161207-idea-factory-2L – R: Tim Rossell, Nathan Williams and Jon Alchin sit in judgement at the 2016 InvestSense Idea Factory

In the rural NSW town of Nyngan there’s a street that may yet carve out a little place in Australian financial services history. It’s the street on which Alan Sheen’s family lived when he was born.

On Monday night in Sydney, Sheen was awarded top hours at the inaugural InvestSense Idea Factory, the brainchild of InvestSense director Jonathan Ramsay, at which seven fund managers were each invited to deliver a five-minute pitch on their best investment idea for 2017 and beyond.

Sheen is a founding partner of the boutique fund manager probably unfamiliar to most financial planners: Dalton Street Capital. It was a choice of calling the business that, Sheen says, or naming it for the street on which the family of the firm’s other founding director, Nick Selvaratnam, lived when he was born: Elibank Road, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Mind you, Dalton Street intersects Bogan Street in Nyngan, so it could have been worse.

Sheen’s pitch at the Idea Factory focused on the application of mathematics and science to the process of managing other people’s money, and the results the process has produced, and was deemed by an expert panel to be the night’s best “pitch” – a combination of explaining the manager’s point of difference succinctly, coupled with a clear call to action.

Sheen is a former aeronautical engineer who has gone from designing gas-turbine engines to carving out a career in funds management, bringing an engineer’s sensibilities to the process – including a healthy disdain for some aspects of the active funds management process, including what might be described as guesswork and the “cult of the CEO”.

Managers pre-vetted

Each of the managers on the night – Allan Gray, Beanstalk Investment Management, Dalton Street, Macquarie Investment Management, Magellan Financial Group, Monash Investors and Triple3 Partners – had something interesting to offer, either in terms of a process, a philosophy or a product concept, having been pre-vetted by InvestSense.

Even so, this was pitching under pressure, in the full glare of the spotlights on the stage of the Eternity Theatre in Darlinghurst, with an expert panel listening intently and ready to critique the pitch, and an audience likewise ready to pass immediate judgement.

It gave an insight into just how difficult a great pitch can be, with a lot to say and one chance to get it right. For financial planners, it’s often the same scenario. Getting buy-in from a client for an investment strategy might hinge on the first five minutes of a meeting. Explaining how a strategy works, why it’s appropriate and what’s in it for the client is a lot to cover, and a lot can go wrong that means the client zones out or fails to engage.

“A pitch is, in the broad sense, any time that someone can form an impression of you,” says Nathan Williams, the founder and managing director of Customer Return, who was one of the Idea Factory expert judges, along with former Shadforth adviser Tim Rossell and Jon Alchin, a director of advisory firm Now Financial Group.

“Whether that’s through your verbal communication, or body language, or written communication, that’s the broadest definition of a ‘pitch’,” Williams says.

“There are what I call ‘big pitch’ moments and smaller pitch moments. A formal presentation, like tonight, where you’ve got five minutes and an audience and there’s a bit of a criteria, that’s what I call a big pitch. Then there’s smaller moments, where it might be as simple as what I refer to as a social pitch – it might just be that 20-second answer to the question ‘what do you do?’”

A continuum of moments

Williams says there’s a continuum of moments during which other people form impressions of us, but the key criteria for a verbal pitch – such as at the Idea Factory – is that it must be clear, so people understand what you’re talking about; and you must establish credibility early on, so people know what you do and why they should listen to you.

“They’re the key things in the first 20 to 30 seconds,” he says. “Get them in early.”

Williams says the winning pitch on the night brought a personal story into focus and emphasised the contrast between what that company does and what every other company does.

“That works really well in a pitch,” Williams says.

When an adviser is sitting with a client and wants to pitch an investment solution or strategy, Nathan says it is critical to be clear on what that solution is, and what’s in it for the client.

“Be clear what the idea is and make sure you choose those elements of credibility very early on,” he says.

“But then also just be cognisant of how they like to receive information. Some people like a lot of detail, but other people just want the headlines, they just want the bullet points. So think about what you want to communicate, but also that person’s preferred communication style.”

Ultimately, though, a pitch has to offer the client a clear solution or call to action and must resonate.

“Before you pitch anything you have to understand who you’re sitting in front of, what’s most important to them, and what they’re trying to get done,” Williams says.

“And then, where does your offering fit into that? You’re at A, you want to get to B – here’s the things that need to happen, and here’s how we fit into that.

“It’s not about the product; it’s about what the product does for them in that broader scheme. Appeal to their self interest, and put it in that context.”

Something out of the ordinary

Ramsay says each of the managers selected for the Idea Factory was judged by InvestSense to offer something out of the ordinary.

“These products are not representative of what we see around the traps across the whole industry,” Ramsay said.

“There are a lot of products that aren’t offensive, but not necessarily differentiated. If you went back to find out what is the essence of them, it’s just a bit same-old. Whereas all of the products [here], I think, have a degree of authenticity. The question is: how do you get that across?

“We’ve all learned – and I think the managers themselves might have learned something – about how to connect an authentic thing with consumers. That rounded off, for me, [that rather than] pitch as pressurised sales, there’s a much more healthy idea about how do we connect with people in a short space of time.”

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Simon Hoyle is head of market insight for CoreData Research.