Alison Weissbrot
Dec 19, 2023

Ad execs share their holiday pitching horror stories

An early January pitch is an ad exec’s worst nightmare.

Photo: Alison Weissbrot
Photo: Alison Weissbrot

What’s worse than hanging out with your weird uncle, nagging parents and annoying siblings during the holidays? 

Preparing for a pitch.

Most ad execs who have been in the industry long enough have had their holiday break ruined by a client who scheduled a pitch meeting on January 2. Instead of cozying up by the fire and digging into a hearty meal around the family table, they’re stuck in the office boardroom trying to nail the perfect idea to win over a big client.

Those working with global brands may even have hopped on a plane at the demand of a client in a foreign country that doesn’t celebrate the holidays.

As mental health and burnout become bigger topics in the workplace, these holiday pitching nightmares are hopefully on the decline. 

But many still carry the scars.

Break out your eggnog and read on for a compilation of holiday pitching horror stories. 

Maggie Jennings, chief growth officer, Tombras

This is a fun one because, at the end of the day, it gives me a good laugh — that’s all you can really do to make light of these situations. You gotta love the time when a client asked us to fly around the world for an in-person pitch presentation on December 25. When politely reminded that December 25 is Christmas Day, they offered up New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day instead. Yes, this happened, and given the creative opportunity … we sadly complied.

Or when a client released an incredible global opportunity the week before Christmas hoping to see amazingly breakthrough work right after New Year’s. Again, how do you turn that down? So, we found team members who loved the brand so much that they willingly raised their hands. I think it’s because we care so much that we jump at any chance to show clients that we would be the right partner.

It says a lot about a client who recognizes they will get the very best out of their agency partners if they too can enjoy the holidays with their families and loved ones, to re-energize and start the year off strong. The way you treat people will always be remembered. I know it’s not quite the end of year, but I’m hopeful and optimistic there won’t be any pitch shenanigans this holiday season.

Jared Scott, partner and chief marketing and operating officer, The Revival House

Two stories:

1.) Ten days before a Super Bowl TV commercial production scheduled for January 2, my CMO called to share that the shoot needed to be canceled. This, despite commitments made to the production company, celebrity talent, crew and travel. 

Ten days before January 2 is December 23. And that phone call came through at 6 p.m. 

To compound the issue, the celebrity talent we booked was known to sue anyone and everyone who made them look bad. 

So, after explaining the potential legal repercussions to my client, they agreed to keep the production alive, with one caveat: guarantee a production at half the budget. 

We immediately went into crisis- and, I suppose, hack-mode, to figure out how we could pull this off. December 24 may now be recognized as the day the fastest director search happened. (We could no longer afford the A-lister we had booked previously.)

And, December 26 to 31 turned into a mix of “how the heck are we going to pull this off?” across new scouting, new locations and new schedules.

While our client enjoyed holiday ham in front of the fire, we ate pizza and worked full work days to tackle what was arguably one of the most important spots of our careers. 

In the end, we pulled it off. 

It was made. Shipped. Aired. 

And it didn’t do too bad in the ad rankings.

2) This one is a little different. A new client hired us to produce high-profile comms materials for a casino. We won the business in mid-December and spent a week-plus framing up how’d we hit the ground running come the new year. 

On December 24 at 8 p.m., while I was home celebrating Christmas Eve with my kids, my client called and said I needed to huddle the team for a call with them and their boss. I asked when, and they asserted, “Right now.” 

I politely rebutted how that wasn’t possible or fair to my team. They insisted. 

I did not acquiesce and was met with a, “if you want to keep the business you need to make this call happen.”

My response: “Then I guess we’re fired.” 

I never heard from them again. 

Josh Budd, chief creative officer, North America, Citizen Relations

I was in Florida with my family over the holiday break. Got a call saying “911: need everyone in the office in two days…” which was Boxing Day. 

I changed my flight and flew home. We all gathered reluctantly to learn that one of our biggest clients was on thin ice and we had to save it. A week of long days in boardrooms, hemming and hawing over ideas that “weren’t quite there” without any real leadership or direction. 

We presented the work the first week back in January, and we were told by our president that while the new CMO loved it, they were going to bring in his agency from his last gig. We found out a few months later through the grapevine that we had already lost the client in December. This was the president’s last ditch effort to change their mind. 

A holiday ruined for no reason. I left that April.

Matt Schwartz, new business and marketing director, Combo Office

One year, leadership at the agency I was at decided to take a pitch briefing on Dec. 15, with the client meeting scheduled for Jan. 8. I was tasked with running the pitch and therefore was bestowed the most unfortunate pleasure of telling people they had to derail their holiday plans, instead of agency management doing so. 

I spent Christmas Eve at the agency and Christmas Day alone because there was no time to travel to see my family. All the while the agency leaders were enjoying their holidays. It was the experience that completely changed my perception of agency life and what it means to be a compassionate and thoughtful leader.

Todd Bolster, VP client services, The Basement

In 2020, I had to walk the halls of a hotel in a mask, on the phone, trying not to wake my young children, to have a kickoff meeting with a new client over the holidays because they refused to kick off the following week. It was the perfect example of “this meeting could have been an email.”

Anonymous

RGA used to stay open between Christmas and New Year’s. I was the new guy on the team and spent the week in the office just ... hanging out. Nothing was happening, but someone had to be on call just in case. I think I billed my entire week to “downtime.” 

The story goes, Bob got a client call that week many, many years ago, and since then he refused to close the office just in case it happened again. Not sure if they still do this.

Gina Gray, EVP of business development, Colle McVoy 

After moving from brand-side to an agency, I realized I may have been the main character and the villain of an agency holiday pitch horror story! It’s a misconception that agencies have endless creds deck variations and pre-built presentations sitting on the shelf. Until joining an agency, I had no sense how much research, prep and practice goes into even early-stage pitch meetings.

Many clients see handing off the baton to an agency before breaking for the holiday as being a “good client.” What I didn’t realize is how this requires agencies to spend their holiday breaks prepping for the meeting. I’ve even apologized to former agency partners upon this illumination. I wish more brands would proactively consider holidays in their early project planning.

Because of this, Colle McVoy fiercely protects holiday breaks, declining pitches that would require work over the holiday. We will politely ask for an extension, but if it’s not granted, pass on the opportunity. Hard stop. I encourage agencies to consider how they are backing out the timeline to account for holidays without sacrificing how it represents itself.

Sharon Napier, executive chair and founder, Partners + Napier

It was December 2020, the peak of COVID burnout and the end of a really tough year. We were invited to pitch a dream client, but the presentations were scheduled for early January … which would mean working during our annual week off between Christmas and New Year’s.

I called the clients and—don't choke on your eggnog—asked them to postpone the deadline. One of the main pillars of their business was mental health, and I needed to prioritize the mental health of our teams and give everyone the holiday break to rest, recharge and be with their families. We know in this business there are times when we need to sacrifice nights and weekends and go all-in to bring it home. But there are also times when we need to say “no” if the circumstances won’t allow us to do our best work. Even though we’d had a couple of great meetings with this client and really wanted to work with them, I was ready to walk away if they couldn’t give us the time we needed.

But they agreed to push back the pitch for all three finalists, and they actually thanked me for my transparency. We would get them to a strategic platform before the holidays, then take a break and come back at the end of January to give it our all. 

Not only did we end up winning—but they bought the work we presented and it’s still in the market today. We’ve won two Effies together and grown the business from one service line to now supporting all three. 

I believe a big reason why this partnership is so successful is because we stood up for our people and created a foundation of mutual respect from the beginning.

Source:
Campaign US

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