When and why pitches go wrong

Darren WoolleyIn this guest post, pitch doctor Darren Woolley casts his mind back to pitches that have gone horribly wrong, and explains why.

Pitching for new business, or defending business in a pitch can very highly stressful – for both agency and advertiser. It is under this pressure that Murphy’s Law of “if something can go wrong, it will” thrives.

But contrary to popular belief, it is not just the agencies that screw up a pitch. Many advertisers have managed to screw up their own pitches, just as often as agencies have spoiled their own chance of success. The difference is that when an agency screws up they usually just bomb out, never to be heard from again. When an advertiser screws up, everyone knows about it and the advertiser is invariably left red-faced until the next pitch a few years down the track.

For more than a decade, we have managed many hundreds of pitches, large and small, locally in Australia and across Asia Pacific. But to use the language of Twitter, here are some of the more memorable #pitchfails (I have not provided names to protect the guilty, but I’m happy for you to speculate who the parties involved are):

1. Saying the wrong name

There was a flurry of pitching activity a year or so ago in this particular market and agencies were frantically trying to pitch for anything and everything they could. RFPs were like a river of paperwork flowing into agencies and back out again.

This one agency had clearly not used a proof-reader before sending out their proposal. They had the correct client on the front cover of their document, but inside the majority of references were to of the client’s competitors who had gone to tender only a few weeks earlier. I think the agency should be given bonus points for Reusing and Recycling, but clearly it was not in a sustainable manner. #pitchfail

2. Better late than never?

The only thing worse than a lack of proof-reading is poor time management. The advertiser wanted to go to pitch as their incumbent was noy proactive and worse, continually missing deadlines. The agency had argued that they were under-resourced and that they deserved one last chance to prove that it was better to be great than on time, and that for this pitch they would deliver both.

On the day for the agency credential meetings, the advertiser had organised five agencies and the incumbent to meet at their office. The session was to go on all day, and finish with a presentation with the incumbent so they could compare them to “what was out there”.

The day progressed well and the various agencies arrived (often early), made their presentations, answered and asked questions, built rapport and then left. The final presentation time arrived and there was no sign of the incumbent. After 20 minutes the marketing manager phoned the agency to be told they were at an off-site all day and would not be back in until tomorrow. Needless to say they did not progress to the next stage of the pitch. #pitchfail

3. Culture clash

One of the critical factors in any pitch decision is how aligned the agency is to the advertiser’s culture. And while there can be some difficult misunderstandings, it is important to make sure you know who you are pitching to, and the culture of the business and the people employed there before you go to pitch.

So when the marketing and brand team composed of four senior women and the male director of sales and marketing was confronted by three men from the agency, the room looked a little unbalanced. No one realised how much until the agency teamed opened their mouths to start the presentation. From the get go, the agency addressed their whole presentation to the only male on the client side of the table. Even when one of the very senior women asked a question, the answer was directed to the director of sales and marketing and not to the person asking the question.

Even when the client team became more uncomfortable with this behaviour (including the male representative) the agency persevered addressing only him. One of the women asked the agency why there were no women representing the agency today, especially as the product had an almost exclusive target audience of women. The agency CEO replied that “The head of client services was about to return soon from maternity leave”. The 90-minute presentation lasted just over 30 minutes and the agency was ushered out, never to return. #pitchfail

3. Creative shoot out

But of course, it is not always the agencies that are the cause of #pitchfail. Many times advertisers will go into a pitch either underprepared or for the wrong reasons and come inevitably unstuck.

A major media company decided to go to market to review their creative agencies. The pitch was high profile because of the associated media brands, although the spend was relatively small. Therefore there were many agencies keen to be on the consideration list.

It was interesting watching the review from the sidelines (the marketing team managed the pitch in-house) as many of the top agencies in the market jostled very publically for the business. Rather than filtering the contenders down from an extensive consideration list, the marketing team decided to put all of the agencies through a speculative creative brief and have six presentations back to back on the one day to save time – the advertisers’ time, not the agencies’.

According to the many disgruntled agencies involved in the pitch, on the day the marketing team was rarely there for the whole presentation as they came and went about their other duties. To add insult to injury, the marketers took another month to decide that they wanted to stay with the incumbent. Most agencies are ready to forgive, but they never forget. #pitchfail

4. A race to the bottom

Then there is the high profile tech client who runs a pitch like clockwork every third year for corporate governance reasons. In the lead up to the pitch, the industry was buzzing with gossip on the level of dissatisfaction the client had with the incumbent and speculation on which agencies would win the business.

The last round was no exception and the advertiser dutifully went to market selecting some of the largest agencies to pitch for their (sizeable) business. The protracted process of more than six months was heavily procurement led. Slowly, the consideration list was ground down from eight to a four final contenders. The rumour mill was running hot as the final agencies were leaking information on their inflated chances.

But it transpired that the preferred agency could not match the ridiculously low fees being paid to the incumbent, who had strengthened their position by going even lower. In the end, the advertiser announced that following an extensive review of the market, the successful agency was the incumbent. There was a collective groan from the industry. The winner had won only because the advertiser wanted the incumbent to lower its fees. It will be interesting to see how many agencies race back to that opportunity when it re-emerges 18 months’ time? #pitchfail

5. It’s the agency’s fault, not mine

Finally, for those advertisers who believe that getting it wrong does not really affect them personally, here is a warning. The marketing head had been in the role with this financial services company for about two years, during which time the performance of the brand had continue to decline. In desperation they had convinced the CEO and CFO that the problem was their media agency, which was underperforming in driving leads and sales to the brand.

A pitch was organised and a range of suitable, non-conflicted media agencies were asked to tender. The marketing head was enjoying being courted by the various agencies and increasingly felt it was time for a change. However, with their backs to the wall the incumbent found a way to the CEO through the board and little did the marketing head know that the agency was presenting a different set of facts to the CEO and CFO, contrary to the story told previously. The marketing head was promptly dispatched, the pitch cancelled after progressing for several months, and the incumbent resumed the relationship with the client. #pitchfail

From our experience, the biggest mistakes happen when either the agency is unprepared or uncommitted to the process, or the advertiser has underestimated the commitment or is carrying out the pitch for the wrong reason.

No matter what the cause, it is usually embarrassing for those involved and for us is like watching a car crash in slow motion. No matter how tragic you know the outcome will be, you just cannot stop watching it happen.

Darren Woolley is global CEO of TrinityP3 Marketing Management Consultants


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