between the sub-contractors and the larger ad agencies. This is the big carrot that always inspires smaller agencies to try and become big ones. We might do a deal for $50k, which the ad agency would then on-sell for $200k — $300k. Most of the agencies work (one ridiculously assumes) was just asking us for updates, and passing it onto the client.
Jefferson Harcourt, the CEO of Grey Innovation once told me a story that stuck with me. He was making medical equipment for large electronics companies who would provide capital and distribution, and then Grey Innovation would build the equipment, because they knew how. They were like us, but in the medical devices spate.
But what he found was that some of the larger companies didn’t really understand how to make great products, and got too involved in things they didn’t know much about — but Grey Innovation did, they were great at building stuff, they just lacked the capital. So Jefferson said one day he just woke up and said,
“I think I can get better at raising capital faster than they can get better at learning how to build good products.”
So it got me thinking, what if we could just learn what ad agencies did, and how they win such massive deals? We could see them getting enormous clients, then just farm the work out. Now I know there is more to what a big agency does, and what they can offer, but from our naive perspective at the time, it seemed like something worth thinking about.
I had noticed the way JWT would pitch on deals, and I thought — what if we could just try it?
The creative teams at the bigger agencies would come up with these really clever, inventive ideas — concepts to get their foot in the door, which would showcase capability, creativity, and demonstrate they understood their potential customers.
So we tried it.
How it worked
We had just defined a company mission at Nazori, which we’d decided was
“To work with the world’s most interesting companies”.
We didn’t care how big deals were, or what made a company interesting to us. We just wanted to work on fun projects with brands we really admired. So we went up to the blackboard in the Melbourne office and wrote up all the companies we found interesting.
- Dropbox etc.
We then shortlisted a few and just said, “let’s come up with an idea, and just show it to them.”
Now - yes, some people pointed out the obvious, “Well if you just give them the idea, what if they just steal it and run away with it.” In our experience this never happens. This is why we always found it frustrating when clients would bring us incredibly unworkable, complex non-disclosure agreements — it seemed to indicate that those who drafted them didn’t fully understand how things worked. Companies are not sitting around with teams of people, to steal ideas that land in their laps. People have shit to do. Ideas alone are not worth much. If you don’t believe me just try and sell one.
So we decided to start with Spotify. Keep in mind, no-one at Spotify knew who we were. We had no connections there. This was a total shot in the dark.
We wanted to come up with an idea that was really impressive, that was really different and fun to work on, but technically, was kind of easy to accomplish. We also needed it to be fancy enough that we could charge enough for, to insulate us from doing something we’d never done. We knew doing something this weird, and this big, would be hard, and we’d make mistakes. So we needed financial protection from those mistakes. So the idea had to be big enough that we could charge enough for it and not go broke. Breaking even would be fine. But we didn’t want it to kill us.
As we started down this journey, I would say our average pitch sizes were going from $150k, to over $700k. And we started to win those bigger deals which told us we were onto something with this new approach.
So we took an existing piece of technology that we knew how to build. We had been working with android apps for soo long, we’d worked out how to display a single image, over hundreds of mobile phones and tablets. We had wanted to do something fun with this technology for a while, but hadn’t found a reason to use it.
So we spent some time thinking a lot about Spotify and what some of their challenges were, and then thought how can we leverage this technology we have to solve that challenge. Disclaimer. This is obviously not the best approach when designing anything. You don’t get a piece of fancy tech, and then find a use for it. You usually start with a problem, and work in reverse. But at the time, it made sense.
One problem we could see was that Spotify premium was being promoted a lot. We looked through a lot of their online documentation, their pitches, their ads, and knew this was probably important to focus on. We had a premium Spotify account in the office, and started talking about the value of it.
It was great, but you really needed to just experience Spotify Premium to see the value of it.
We decided to build an interactive game. Like a game show.
In a nutshell
Our concept was users would walk up to the machine (we called it the Premification machine), they would enter in their Spotify username, then we would display a section of an album cover on the distributed displays, and users would have 30 seconds to find it on the screen in front of them. If they got it right, we’d upgrade their accounts to premium, using the Spotify API. The plan was to rig up speakers and make it fun. But we hadn’t worked out all the details yet.
We wanted to build something big, something physical, that we could move around. The way we started to visualise it was to impose sketches onto public spaces.
Could we even build it?
We weren’t sure at first. But we decided the technology would take us 2 weeks to build. We had spent 7 years building things we’d never done, back to back, over and over. We’d done all kinds of weird applications, so doing something new wasn’t that terrifying. But this was different. We already knew how to build the technology, so the rest was just details. The big question was what could we store it in, and could we do that?
We decided we could just buy a sea container, paint it in Spotify green, and then mount all the tablets and screens in the side of it in a false wooden wall. What made us think we could pull something like this off was one of our clients was a company that designed museum and zoo exhibits, and we interacted with them quite a bit. I had seen how they’d done this kind of work, how they hired construction contractors and I was confident (or full of enough hubris) to think we could make it work.
It was going to look something like this.
We figured we could get a large green rug made. No idea how (again…details). But at this point, we were just running on enthusiasm.
