In pitches to analysts, there are many conversations going on. At one level, there’s a communication about the business solution. There’s also a conversation about the wider market and about the personal credibility of the participants. Sometimes the slides used in pitches are just excuses for the interaction. The slides are used to assess both the market vision of the firm and the adaptability if the executives to adjust to the market and conversation. The solution pitch is used to assess the ability of executives to adapt.
In the body of theory used by business sociologists, we talk about inscription devices. Pitch slides provide, in the same way as analyst research, both a vision to be signed up to and also an entry ticket into a conversation. In our 2014 survey, we saw that pitch decks (which play similar roles to business plans in entrepreneurial pitches to investors, in explaining the business) were important. We expected people to respond to our survey by stressing the vision in the pitch decks. As the chart above shows, many analysts found that a valuable part of pitches was the broader discussion about market categories and trends. However, we were surprised to see how important presentational elements, such personal credibility and value, mattered. So, looking at the non-PowerPoint content of a pitch to analysts allows us to see other, perhaps intrinsic, qualities of valuable professionals who interact in pitches to analysts. In the pitch to analysts, of course, analysts are not prospective customers looking to buy the solution.
Both the analysts and the vendors produce artefacts that outline the vision of the market, and what it means for them, that they want the ecosystem to perform. Analysts’ research is as much a pitch as the patter of a street-trader. Market traders are providing both goods to customers, and valuable social interactions that give knowledge, entertainment, connections, status and potential access to other resources. The intrinsic object is often not the main value. When an analyst is being pitched to they are not getting a valuable product; they are exchanging information that allows both sides to produce more successfully performative visions of the future. It’s not only the knowledge of the market that is exchanged. There is a lot of name-dropping, status-building, praise and similar methods that aim to build personal rapport.
I’ve seen this first hand watching firms of different size in the same market who are pitching to the same analyst for the same study. Larger firms get an easy ride in some ways: the functionality and suitability of their solutions are less likely to be challenged. It’s easy to see why if you see how that would work in a consumer market. Certainly, analysts have to value the product or service delivery of a firm. But the range of artefacts like the Magic Quadrant shows that there’s multiple things being evaluated at any one time. Not only the intrinsic quality of the solution’s execution but also the ability of the firm to use organising visions of the future to create, explain, adapt and convince. Both the concrete and the socially-formed are the multiple levels of the valuation process. Their interplay continually reforms the different criteria being valued in pitched to analysts. Furthermore, while analysts are valuing providers through their pitches it’s also the case that the providers are also valuing the analysts.
When vendors come to pitch, there are three levels therefore.
- About the products
- About markets and how the definition of market categories are defined and how they evolve
- The value of the actors.
So, different things are being valued at the same time. A managerial focus will always encourage vendors to place too much emphasis on the solution, and less on the struggle to change valuation criteria. However, it’s often ignored that people are being valued, and organisations are being valued by analysts though their selection of people. We saw this in our 2014 study. When analysts are sent both slides and biographies in advance, then often it’s the biographies that are being examined most closely. Analysts know about the tangible aspects of their markets; they need to know about the future and to be able to evaluate the credibility of the people they are being pitched to by.
These aspects of personal credibility have to be contextualised. The work of assessing products and markets is real and important in, and after, pitches. But that’s clearly not the only thing going on. By shining a light on the impressions that people leave on each other, and how they are valued we don’t want to suggest that analysts are being led only by flim-flam. But it is useful to explore what is not explained by traditional narratives of pitches, which focus only on the solutions that are under discussion. My academic colleague Christian Hampel and I explored this, aiming to show that there is another conversation at work. We used the work of Erwin Goffman to try to understand the role of presentation. His approach is valuable, even if there are many criticisms of it and attempts ti build on his approach. Goffman’s work didn’t focus on very similar interactions. Much of his work, for example, was done in hotel restaurants and cafes. Unlike a waiter and a customer meeting in a cafe, both sides in a pitch to analysts bring a menu and both are trying to prove themselves through a discussion about the non-immediate future. If IBM promises a smart city, that’s not like promising a burger with fries. Analysts assume more power in a pitch than either waiters or customers in cafes. Coaching can flow both ways, even unsolicited, as vendors try to increase the favourability of analysts and to increase the influence of favourable analysts.
Goffman’s approach focusses on interactions that are physically co-located, and so a future concern for us could to understand the different impact if any of online interactions. So many pitches to analysts now happen online. Trevor Pinch, who has made a seminar study of pitches by street traders, was written a lot about the invisible technologies within the Goffman approach. John Law’s work as also helped us to better understand pitches. Ruth Rettie’s thoughts about online impression management have given us a lot of ideas, especially about the back-stage and on-stage elements of the drama being mobilised by these experts who gather in pitch meetings. When these solution providers are ‘on stage’ there are comparisons with dramaturgy that can give us some powerful, often analogous, insights.