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Finding the Hidden Agenda

This post is part of our Future of Marketing program – a series of private events where top thought-leaders share their ideas and insights on helping you understand how marketing and branding change the conversations about growth, culture and customer experiences.


As a growth officer in my early career with the mad men and women of McCann Erickson, my mom never quite understood what I did for a living until we pitched, won and delivered the phenomenon now globally known as the Priceless campaign for MasterCard. From the moment the very first television commercial appeared, Mom told practically anyone who would listen that I wrote and executed the entire campaign single-handedly, but my role, in fact, was that of the Pitchman.

We make pitches every day, whether it’s for new business, a promotion, or even for a wary team to believe in you. After 30 years of pitching for my supper, here’s what I’ve learned:

 1. You need to understand that behind every decision lies a hidden agenda.

There are no magic tricks or hypnotics to persuade people to do what you say. Rather, behind every decision the average person makes to buy something — whether a product or service, your argument or an idea — is an unspoken emotional motivation. I call this the hidden agenda. Tap this, connect to it — and you will have people saying yes.

2. You need to do your emotional homework to find the hidden agenda.

In order to find the hidden agenda, we need to identify your audience’s wants, needs and/or values. I’ve seen it all too many times in business – pitches are lost because the people make the mistake of thinking that the business matters at hand are the only relevant issue.

The problem you are really solving is based upon the desires of your audience, which often go unspoken. These are fundamental to any business decision. The business issue and the hidden agenda are intertwined.

For the MasterCard pitch, in fact, two parallel hidden agendas were at work — MasterCard’s agenda, and the agenda of MasterCard customers. MasterCard’s hidden agenda was a desire to finally score a victory over Visa, but there was a sense that it would be very difficult to achieve. The MasterCard customer’s hidden agenda: to be good people, buying good things, for good reasons.


A hidden agenda falls into one of three categories:

WANTS – people viewing their circumstances through the lens of fear and confidence. For example, when pitching to a Wall Street titan some years back, we determined the following want: “I want people to recognize me for having created a financial services powerhouse.”

NEEDS – people viewing circumstances through the lens of fear or concern. The need we uncovered at the core of the MasterCard pitch was: We need to score a victory over Visa in the marketplace, and in doing so be famous for it… but we’re not so sure we can.

VALUES – people viewing the world entirely through the lens of their belief systems. The key insight that led to the development of the Priceless campaign was in the value system of our target audience, namely people who believed they were good people buying good things for good reason, and that it was not possible to put a price on things like family and life experiences.

3. You need to connect yourself to the hidden agenda.

While it’s vitally important to focus on your client, it’s equally important to focus on you. You win the pitch when you link what I call your leverageable assets to your audience’s hidden agenda. Your leverageable assets are:

Real Ambition: This is your intention to create something good where nothing existed before.

Your Core Abilities: These are the special abilities you possess at the core of your being that solves your client needs and separates you from others.

Your Credo: These are the values and the belief system to which you subscribe, and/or a shared behavior and code of ethics that you’re working within.

4. You need to argue like a litigator but deliver like a storyteller.

With this foundation, you can then create your argument, gathering all your facts and supporting evidence around the hidden agenda, which should be placed squarely at the center of your “case.” Then, you can create an exciting tale where your audience attains their deepest desire, not via business-speak, but with good old-fashioned storytelling to convincingly convey your pitch.

5. Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse!

A friend of mine who has reviewed literally hundreds of pitches over the years once told me of a little tactic he employed while being on the receiving end of a pitch. He carefully observes the other presenters in the room while the lead presenter holds the floor, and judges whether the team is together, or whether they are, in fact, a group of “individuals.”

Rehearsal is vitally important- it not only engenders confidence in your team about your materials, but over the course of the rehearsal process—and I recommend two separate sessions—your group will be transformed into a cohesive team who can basically finish each other’s sentences. This is what clients hire.

It may seem crazy for an ad man to assert that we really don’t “persuade” anybody to do anything. I believe pitches are won— and people are willing to follow you— not because you’ve twisted someone’s arm or tricked them, but because people see that you truly understand them, that you’ve applied the time and the sensitivity to do so, and you posses a unique quality that will help them reach their real ambition. And that, my friends, is priceless.


Kevin Allen_ Hand Drawn Headshot

Kevin Allen is the founder of Planet Jockey and the author of
The Hidden Agenda“. He blogs and speaks about emotional intelligence, pitching to win, and strategy development.

You can follow him on twitter @KevinAllenEI and LinkedIn.


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