Pitch Horror Stories

Ad folk share their stories of pitch woe.

Peter Souter: teething troubles
Peter Souter: teething troubles

In an industry beset by rapid change, it’s nice to have a constant. If that constant has to be the pitch, then so be it. In addition to being familiar, pitching is one of the things that make advertising such a singular industry. Other types of companies may pitch for business, but not as frequently or as lavishly as creative agencies do. 

Pitches are also a goldmine for embarrassing stories. Agencies’ desperation to please, the pressure of knowing how much is riding on the win and the creative temperament all make for a combustible environment.

It’s little wonder, then, that two stories in Campaign’s list of advertising’s best anecdotes are about pitching.

So, in the spirit of Halloween, we asked some game agency folk to share their nightmare tales of pitches gone wrong.

Jim Thornton, creative director, VCCP

"I could tell a few horror stories concerning the conduct of certain clients on certain pitches, but sense an early retirement I can ill afford on the horizon if I do… So, instead, here’s a catalogue of alleged agency horror stories. I say alleged because it’s hard to believe any of the following ever actually happened and are simply the result of bitchy inter-agency tittle-tattle and gossip.

"I mean, who would possibly believe the story about the executive creative director of a big network agency falling asleep in a pitch? A really, really big pitch, to Sainsbury’s, apparently. Or that he was awoken from his slumbers by a kick to the shin from the intermediary’s extremely pointy shoe? I, for one, find it very hard to believe…

"Just as I do the rumour that, in a pitch to Hotpoint, an agency head of strategy insisted on calling them Hoover throughout; or that in a pitch to a German client, in Germany, an agency chief executive opened with the Fawlty-esque words: 'As Winston Churchill once said…'

"It’s unthinkable that an agency managing director would, after a pre-pitch agreement not to mention the client’s existing work, launch into a three-minute rant about the woeful state of exactly that in his introductory speech, ending with the words: 'I’m sorry, did I just say all that out loud?'

"Vicious rumours, the lot of them."                                     

Peter Souter, chairman, TBWA\London

"I pitched for a very big toothpaste brand in New York a few years ago (mentioning no names).

"We had a wonderful campaign based on the clearest signs of oral health (insert your own smutty joke here): white teeth and pale pink gums.

"While preparing for the pitch, I noticed that there would be exactly 32 people in the room for the presentation (told you it was a big pitch).

"So I spent thousands of dollars building a mini amphitheatre in a photographer's studio with two rows of white chairs arranged in a pair of semi circles with little pink tables between each chair and a massive pink, tongue shaped carpet in the middle. A huge human mouth. 

"It was a thing of beauty. Each client and agency person had a little seating card based on the individual tooth in the 'mouth'. Big John Wren as a particularly impressive upper molar, if memory serves.

"I even had a bespoke opening gag: 'This is a huge pitch for us. I'm really nervous and that often makes me forget my lines. Fortunately, this entire presentation is on the tip of my tongue!' Pointing down, jazz hands-style, to the huge tongue that I was standing at the tip of.

"Complete silence. Complete sense of humour failure. Complete lack of pitch win."

Neil Christie, managing director, Wieden & Kennedy

"I had a new-business meeting a couple of years ago with Confused.com. As soon as the client walked in, I recognised him.

"We’d both been speakers at a marketing event. I was on first and had done the Wieden & Kennedy thing, and talked about being brave and taking risks. The client was the marketing director of Scottish Widows at the time and was on stage after me. He went and basically said that my speech was a load of bollocks, that clients didn’t want to embrace failure or risk, they wanted certainty and success.

"Anyway, the Confused.com new-business meeting was already a bit fractured when the client (he who was formally at Scottish Widows) asked us what we thought of the previous work. I told him I thought it was terrible and that must be why he was talking to us, only for him to reply that he’d made the last campaign. We didn’t get that account."

Richard Arscott, managing director, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

"I had a rather unfortunate experience pitching for the Metropolitan Police a few years ago. We were all set up in one of the meeting rooms – lots of work on the walls and deck and films loaded on screen – when I got called to the reception to take a call… 'We’re here – where are you? Ah.'

"Cue mad scramble, work into art bags, taxis across town to New Scotland Yard.

"The real disaster was when the moment the taxis left I realised that when they said ‘here’, they meant the old COI building in Vauxhall, not New Scotland Yard. That conversation with the team did not go well.

To their credit, the COI and Met Police clients were brilliant and gave us an only slightly reduced time and clearly didn’t hold it against us, as they awarded us the business. Ian [Pearman, AMV’s chief executive] still mentions it from time to time, though…

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