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Horror stories from the dreaded client pitch

By The Drum, Administrator

March 6, 2008 | 14 min read

Pitch-poor tales

Some are titillating, others are simply legendary. One famous story is the agency that attended a chemistry meeting for a large blue chip company, only to leave their pad behind, which had notes from the meeting. One of the notes said: “They all seem pretty ok, not sure about the c*** with the glasses though.” The agency were invited back to pitch and when they turned up, all the clients were wearing glasses for a joke.

Another relates to the newly appointed British Rail agency (at the time) kicking off their first meeting by making the clients wait in reception for 25 minutes. When the furious clients finally got into the meeting room, the agency said: “Now you know how your customers feel, let’s set about how we’re going to overcome that.”

So with a little help from the aptly-named Birmingham-based recruitment company, Pitch Consultants, we set off to see which humorous anecdotes agencies would be willing to share with The Drum’s readers.

Turn over for the results. Some are taken from a competition held by Pitch, which resulted in Broadfern’s Katie Allison winning a £100 donation to the charity of her choosing.

Thanks to all those who took part. If the rest of you would like to share any of your own funny pitch moments, do so at The Drum’s online forum – www.thedrum.com/forum.

A long time ago, when I was creative director at Royds in Birmingham we got wind of a pitch opportunity on a sex aids account. I remember us enquiring of the top brass in London whether it was right for us to go for it on the grounds of propriety. ‘How much do they spend?’ they asked. “£500K” we answered. “Do it” they said.

So the brief came in and it fell to me to get the creative work sorted. I was given a catalogue as part of the background and I can remember to this day one of the captions. I was looking at a plastic torso lying on its front. It was annotated towards the rear: “Back view showing pumping and cleaning facilities.” In a moment of dreadful realisation I understood that if the torso were to be well used it may, after a period, fill up. Romantic fool that I am, I had not even come to terms with the idea that someone could make love to a plastic torso. This catalogue got passed around the creative dept quite a bit. We had a few laughs as you might imagine…

My biggest concern for the pitch was that I might end up laughing my tits off. On the day we set up in the boardroom on the 16th floor of Bank House in central Birmingham.

We had this habit at the time that for every new business pitch we would display the client product in the Boardroom. This had extended, on one occasion, to a ‘Mini Bar’ made out of a Mini with open bonnet when we were pitching to BL Cars.

Forest of dildos

On this day the Boardroom table was a forest of dildos. There was also the odd open mouthed and disembodied head (thankfully by this time I had come to accept that the body part might be enough. I mean who needs arms and legs… and if you don’t look at the mantelpiece when you are stoking the fire... who needs a mantelpiece at all?).

I spent several minutes composing myself before the client arrived for the presentation. I will not laugh. I will not laugh. I will not laugh.

At the appointed time the two clients arrived, both male in their 30s, suited and businesslike. They could have been accountants. In fact I think that one of them was an accountant.

On the other side of the table; our white haired and gentlemanly MD; alongside him a smartly dressed account director. I sat at one end. In the middle, as I said, a forest of dildos.

From the first moment nobody behaved as though the subject matter we were dealing with was in any way unusual. That just made me want to piss myself all the more... all these serious people having a serious conversation over a table full of dildos, ticklers and heads.

The key issue for the business was the threat of cheaper competition from the Far East.

“Some of these vibrators only work just the once” said the client. “Whereas our stuff is all very high quality and very well made…” and then, proud and indignant, with a hint of exasperation he said: “For nexample, all our vaginas are latex.”

I spluttered but managed to contain it. Every orifice was clamped shut.

There we sat, 16 floors in the air, glass almost floor to ceiling on two sides, the city laid out beneath us.

In the five or six years I worked at Bank House I cannot remember those windows being cleaned. Not once. Except for this day.

The way the room was arranged I was the first to see the window cleaning trolley start its descent. It appeared at the top of the windows and then slowly lowered. I saw the feet and then the legs, and then the figures of two window cleaners, one at each end.

I remember wondering…if I was a window cleaner would I look through the window?

Vigorously polishing

Both men were vigorously polishing and then, the inevitable; one of them looked inside.

His eyes fixed on the table and the suited gentlemen around it. His arm rapidly circling at first got slower and slower and then stopped.

Without taking his eyes from the table I could just hear his voice through the glass: “Andy!” At the other end of the trolley Andy turned. “Andy, look in there!”

In a huge gasp of release I lost it, spluttering, giggling, and gesticulating to explain my loss of control.

The client looked from the table to the window and from the window to the table.

“Don’t apologise,” he said, “sometimes we forget… this is quite an unusual business. In fact whenever anybody new joins us we always send them into the warehouse, and let them look around – just to get it out of the system.”

After all of that the pitch was successful and we were duly appointed. Two weeks later the warehouse burnt down.

Steve Hall, Bray Leino

I can remember in my previous job presenting some work to Ember Inns (Bass). Ember Inns were set up to be local pubs for the family to go - friendly, warm fires, ‘home cooking’. One of our creative concepts that we came up with was ‘Your Inn’. We went through the whole pitch talking about ‘Your Inn’ (urine) and only realised once we had left that there was a double meaning. Possibly not the best double entendre for a boozer either! Funnily enough we didn’t win that piece of business!

Katie Allison, Broadfern

As we walked into the pitch, the client placed an egg on the table. He explained that by the end of the presentation, if the egg was still intact, we had won the piece of business. However if at any stage he smashed the egg open on the table, we were out!

James Holden, Leader Communications

Pitching on a rainy day in Oxford this summer we had just sat down and done the introductions when an alarm rang and a chap popped his head around the door to say we had to evacuate due to imminent flood risk. Turning to the marketing director I asked if we should continue - yes she said but do it quickly and keep the bullsh*t to a minimum.

Nathan Lane, Golley Slater

A legend from the heights of advertising excess in the 80s is the creative director who, fresh from a presentation skills training course, was determined to make an impression on his opening. He boldly walked into the oak lined boardroom, strode to the antique board table and promptly drove a six inch nail into the table. He made an impression - he was escorted from the premises.

Nathan Lane, Golley Slater

It happened at a Magnet pitch a few years ago where a north west agency - I will not mention who - presented an idea to the Magnet Board. That day the Board were not in a very forgiving mood - so when the two agency creatives put some kitchen gloves on and disappeared behind the opposite side of the Board table they looked on unimpressed - the creative pair then put the kitchen gloves above the table and started a dialogue - ‘puppet style’ - about the virtues of kitchens - whilst using highly pitched Liverpudlian accents. Half way in the Chairman barked simply ‘ Enough! That is a bloody stupid idea!’ The two puppeteers then had to slowly stand back up, ashen - faced and sit on their seats once more, removing their kitchen glove puppets. ‘Any other ideas?!’ the Chairman barked again. ‘No’ the pair announced. ‘Then the meeting is concluded!’ he said. The agency did not get the business!

Anon, Leeds

A nameless agency head was on a train going to Bristol with his team for a pitch along with another agency going to the same pitch. This agency geezer surprisingly stumbles on the creative bags for the competitive agency and decides to throw them out of a train door window without being seen. The agency without the creative unsurprisingly lost the pitch.

Lisa Holme, KLM

When I was at First Direct, a London-based poster company came in to pitch a poster idea to us – that would be located in Vauxhall in London – it was going to be innovative, edgy and ‘huge’. He then unveiled the creative idea and it was a giant red telephone - he had thought that First Direct were Direct Line. I said “that red telephone looks like something Direct Line might like”. As he looked at me blankly, I continued “We are First Direct - the 24 hour bank!” He suddenly went very pale and was out the building in less than 60 seconds - we never saw him again!

Mike Phillipson, Propaganda

I was working on a pitch for B&Q, the DIY store. We started to read out the TV scripts to the main, big cheese client. He was a hardened northern man. The first TV script started like this: “We open on a beach...” The client cut us off with: “No we fucking don’t” and walked out the pitch. We didn’t win the account.

Anon, Manchester

At a previous agency, my boss at the time got the pitch time, for a not insignificantly sized piece of business, wrong by five hours. We only found out when we received an irate phone call from the client, asking why we hadn’t showed up. After much begging from my boss, we rearranged the pitch for the afternoon of the same day. However, again my boss somehow managed to delay things and the traffic was heavier than expected, meaning we were late again. Against all odds we still won it though!

Will Ockenden, Lucre Communications

I’m always up for a bit of pitch theatre. A bit of passion for your idea goes a long way. And in theory, this particular idea seemed like a good plan back in the comfort of the office. The pitch: Vileda. Task: Make mops interesting. Hmmm. Our proposition: Vileda, a better use of energy. One of the ideas was to create a viral film that spoofed the Disney classic Fantasia. That bit where the Apprentice creates an army of dancing mops to do his work. Rather than presenting a 2D image on a board I volunteered to ‘sprinkle some magic’ with my own live version of Fantasia using a Vileda ‘Supermocio’ mop. The moment arrived in the pitch. I delivered my David Brent style music and dance extravaganza. I stopped to receive the applause, the adulation, the bouquets...the silence was deafening. Apart from the tumbleweed drifting across the Vileda boardroom. The team hastily moved on as I sat down exhausted. But we won the pitch... I’m over it now.

Stephen Mooney, Dig For Fire

Before Sarah came on board, we worked with an external new business agency that set up a creds meeting with a really exciting new prospect – big budget, big operator within the dairy industry, based in a remote area in Scotland (we are based in Altrincham). All excited and geared up I set off to meet them. Six hours driving later, and I turned up at the address... it was a dirty container. Needless to say they had no budget, there was no opportunity and the new business agency was promptly sacked.

Kevin Murphy, The Foundry Communications

At a previous agency, we worked two weeks, late into the night to prepare our pitch presentation for a very large blue chip brand (in the cosmetics industry). Excited and raring to go, we turned up half an hour early. And waited... and waited... The client rolls into reception an hour late and tells us we now have half an hour to present (we had prepared two). Needless to say, we took it in our stride and focused on the key points to our presentation... with absolutely no reaction or engagement from the clients in the room - we may as well have been presenting to a brick wall. Even if they didn’t like it you’d have thought that they would have some comment - even negative - nothing. When we had finished, the senior client stood up and left, leaving the embarrassed junior client to see us out.

Sarah Cheal, The Foundry Communications

A former colleague of mine at a former agency was leading a business pitch for a potential new client. He went to their offices, where they had very nicely laid out cold drinks and some snacks of dried fruit and Brazil nuts. Christian (the colleague) began the pitch, and as someone asked a question, he casually reached for a Brazil nut. About five minutes later, his speech started to slur. (Just picture this “We always consider the consumer journey befwo deweopung wuny muchundusing sowutions.”) It was very sudden and very, very apparent. He paused, a bit startled. “Ah fink mah fwoat must be weawy dwy, Ahll just get some wuhta.” He tries to continue. But as he does, his tongue engorges to the size of an apricot and begins profusely drooling on his shirt. Upon which, he says “Uh mah gah, I can’t bweave!” Client A screams, “I think he’s allergic to nuts!” Client B screams, “Someone call the paramedics!” Client C screams, “Let’s get him some air” - and then opens the window and pushes Christian halfway out of a four story building. Lo and behold, Client A’s prognosis was correct, and it turned out that Christian was indeed allergic to nuts. Although the clients postponed the latter half of the pitch, he still didn’t get the business.

Anon, Manchester

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