Losing a pitch is incredibly easy.
Because, overwhelmed by the talents and enthusiasm of four usually very good agencies, and having narrowed the brief down to an ice-hockey-sized goal – the clients will often whittle down the final list by any means possible.
Nick Hornby was once reviewing music for an American newspaper and every week they sent him a huge box of CDs. No way could he listen to them all, so he cut the list down on what he acknowledged were ridiculous criteria – like not liking the picture of the band on the cover.
He ruled out any band whose picture featured a nose-bleed, for instance, instantaneously.
I’m convinced that I once lost a nice bit of business by farting at the wrong time.
But that’s a story for another day.
I remember hearing how the famously chain-smoking planning guru Stanley Pollitt lost two pitches – once by smoking his own brand rather than the brand they were pitching for (having smoked the free ones on the table in the first few minutes of the pitch) – and secondly, in a pitch for the Fire Prevention Agency, by setting fire to the table cloth by leaving his fag on the side of the table.
Now, to my mind, that’s a proper adman.
And both clients were absolutely wrong to penalise the agency for such piffling trifles.
But right now I want to talk about a catastrophic pitch from another agency from a year or two back. I can’t mention any names, sadly , but it’s an interesting story.
It wasn’t just an ordinary pitch – it was one of those “do or die” numbers where the incumbent had to win the pitch to keep itself in business.
And they lost.
And the agency folded.
The guy who was telling me the story said it was down to one thing. The agency led with analogue work and bolted on digital. (I mean they added it on later. Rather than, when it came to the digital elements, that they ran from the room like a startled horse.)
The client gave the account to an agency which led with digital thinking.
Because these days you’re either a digital -first company or you’re a lumbering bolt-it-on Frankenstein.
Let’s look at that phrase “digital first”. Like a lot of cliches, we take it for granted but this story is a good prompt to ask yourself if your agency is really capable of “digital first” thinking ?
Cynics among you might think this is just an excuse for me to push Decoded at you and mention that we’re doing more “digital enlightenment” than ever before – and of course cynics aren’t always wrong.
In fact they’re usually bang on the money.
But it really does feel to me that advertising is at a pivotal point.
And this limnal moment can be explored by comparing AA Gill with Campaign.
On the one hand you have the famously vituperative TV and restaurant critic for the Sunday Times. This was his verdict recently – “Xmas ads mine a narrow range of fixed, sticky sentiment… that remind you of how good advertising used to be, how witty and skilful and how comparatively sophisticated it assumed its audience to be. Ad men were once demi-celebrities: they were exciting, important enough to be sent up. Of all the media businesses that are been turned over by the new age, advertising has suffered the most. Now a copywriter is a clerk, a man who composes the annoying sidebars on websites.”
Or, you can look at the latest Campaign – and see what appears to be a very vibrant industry grappling with some serious challenges but applying a lot of intelligence to the issues – and generally having quite a good time.
(Which is, actually, probably, the most important thing of all.)
Fuck the sidebars on websites – it’s not about that, if it ever really was. The “new age” is about interactivity and understanding the incredible creative potential of technology.
But I do think Mr Gill is onto something in his comparison between a demi-celebrity and a clerk.
The former are inherently confident in themselves. (Even when covered in cockroaches and forced to eat a kangaroo’s penis, whether in the Australian outback or in a living room in South London.)
And if advertising is one thing, it’s always and inescapably a confidence trick.
(And that’s also the best tip for winning a pitch, by the way. You’ve got to be super, super confident.)
So – much though I love Mr Gill’s silky smooth prose – and I really do – I feel that there’s life in the old dog yet.
It’s just a question of confidence.