The good thing about mounting all the gear in a sea container is we could have it moved really easily on a truck. We wouldn’t have to construct anything on-site. This meant we could build everything off-site, and transport it around. Spotify could move it to different locations easy enough.
So how would we pitch it?
So we had this idea — now the question became how could we get in front of Spotify to show it to them?
At the time, Sher-Rill had some spare time between projects, and her interest in illustration was prevalent in everything we did. So we decided to make a comic book. A digital comic book about the idea, how we’d build it, and why Spotify should work with us.
We started with a rough storyline about how the comic would look.
Sher-Rill spent a few weeks just sketching out the idea in more detail and refining down the story.
Then she started polishing up the work.
The story was starting to look good. But we had to think of a way to get the pitch into the office. We didn’t really know anyone there, but I had a friend (Mel) from high-school who knew the marketing director, Serena. I asked Mel for an introduction, and told her that we had something to show them.
I couldn’t get Serena on the phone, but she would respond to my email. I kept it pretty short. I simply said we had something to send her, an idea we had, and asked for the mailing address because it was a physical item.
She gave it to me.
Kevin, our android guy from Perth, put together an Android app that actually played the comic strip automatically when you turned on the tablet. As Sher-Rill would draw the illustrations out, Kev worked on building the app. To run the app manually, there was a widget on the home screen. When you pressed it, the comic would play.
If you have never seen an android widget before, it’s the big weird thing that don’t quite look like an app icon. Sher-Rill made a huge widget icon that made it irresistible to press.
So we loaded the illustrations into the app Kev made, and removed every app except this one big widget.
It took 2 weeks to do this whole process end to end — but only 2 weeks. And most of the time was downtime Sher-Rill had and my time calling up suppliers finding out where the risks might be.
“So…how much exactly is a sea container?”
When we were done, we charged up one of the tablets in the office, loaded on the app, and sent it up to Spotify with a bunch of T-Shirts, with a sticky note on the tablet that said “press play”.
The team in Spotify got the tablet, watched the comic book play out and said it was one of the most amazing things they’d ever seen. They invited us up to Sydney to the Spotify office (Which is lovely if you’re wondering) and we spent a few hours talking about all kinds of projects we could get involved in.
When we thought about it later, we should have set the app to record how many times it was run, and send us back the data so we could tell how many times they were showing it to others. This would have given us more context to how interesting they really thought it was.
It turns out Spotify had tried to do something along these lines at SXSW that year. They’d built interactive touch screen devices and so the concept wasn’t super strange to them.
I don’t actually know why they liked the concept, (or if they were just humouring us) but I do believe that in order to sell an idea, you need to tell stories. People get caught up in features when talking about capability, but we are all longing for a great story. We love them. I think by drawing out the process in a comic book form, people understood what we were trying to get at, and it was fun. It was a surprise. And who doesn’t like surprises?
I still look at this project with such fondness and occasionally will bring it up on my phone to explain how it all came to be.
The lesson I took away from the whole experience was this. Sometimes we limit ourselves. We tell ourselves we are in box A. And Box B is for smarter people. But when you think laterally, you can actually come up with totally new ways of doing things. Sometimes it’s worth punching above your weight.
Leonardo De Vinci is known for being one of the greatest painters of our time, but what some people are not aware of is that he saw himself primarily as an engineer. While he was painting some of the worlds greatest artworks, he was pitching ideas to bankers and royalty in Milan and Florence with such frequency, you could argue he was on a quest to brand himself as the worlds greatest engineer. As he aged, he loathed the paintbrush, but always spent time renovating houses and concocting elaborate machines that would help with the construction of fortifications. It was an appetite that never seemed satisfied.
As time wore on, he convinced enough people of his engineering chops that it became true. But most of his real engineering experience was in the theatre. He would design elaborate stage settings for festivals, but when talking to those in power, he was very confidently, a master of war, capable of designing weapons the world had never seen.
There is a term for this behaviour in biology — crossing the adaptive valley. In order to get ahead, you need to cross some kind of capability gap, and it’s really difficult when you don’t have any experience. But if you do, you emerge on the other side with new skills that lead you to the promised land.
I like to think the world is open to those who try. Sometimes it’s good to take a risk. You never know where it could take you. Besides, if you’ve never really tested yourself, how will you ever know what you are truly capable of?
It is near impossible to justify this kind of effort to win new clients. But this is because you are thinking of the activity as a sales activity or CAC (Cost to acquire a customer). But once you look at activities like this as part sales, and part marketing, you’re incentivised to do amazing, incredible things that people talk about. I have probably won more deals telling the Spotify pitch story than actually from any work we would have got from Spotify.
We only did this kind of thing for companies we really wanted to work with.
Not all ad agencies outsource things to sub contractors.
Sometimes ad agencies would add a lot more value than I probably allude to.
JWT was a great ad agency. We learned so much by watching their staff, I highly recommend if you are looking for a big agency, you talk to them. They are such great people. They had a big impact on the way we thought about things.
Spotify is great. A big thank you to Serena for meeting with us all those years ago. You inspired me to swing above my weight when approaching clients.
I now run OHNO.ai with my genius brother in law, Poe-Wie Chen. If you have questions or comments about this story, email me and I’ll do my best to respond.