Pitch Imperfect – when pitches go horribly wrong

3 minute read

One of the ‘joys’ of pitching is the unpredictability of it all. The military’s mantra of “anticipate everything, expect anything and assume nothing” is a good one to adopt as you enter the pitch process. And yet, things still go terribly wrong. Anyone who’s pitched regularly will have a few pitch horror stories that only become amusing anecdotes after many years have passed. At the time, they elicit a range of emotions from mild anxiety to white-hot shame. Fortunately, it has become fashionable to show vulnerability and own up to our failures. So, in that spirit, here are a few, ‘what not to do’ examples of worst pitch practice.

As Ant and Dec would say, in no particular order, pitches were lost because:

  • The client was called by the wrong name not once, but all the way through the pitch.  Sorry Clare, I mean, Kate.
  • The enormous board of press coverage designed to show what great results we would get was left in the Pret where we met for pre-pitch coffee.  We retrieved it in time but then forgot to reference it in the pitch until it was all over and we were getting our coats and said, ‘oh yeah – and there’s this…’
  • The pitch team was too big for one taxi so split into two cabs.  One took a wrong turning and was 30 mins late whilst the rest of the team got increasingly frantic in the client’s reception area.
  • The MD decided to ‘open up’ the pitch presentation with a gushing welcome of why this client was so interesting and important. When the client said, don’t worry about the presentation, tell me what you think we should do, he had nothing to say as he hadn’t been to any rehearsals and had no idea what was required
  • One of the pitch team managed to step into a wastepaper bin, get it stuck on his foot and couldn’t get it off.  To this day, I have no idea WHY? And, HOW?
  • A lactose intolerant account director led the Ben and Jerry’s pitch team
  • The prospect’s name was Hugh Frazer.  Spellcheck autocorrected it to Huge Freezer in the document. No one noticed.  Apart from the prospect.

And here’s my favourite example of, “what not to do.”

We were pitching to handle the pan-European communication of the announcement of a merger between two global research companies. Best practice would have the presentation completed and rehearsed 24 hours ahead of the pitch. Reality had us in the office at 3am on what we considered to be Friday evening but was in fact Saturday morning, still making changes to the PowerPoint with no one daring to mention the word rehearsal.

Due to the clients flying in from various locations, the pitch was being held at a Hotel near Heathrow airport on the same Saturday morning that we were still in the office. Finally finishing at 5am, we took two hours to go home and change before meeting in the Hotel lobby. Jacked up on double espressos, we (my MD & me, a lowly Account Manager at the time) stared wide-eyed at each other. The door opened: we were on.

It was the olden days so we had to bring our own projector and laptop. We duly set it all up and turned it on. Nothing. Tried again. Nothing. We were one of four agencies presenting; there was a strict timetable. We didn’t have time for this. No matter – we were prepared! We had bound documents of the presentation – we could talk through those.

I handed them out to the client prospects. Immediately, they did what all clients do when faced with an agency document. They turned to the last page to look at the budget. Whereupon my boss, in one co-ordinated and yet terrifying moment, both yelled at the client and snatched the document from his hand, “DON’T LOOK AT THAT!” before turning the book back to the beginning and starting our pitch.

Troopers that we were, we ploughed through the pitch then shuffled out of the room under the gaze of the other three agencies lining up for their turn. I went home and slept for 24 hours. What a waste of time and effort.

On Monday, I came into the office and was told we had won the pitch. WTF! Why?! How?!

Because, it turned out that one of the clients (the one who had flicked to the back of the book) was known to be ‘tricky’ and the other party in the merger wanted an agency who would not be afraid to stand up to him. As was clearly demonstrated in our pitch.

The moral of that story is that sometimes, despite your worst efforts, luck shines on you.

However, if you want a more sustainable win rate, I wouldn’t rely on luck as a strategy. And I would really avoid stepping into wastepaper bins.

If you want to win more pitches and beat your competitors more often, we can help. Contact [email protected]

Louisa Clarke

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