When agency pitches fail – seriously fail

Pitching for new business, or defending business in a pitch can be highly stressful times for those involved – 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 being that when an agency screws up they usually just bomb out. When an advertiser screws up, everyone knows about it and the advertiser is left with embarrassment.

So for more than a decade we have managed many hundreds of pitches, large and small, local and regional. 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 happy for speculation on trying to identify the parties involved)

Poor proof-reading

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 on offer. RFPs were like a river of paperwork flowing into agencies and back out again and this one agency had clearly not employed a proof-reader before sending out their response.

While the agency had the right client on the front cover of their document, throughout the majority of references to the client names was one of their competitors who had gone to tender only a few weeks earlier.

It was certainly entertaining, but clearly a bit disturbing for the advertiser reading their competitor’s name all the way through the document. I think the agency should be given bonus points for reusing and recycling, but clearly it was not in a sustainable manner. #pitchfails

Poor time management

The only thing possibly worse than a lack of proof-reading is poor time management. The advertiser wanted to go to pitch as their incumbent was not 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, but they would this time deliver both.

On the day for the agency credential meetings, the advertiser had organised five agencies and the incumbent to meet at their office throughout the day, finishing with the incumbent last of all so they could compare the incumbent 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 meeting all day and would not be back in until tomorrow.

Needless to say they did not progress to the next stage of the pitch. #pitchfails

Cultural conflicts

One of the important 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, were confronted by three men from the agency, the room looked a little unbalanced. No one realised how much until the agency team 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 and the agency CEO replied that “The head of client services was about to return soon from a”bout” of maternity leave”. The 90-minute presentation lasted just over 30 minutes and the agency was ushered out, never to return. #pitchfails

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

Time poor

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 this in-house) as many of the top agencies in the market jostled very publically for the business. Rather than filtering 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 advertiser’s 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 rub salt further into the wound, the marketers took another month to decide to stay with the incumbent.

Now, there is a way to upset some of the top agencies around town. Luckily most are ready to forgive, but they never forget. #pitchfails

Time wasting

Then there is the high profile tech company who runs a pitch like clockwork every third year as part of their corporate governance. In the lead up to the pitch process, the industry is alive with gossip on the level of dissatisfaction the client has with the incumbent and speculation on which agencies will win the pitch.

The last round was no exception and the advertiser dutifully went to market selecting some of the largest agencies to pitch for their sizable business. The protracted process of more than six months was heavily procurement led and slowly ground the consideration list down from eight to four final contenders.

The rumour mill was running hot as the final agencies were leaking information on their inflated chances. But it appears 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 advertisers announced that following an extensive review of the market, the successful agency was the incumbent. There was a collective groan from the industry as it was successful only because the purpose of the review was to simply extract further savings without making any major disruptive changes.

It will be interesting how many race back to that well in eighteen months time? #pitchfails

Time is up

Finally, for those advertisers who believe 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 the performance of the brand had continued to decline. In desperation they had convinced the CEO and CFO that the problem was their media agency, who were under-performing 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 quickly dispatched, the pitch was cancelled after progressing for several months and the incumbent resumed the relationship with the client. Another #pitchfails

Learn from mistakes?

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 undertaking the pitch for the wrong reason.

No matter the cause, it is usually embarrassing for those involved and it’s like watching a car crash for us. No matter how tragic the outcome you just cannot stop watching it happen.

Have you got any #pitchfails? Share them here or use the hashtag to share on social media. Let’s out a few of the really bad ones.


To find our how TrinityP3 Marketing Management Consultants can help you further with this, click here.

This post first appeared in Mumbrella Asia on Wednesday February 4, 2015

One thought on “When agency pitches fail – seriously fail

  1. Great tips Darren. I'd also add that another big learning from having run key pitches over the past few years: The winning agencies are great listeners. The losing agencies are great talkers. Losing agencies launch straight into talking about themselves without really understanding the client's business, culture, requirements, processes etc first. I'd recommend agencies to provoke conversation and get to know clients much better than many do. Have a point of view on their business that at least gets conversation going and then tailor your agency services and methodologies as a benefit to the client! Unshackle yourself from linear powerpoint presentations!

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