Many ways to win
A view from Sue Unerman

Many ways to win

Sir Ben Ainslie, the sailing supremo and Olympic medal-winner - who is the most successful sailor in Olympic history - was quizzed on Desert Island Discs this weekend about his famous battle with the Brazilian sailor Robert Scheidt in 2000.

Ainslie's antics at the time caused condemnation, including that from another sporting legend, Sir Roger Bannister, who called his behaviour "unsporting" and "not quite British". His ploy was to block the hitherto unbeaten Scheidt by keeping him at bay with "cat and mouse" tactics during the race rather than trying to win himself.

Meanwhile, tactics in the Olympic cycle sprint here were pointed out to me by Rory Sutherland. Here, the job is to keep your powder dry until the last stretch. It is astonishing to watch as the commentator points out the fastest cycle event in the world is "as much a staring contest as a bike race".

In both cases, there's an element of screwing with the competition rather than giving it your all to get on top. During his latest radio interview, Ainslie said that, as Scheidt had been unbeaten, everyone thought that he was unbeatable. He didn’t break the rules of the race. But some people thought that he broke the spirit of the competition. Did the ends justify the means?

I'm not an athlete in any way shape or form. I have previously chronicled that the height of my sporting prowess was one term in the netball B team at school. And I did come second in the egg-and-spoon race once. But I've participated in quite a lot of new-business pitches since I joined the industry. Particularly since working with Stephen Allan, who I was delighted to see in The Sunday Times' most influential list this weekend.

So how would blocking tactics work in a new-business pitch? Well, you could put down the competitive agencies and talk about their weaknesses. This is risky on two fronts. First, in a pitch with strict time limits, you're using up valuable time that you could spend either talking about the client's brand or about your agency's strengths. Second, it is a bold agency that ignores the old adage about people who live in glass houses.

Could you slow everything down as in the cycling example? I have heard of pitches that have been delayed because one agency wasn't prepared to lose time and resource working on existing clients to focus the talent on the new-business front. The prospective client, impressed with this ethic, delayed the whole thing. In this case, perhaps the agency created an edge. It communicated what its culture was like and what it was prepared to sacrifice to protect it.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom