How To Lose A Pitch When You Thought You Were Winning


He thought he was winning

It's easier to lose a pitch than you think

A month ago, I was part of a team which won a pitch. Hmm. Unusual. What happened? I’m now more usually now on the client side of the table in pitches.

We thought, out of three competing teams, we had no chance.

So we swept into the pitch, said what we thought, allowed enough time for questions, and sloped off for a kebab and glass of wine which had never been close to a grape.

“Why did we bother?” we wondered. “It’ll be a stitch-up. They all are.”

Two days later, we had the business.

I was surprised. Just how bad could the opposition be?

Later, stranded at Frankfurt airport as the snow fell out of the sky, I started thinking about pitches I had lost when I had thought we were comfortably ahead. I worked in advertising in London, Chicago, Frankfurt and Paris for twenty-nine years, so I was not short of examples. The EACA tutors all have their own pitch disaster stories too, so I wrote down some of these along with my own. (Paul Burns in particular: thanks.) I have excluded the category of  strong creative ideas. We all know that this is often the least important reason for losing a pitch.

Here are the thirty more important reasons for failure which immediately came to mind. In the murky swamp which passes as my mind, I think of this as “Agency arrogance, incompetence and general idiocy”. If you have stories of your own, please send them to me. The best qualifies for lunch with me at L’Escargot in Soho.

  1. Didn’t read the brief
  2. Read only the first page of the brief
  3. Read the brief, thought it was rubbish, so ignored it
  4. Didn’t rehearse
  5. Went absurdly over time
  6. Had people presenting who were not going to be working on the business if appointed
  7. Had people chewing gum
  8. Had not kept in touch with the potential client during the pitch process
  9. Knew nothing about the potential client’s business, and had made no attempt to learn
  10. Made comments about the client’s business concerning things about which they neither knew nor had been asked to give an opinion
  11. Rubbished the brief in the pitch
  12. Had mysterious people in the pitch with no defined role and took no part in proceedings, and whom the client was meeting for the first time
  13. Rubbished the opposition, the other pitching agencies
  14. Offered a veiled bribe
  15. Introduced their Chairman who then fell asleep during the pitch, woke up, and then referred for the rest of the pitch to the potential client as Findus. It was Ross.
  16. Punted up a board director who, I think, spoke in English, but whose Indian accent was so strong that the managing director had to translate for him
  17. Used a girl, chewing gum, in a mini-skirt, fishnets and high heels to present to six clients, all of whom were 40+ women
  18. Threatened the client during the pitch concerning possible abuse of copyright and intellectual property
  19. Went to the right office but was thirty minutes late
  20. Arrived on time, but went to the wrong office
  21. Arrived on time but had a managing director who had an enormous black eye owing to a punch-up in a pub the previous night
  22. Had an agency MD who “fell out of a tree” the previous weekend, and didn’t turn up
  23. All the concept boards were thrown away after the pitch, the account manager (me) forgetting it was a two stage process (Eastern Electricity Board)
  24. In the days of 35mm slides and Kodak Carousel projectors, dropped the slides – all 120 of them. They were un-numbered and impossible to put back in their correct order in the time available. It was like Dunkirk without the boats
  25. Wrote rude things about the clients on a notepad, and then left the notepad behind, which one of the clients picked up and read with interest. “Dickhead” was the key word (Old Saatchi and Saatchi)
  26. Won the business but then had to resign it almost immediately when P&G complained to our head office in New York (IPG)
  27. The agency team argued amongst themselves
  28. The agency failed to tell the client that half the team didn’t actually work for the agency
  29. The agency was too big and too intimidating. (The bastards. Why were we on the pitch if that was the problem?)
  30. Another agency in the network (Italy) pitched before us and made a complete mess. They had neither told us what they were doing, neither had they asked for help. The clients didn’t turn up for our presentation

You will all have horror stories, too. Please send them to me. I love them all.

Future planned blogs include

  • Client cynicism, duplicity and institutional incompetence
  • How to win a pitch
  • What makes a great client
  • What makes a crap client
  • Things clients should bear in mind
  • Cloud computing for beginners
  • How to get rid of your daughter’s boyfriend
  • Great account handling for senior agency management

Finally, this site gets 30-50 hits a day. If you want to contribute, please do. I can’t pay you, but I can considerably increase your digital footprint. Many of you will have lost pitches when you thought you were winning. And, Paul, thanks for your story.