To Those Who Have Pitched and Lost

By The Denver Egotist / /

I’m in a fug. I’m sluggish. I’m agitated. I’m like a lovelorn teenager who’s just been dumped.

Yes, I’m in the midst of that pitch-loss after-glow. Can I get some compassionate leave? It’s hard to shake. There’s no easy way out of it. Unless the client changes their mind, which they never do. Except that time when they did. Unfortunately, that time we were the initial winners and the top guy decided to give it to his mate’s agency after all.

Fastest account loss ever.

I wonder, do clients have any idea of the Herculean effort that goes into (losing) a pitch?

The amount we as agencies speculate (aka gamble) to accumulate. For a standard-sized agency, you’re looking at planners, suits, creatives, designers, the digital guys, the editors and producers. A dozen, minimum. Often many more.

And the hours? Weekends are, of course, de rigeur. Maybe one before the tissue and another before the real deal. And then long nights powered by takeaways in between.

There’s something to be said for the team-bonding forged in the crucible of a full-on pitch situation. But I still prefer a night in with my family in front of some shit telly.

And if you don’t win, there’s little consolation. It’s all or nothing. No second prizes. Nothing to show for your efforts except a stack of A1 polyboard sitting in the corner waiting for someone to decide whether to re-use it or just bin it.

A pitch loss can be so discombobulating. You have to believe you’re going to win it to find the motivation while you count down the fast trains home you’re missing.

Any pitch-leader worth their salt will cultivate that belief. Can you imagine how hollow an experience a pitch without hope would be?

Just checked: that ache in the pit of my stomach is still there.

What’s best? Going first? Going last?

In the past, I’ve worked on a pitch where the intermediary gave us the wink in the meeting as if to say “It’s in the bag” and the story we heard was that the next agency actually made the client cry.

Hard to compete with tears. Clients have emotions too; we’d just never considered it.

The one rule of thumb is, you just never know. It could have been like pulling teeth in there but they might still appoint you. Conversely, you could have them eating out of your hand in the presentation (“It was a slam dunk!”) and still get the phone call of doom. And then the thankless thankyous to share with the wider team.

There are some pitches you look back on and say you weren’t the right fit anyway, the work wasn’t on the money or the strategy was off, but the ones where you offered quality in great quantity and still come up short, it’s bewildering. “How do we get it right next time?”

Let’s be honest. It can just be dumb luck – or lack of it. The team that’s done nothing all year pulls it out of the bag. The strategy chimed with an article the head honcho read the day before. They hate green. And puns. And you.

If you have an average of 4 agencies on each pitch, that gives you a 25% chance of winning. Putting it another way, you have to suck up 3 losses for every win. This is no industry for the faint-hearted.

And if we estimate 3 routes for each agency, there’s 12 campaigns and only one winner (or less – but don’t get me started on that). We’re all going to need a bigger bottom drawer.

So, do I volunteer to go over the top again? Get straight back on the horse? I’m just not sure I can take another pitch-loss in quick succession.

Need I ask? It’s what we do. And those RFI’s all sound SO promising. Once more unto the breach, dear friends…


  1. Jamie March 30, 2017

    we happy few…..
    we happy few…..

  2. From someone who's sat at the other side of the pitch table April 24, 2017

    Nailed it. Especially on the
    Nailed it. Especially on the dumb luck part. I’ve been working in this business for 20 years. In that time, 4 of those years were spent at an agency search consultancy, so I saw A LOT of pitches. Over 100. In my experience, when agencies lose a pitch the vast majority of the time it’s because:

    The winning agency already had an inside connection/contact with the brand
    The winning agency was cheaper than the competition
    The winning agency simply had the right “timing” – said the right things at the right time, referenced an article the CMO had just read, or showed an idea with a dog and the decision maker happens to love dogs, or because they are located in a city the CMO wants to spend time in.

    The pitch tricks of selling the “senior team” that will work on your brand, the rip video, the overthought strategy, the media rates, the “big idea” that’s executed across every medium imaginable….those tactics will never change. Every pitch ad nauseum in that regard. More often than not, I’ve seen agencies pitch with sub-par ideas that still win because of a combination of the 3 points above. I’ve seen agencies pitch incredible creative, but not have the right size/chemistry/fee structure for them to ever move forward. It’s just a matter of timing, moods and dumb luck. It sucks.

    A word of advice to small or medium agencies pitching against bigger agencies. Don’t say the “big agency model is broken.” Every company has heard that and they don’t care or see it that way at all. They care that they are getting a competitive media rate, good creative and good leadership. Big and small agencies can do that equally, but in negotiations, big agencies are generally more competitive in fees than small agencies. So if the agency model is broken, then why are the big agencies willing to do the same scope of work for less of a fee? If that’s broken, then clients are not going to want to fix it.

    If I were a client faced with a choice of a small/medium agency vs. big agency for the same price, I’d probably go with the big agency simply for the wider range of resources available, like the social media department, in-house video production, strategy, more robust media buying and rates, more in-depth analytics, the list goes on. If a small agency can offer all of those things, then they probably aren’t a small agency. Oh, and if you’re a boutique agency, don’t even consider joining a national pitch. Seriously, don’t. It’s a waste of your time and money. In 4 years as a search consultant, only one boutique agency has ever won a big client and it turned out only being a project. The client later went with the big agency network.

    Also, it’s okay to say no to pitches. If the money’s not right, if your size isn’t right, if your experience isn’t right or if it just doesn’t feel right. We were always intrigued by agencies that did that. In several cases, clients asked why they dropped out, only to be intrigued and encourage them to come back in and ultimately win the pitch.

    Thanks for writing this. This struck a nerve with me as someone on the other side of the pitch table.

  3. Anonymous June 20, 2017

    Every agency owner needs


    Every agency owner needs to read the comment above. Great insight here.

  4. Jay Mays August 7, 2017

    Great read. You articulated
    Great read. You articulated the emotions so well.

    How do you “cultivate the belief you will win” while managing expectations when a loss is likely? Especially in sales when positive momentum means everything.

    In 20 years I’ve never won a “cold” RFP. Nor have I ever heard of anyone winning without some type of “in.”

    As anonymous agency guy said in the comments. Sometimes saying “no” upfront is your best play.

    Keep up the great writing… Thanks!

  5. Anonymous November 22, 2017

    We don’t pitch. Our time is
    We don’t pitch. Our time is far better spent working for our existing clients and getting referrals.

    Pitching is a trap.

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