McCann London won the global advertising account for Pernod Ricard whisky brand Chivas last December. It was a triumph for the agency, not least because of the “awful” start it got off to in the pitch process. But the agency’s managing director explained why it was an important lesson while speaking at The Drum’s Pitch Perfect event in London.
McCann won the Chivas business following a pitch against BBH, CP&B, Wieden + Kennedy and incumbent of nine years, Havas London.
“We weren't invited in,” recalls Sheryl Marjoram, while speaking to The Drum’s consultancy chief Steve Antoniewicz. “We only got in by inviting ourselves when someone dropped out. We were the late wildcard.”
Marjoram said its first response to the brief set by client, Chivas Regal global marketing director Richard Black, was an unmitigated disaster.
The whisky brand had been struggling in China, with lagging sales in the region having a negative impact on the global business which were down 3% at the time.
“In the meeting, [Black] told us ‘wow, that was so brilliantly awful. It's so wrong on every level’,” she revealed to the audience.
“But it gave us an opportunity to be open and honest. He didn't want to do Sunday best or let everyone else give us feedback. He gave us true honesty and candour and showed us how he plays in bad weather. And we didn't want to sit there and defend something we did in a short period of time. So, we listened.”
Undeterred, not only did the pitching team take on the feedback, they also turned up to every supplementary briefing offered and took any opportunity to get face time with the client.
“And then [Black] rung and said ‘I never thought I'd be making this call...but it's McCann London’,” laughed Marjoram.
She added that the way the pitch process went offered up the opportunity to act "as humans in bad weather together and, in the end, when he was choosing he knew the work was good and that in bad weather [the agency] are people I can have uncomfortable conversations with, and those people don't get arrogant and those people feel like people I want to have by my side in a storm. We were lucky not to have it go smoothly.”
The agency launched its first work for Chivas last month, which was tied to its landmark three-year global sponsorship of Manchester United to become the club's global spirits partner.
When to pitch (and when to walk)
Marjoram's also shared other lessons learnt in over two-decades working in advertising, including a five year stint as a managing partner at Ogilvy & Mather, two years at CP&B, and a year at Saatchi & Saatchi before she was lured to McCann London 18 months ago.
Having just finished pitching for two accounts as the incumbent (winning one, losing the other) her mind was on the challenges of being the current agency when the pitch is called.
“Pitching for an incumbent is probably the most frustrating, sobering, confusing, divisive thing. At some point that was the beautiful thing you pitched for and something gone wrong,” she offered.
Her advice was the following: if it’s a government account and the review is mandatory, then by all means the incumbent should repitch with confidence. If it's a roster pitch ahead some kind of consolidation, do it.
“But if it's because of relationship and performance reasons and the client hasn’t given you a shot across the bow I would suggest you have an incredibly candid discussion before you go into that pitch. Because at some point you've become so disconnected that this probably isn't going to be marriage counseling, it's going to be divorce.”
And at the end of those candid conversations, if the agency is still convinced it should pitch then an overhaul will be necessary, is her belief.
“You have to be even more excited about the brand than you were before - you have to genuinely believe your ambition is shared. If the team can bring that level of optimism and no passive aggression and no bad feeling then go for it, if they can't then you have to change teams.”
“And if you win, you can’t just to go celebrating. You have to think about what that partnership now looks like, have a hard conversation up front.”