God knows, pitching is hard on agencies. To be honest, it’s hard on everyone, but the diligence required to make an informed and holistic decision about a commercial relationship of this nature naturally requires a lot of work.
The Joy of Victory
When agencies win pitches, they are naturally ecstatic. And why not? It’s payback for the sheer hard work that’s gone in.
As I’m sure you’re aware, many articles, my own included, provide advice on how to win a pitch.
The Agony of Defeat (and how not to deal with it).
An area of interest to me lately, and which I don’t think is as often covered, is how, if you’re an agency, to lose a pitch – that is, when the decision goes against you, how best to react.
I’d never thought this kind of advice would be required – we’re all grown-ups, right? But over the years I’ve spent running pitches, whilst the majority of agencies are gracious in defeat, I’ve come across some truly remarkable ‘losing’ behaviour.
As a result of this, something I often say to marketing and procurement teams is that, in pitches and in general day to day relationships, you can tell as much about an agency – its people, culture and general sense of balance – by how it loses, as by how it wins.
The best way to illustrate this is by providing a list of examples of ‘bad’ reactions.
This may seem like the negative approach, but I think doing the opposite (advising on all the good things you can say as a losing agency) is going to sound like I’m teaching my grandmother to suck eggs.
In fact, approaching this topic either way feels a bit grand-mothery, but I justify it based on the fact that I’ve experienced all of the following examples.
These things do happen, and I doubt the agencies involved start with destructive intent.
Whilst hearing tough feedback is challenging, the heat of the moment, it seems, can be very powerful.
So, here’s a list of behaviours to avoid when losing a pitch – all real-life examples.
Don’t be myopic about the feedback you receive.
This is a really common error. So many agencies leap on the defensive when given feedback intended as constructive. Many people fail to remember that in a competitive process, everything is relative to the competition.
No matter how often I state it in feedback, an agency will often shout back – ‘how can you say we missed this? We spent ages on it in our deck!’ No one’s saying it was missed – but relative to the competition, you were pipped in this area for XYZ reason.
Don’t say, in a stroppy tone, ‘that you already knew what the decision was’.
If so, why are you so surprised and disappointed on the call or in the meeting? This response smacks of arrogance and a desire to denigrate the client and/or the process. Whether an agency ‘knew the decision’ or not is immaterial.
Or worse – that ‘I knew from day one it was a foregone conclusion – this pitch is just a set-up’. If that was your view, why agree to participate in the first place?
Don’t accuse the client of making irrational decisions.
Saying things like, ‘oh, once I learned that agency XYZ was in the final stage, I knew Client A would go with them; they’re just besotted’ are pretty insulting to a marketing team that will generally have spent months on a process of due diligence (assuming the pitch has been run properly).
And you, as an agency, really can’t know all the nuances behind competitive submissions, no matter what the grapevine tells you.
Don’t immediately assume that cost is the reason or the answer.
We advocate decision in principle about the client’s preferred agency before they see our report on financial costing (remuneration). And generally, we’re successful in this approach. If the agencies are so closely matched that cost becomes a factor, we’ll talk to each agency involved on a level playing field basis.
But the cost is just that – a factor, not the entirety. I’m aware that I’m just talking about our approach to pitch management here, and there are, I know full well, a lot of ‘race to the bottom’ processes out there. Just don’t leap to the conclusion that cost is all.
Don’t get aggressive with the client in the feedback call.
Sounds obvious, right? But I promise you, aggressive behaviour such as cutting the client off mid-sentence, disregarding thanks for the effort involved, and putting the phone down abruptly, amongst others, does happen. You never know where that client will end up in a few years.
Don’t blame the process in retrospect.
Criticising the consultant, or the process, is fine up to a point, and I try to take any criticism on board if it’s constructive. But there is a line: you chose freely to enter into the process, so please have some respect for the work that goes in at that end – which is significant – just as any good client/consultant will demonstrate respect to you for your work.
Worse still is the agency that moans retrospectively about the amount of work they were asked to do. I’m unsure what is expected here – a guaranteed winners medal because the process was hard or thorough. All the agencies had the same work to do. There can only be one winner.
Don’t slag off the winning agency.
Honestly – really? What good will this approach do other than allowing you to vent some steam? I’ve experienced losing agencies telling clients or myself that the winning agency shouldn’t have been on the list to start with, that it’s a flash in the pan or a boring monolith, that it’s living on past reputation, that this will never work and everyone is going to regret it.
Of course, a relationship may not work out. But saying this to a client on losing a pitch will generally make that client secure in the knowledge that, whilst they don’t know what will happen with the winning agency, they’ve made the right choice in not choosing your agency.
Don’t attempt to go over the head of the pitch team.
Getting a bigwig to call the client CEO and demand a retrial, or generally complain, or make some kind of deal – it’s just not a good look. What can it achieve? At best, it reverses a decision in your favour and enables an incredibly negative, disgruntled relationship with a marketing team who have been overruled. It’s just not healthy. Who would want that dynamic? At worst, the CEO will talk about how badly this agency has handled defeat – with her team and other CEOs…none of which will greatly help future new business efforts.
I repeat for the sceptical – various combinations of the above do happen, and have, in a few isolated incidents, happened to me over the seven years I’ve been doing this. It’s a small minority, but it’s there. And I’m sure my reactions to such incidents haven’t been perfect, either.
Losing sucks. I’ve lost enough pitches when working in agencies to know how it feels.
I can’t tell you how much respect I have for what any agency endures in a pitch – and how much that respect is increased if they lose gracefully or diminished when they lose badly.
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