Nick Emmel
Aug 15, 2023

We need to talk about losing

The pitch process makes losers out of the best of us. It just doesn't make good business sense.

Photo: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty Images.

Our industry is all about The Win. New business, awards, new talent. All opportunities for us to shout, “Look at us, look at our momentum, look at how wonderfully successful we are!” We are a festival of performative optimism.

If you read the industry press (which you do, you’re reading it now), you’d be led to believe that every agency is on top of their game, winning client after client, award after award. Never once being subjected to the ignominy of not taking the crown.

We take unbridled joy in the win, and why the f*** shouldn’t we? It’s good for business, it’s good for reputation, it’s good for morale, it’s damn good for the soul.

But what about when we lose? 

After all, it happens to us all. For every pitch there’s at least one loser. Often many more. In recent processes, there have been some great agencies left on the sidelines.

Christ, I think I even saw Uncommon on the loser list once.

Agencies filled with talent who have put everything on the line (often for free) to chase that glorious prize. All driven by the unshakeable belief that they were to be The One.

You’d be forgiven for forgetting the fallen. Losing agencies are relegated to a footnote in the press release. Or worse, as the “unnamed agency vying for the account."

And we all probably prefer it that way. To slink off into the background untainted, pretending that we’d never do something as unimpressive as lose.

But it’s the reality. One that Mr President is experiencing right now. Having just come second (it might have been third, but f*** it, it’s that optimism again) in the Very pitch.

A pitch that we did everything right for. With a set of clients we know and love. With an account we were perfect for. Yet we lost.

Two years of laying the groundwork. Two months of pitch preparation. Two hours of presenting our hearts out. Then a two minute call to say, “Sorry, it’s not you.”

F***. That feels terrible. The bottom of your stomach drops out. Your eyes avert, desperate to not meet the hopeful gaze of the team.

Stoically trying to sound grateful for the opportunity, while inside your dreams evaporate in a poof of smoke.

All the stages of grief flow in at once. Only to then cruelly revisit you over the next few days one by one.

“It’s fine,” you say. “We did ourselves proud,” you profess. “We will learn from this and come back stronger,” you hollowly lie. All defensive instincts to build yourself up and protect the team around you.

But the reality is, it hurts.

Even more so when the world is in recession and – as the AAR tells us – new business opportunities have taken a nosedive. All the love, dedication, effort and belief that pours into your pitch. And then nothing. Nada.

Instead we are left impotently holding an incredible body of work. Work that would dramatically transform the prospects of any multi-category retailer. Work that now has no home or audience.

We aren’t the only ones. Pablo are in the same boat as us. St Luke’s, Mother, and Who Wot Why are all no doubt reeling following the Hiscox loss. The pitch teams at Wonderhood and WPP probably felt bereft losing out on John Lewis.

And two of Leo Burnett, Adam&Eve/DDB and McCann are going to be left devastated once the “really intense” process finally finishes.

Of course, we all know what we are getting into. We willingly signed up for the process. And for us, our pitch was impeccably run in the fairest, most gratitude-filled and respectful way possible.

Even if we didn’t even get any beer and pizza money.

The Gate must have produced something outstanding. And in some perverse way, I’m pleased that they did. We only ever wanted the best for our clients, and now they have it. We genuinely wish the best for Very and The Gate, they’re going to smash it.

We will get over it. Business will continue. In fact, on the very day of our final presentation, we found out we won the pitch for Airtakser.

Although, I’m ashamed to say, in my gleeful pitch-winning exultations, I never once considered the other two agencies who lost.

Perhaps that’s the biggest learning from all this. To reflect that, as an industry, we collectively give up so much for free. Our expertise, our talents, our time, our knowledge, our connections, our end product.

For every winner, there are many, many losers–not as a result of competence, but rather of circumstance.

And as long as we collectively persist with the wasteful idea of the pitch as the best way to sell our services, we will always have a lot more losers in the industry than winners. 

Now, anyone know of any retailers who need a game-changing creative platform...?

Nick Emmel is founder and strategy partner for Mr President.

Campaign UK

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