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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Adventures In Advertising: How To Blow A New Business Pitch Before It Starts




Every advertising person has stories about how their agencies have blown new business pitches, often because someone said or did something stupid.  There is a classic story about an agency which pitched a car account but not one person showed up at the client’s office driving the client’s brand.  There is another story of an agency pitching a watch account, but the president showed up wearing a Rolex.  

(I would love to collect your stories if you can top the one that follows.  I know a lot of them are funny in the telling.)  

When new business prospects come to visit a prospective agency, they can always sense and feel whether there is good chemistry among the agency participants.  In many cases, even agency principals who do not like each other, are able to hide their antipathy towards each other.  

Not this one.

A mid-size shop that had a history of good work was pitching a food manufacturer which had allowed its agencies to do excellent creative.  The account is one that would have been perfect for this particular agency.  The agency had been trying to get this client in for a very long time. They finally got the client to come in to the agency.  The first meeting was a credentials presentation and was attended by seven people – two from the client, the agency president, the agency chairman (a co-creative director), the vice chairman (also a CD), the head of account management and the head of strategy.  The agency had rehearsed the pitch well.

The meeting was intentionally informal with everyone casually sitting around a conference room table; the entire meeting, including the seating, had been carefully orchestrated.  But, as things happen, early in the meeting, the client asked a particular question, the answer to which had not been rehearsed.  The president responded with a statement that had nothing to do with what had been rehearsed or what the agency wanted the client to know.  It was way off script.  To make matters worse, he talked and talked. The more he talked, the more the agency participants were shocked because this particular response actually killed the entire agency positioning and the remainder of the presentation.  No one knew what to say. And the president droned on and on. 

There was no recovering from this particular gaff.  In one way or another, everyone from the agency tried to get the president to shut up: one person subtly tugged on his pants to get him to stop, another made the cut sign, crossing his index finger across his throat. The president kept going.  Finally, the chairman had a solution.  The chairman was so flustered and angry that he picked up a pen and literally heaved it at the president, calling him an ass-hole, right in front of the client.  He, like everyone else in the room, knew that the pitch was dead. But it did shut up the president.

The two clients looked at each other and nodded.  With that, they got up and walked out.  The senior client made a great comment: “We appreciate an agency that can argue and disagree with each other.  But we cannot and will not work with people who obviously hate each other.”

End of story.  The entire meeting lasted only about ten minutes.

18 comments:

  1. Funny how agencies don't grok just how sensitive clients generally are to pitch team dynamics. Then again, I'm constantly amazed by that so many agencies insensitive basic sales skills like smart listening, conversational agility, and, remembering the real goal isn't to show off your smarts—it's to have the client conclude they will be brilliant for having hired you. As to your invitation, I have to say that Burnett's "Who shot the moose?" tale of woe—apocryphal or not—may be the best, "dead on arrival" story I've heard.

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    1. Jef,thanks for the comment. I don't know the Leo Burnett story. Where can I find it?

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  2. Don't recall the source but remember hearing that a NYC agency pitching the U.S. Postal Service in D.C. sent their presentation materials to the client's office in advance of the meeting...via FedEx.

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    1. Believe it or not, I never heard that story. Love it. Thanks for sharing.

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  3. At my very first agency we heard rumours there was a super secret pitch being worked on. Only the three agency owners, the ECD and one planner were involved. All meetings for this pitch took place offsite and the creative was worked on in the owners' office in private. No one outside of this little circle reviewed the pitch doc or even knew who the client was. Off they go to their meeting and while they are there the doc gets circulated. It was for Guinness and the pitch doc and creative looked amazing. As I'm reading it the deck I get the feeling that something isn't quite right but can't put my finger on it. Then it struck me. "Guinness" was spelled as "Guiness" throughout, including on all of the creative work. "Guiness" was literally next to the logo. I tell my boss, who tells their boss, who tries to call the big bosses before they go in to the meeting. Too late. The meeting lasted less than five minutes. That agency is where I learned what not to do.

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  4. Early in my career I worked at an agency where we were pitching Sunoco. One of the agency partners referred to the client as Texaco several times during his presentation. Quite shockingly, we got the account anyway.

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  5. My partner and I were called by a company president to do some creative work for their television series. When we arrived, the president, the CFO, the series star and their VP of marketing were sitting around the table to hear our pitch. We gave it our best, got everyone nodding--except the marketing VP who was furious that we'd been invited without consulting her. After an hour, we asked for the order and quoted them $30k. "For what?!" the marketing VP demanded in the most hostile tone. I tried to pad the deliverables, "At least three concept campaigns..." but she cut me off. "Well," she snorted, "I had an ad agency in here last week and they did three campaigns for nothing." At which my partner got up, turned towards the door and said, "Well, I sure hope you got your money's worth."

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  6. Mine's not a 'lose the pitch' story. Rather, a great 'won the pitch' story. Apparently, from Saatchi in London in the 80s or 90s. Clients arrive in to the agency reception on the morning of the pitch. There's no receptionist, and the reception area is a mess. In fact, it smelled of booze and urine. The Clients were allegedly stunned, thinking that the agency had a raging party the night before. Clients were made to wait for nearly 25 minutes, and were getting up to leave when someone greeted them rather indifferently and asked them to follow her to a conference room. The marketing director was allegedly quite enraged and only agreed to follow in order to meet an executive he could complain to. They went into the conference room where a team of people were sitting, waiting. The lead Client angrily asked "What's the meaning of this, and how dare you treat potential Clients in such a manner?" One of the Saatchi brothers is alleged to have said "This is how you treat your customers every day, and that's why your business is in trouble." The Client was British Rail, and Saatchi won the business on the spot.

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  7. I have been working on a new premise for business development that qualifies prospects for the agency and the agency for prospects before too much time is invested. It works. Who wants to waste time? Life is too short. Work with people you like and do work you love. Anything that compromises these simple principals usually ends poorly.

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  8. I worked for an agency that was pitching the Tyra Banks show. There wasn't a single female that was part of the pitch team, they served fried chicken for lunch and set up the pitch room to look like a southern BBQ. It was an embarrassing loss from the start for obvious reasons.

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  9. Thanks everyone for these great stories. Keep 'em coming

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  10. Many years ago was with an agency pitching a brand from Pepsi. Several people from Pepsi came to the agency for the meeting. Conference room had Coke products. Prospect walked in and walked out.

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  11. Not winning or loosing, but keeping. Della Femina served the Beck's Bier account for 20 years. My first month as the AAE, the German Client came over for the annual meeting. I was told to call over to the Four Seasons and reserve Jerry's table in the Pool Room and to specifically ask they have Beck's on hand, which they did and promptly served when we sat down.

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    1. Amazing how a simple and thoughtful act can keep a client motivated and happy.

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