Winning a Pitch With a Squirt Gun.

I’ve seen agencies lose pitch after pitch. They never think it’s their fault. How could it be? They agonized over the brief. They stayed up late the night before, making sure every word echoed what the client said or intimated.

So what do they do the next time? Stay up even later, agonize over the presentation even more, second guess the creative until there’s no vestige of creative left. “I’m sure we nailed it,” they’ll say, coming into the boardroom, hoping there’s coffee. Clients who don’t provide coffee in a pitch are losing half the agencies right from the start. Some of them haven’t been to bed yet.

I remember doing a crazy pitch once. We were one of three agencies shortlisted. Like everyone else, we were up most of the night. Getting out of the car, the account director suddenly turns to me and says, “I’m so tired I’ve forgotten everything.” He’d even forgotten to give his kid his squirt gun back. It was still in his pocket. For some reason, we thought it was funny as hell. We just stood there, laughing like crazy.

By the time we got through the front doors, we were beyond giddy. We couldn’t even look at each other. On the elevator, I finally said to him, “I don’t want to sound like a sore loser or anything, but if he kills me, shoot him.” It was an old line from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The account director went into hysterics. We were still in hysterics going upstairs.

We stumbled off the elevator, right into the boardroom. The first agency was still packing up. They looked horrible. I mean, they looked like they’d seen Hamlet’s ghost. Grabbing their stuff, they gave us odd looks, which practically sent us into hysterics again. “Man, we’ve got to straighten up,” the account director said, grabbing a coffee and sitting as far away from me as possible.

The presentation started smoothly enough, until one of our acetates started curling on the overhead (we still used them back then). The light seemed to be eating through it. Next thing I know, the account director pulls out his kid’s squirt gun. “Want me to put that thing out of its misery?” he asked.

Our whole team broke out laughing. We couldn’t help ourselves. All that tension, all those things we had to remember. It just burst out like nervous energy gone haywire. I got up to present creative. They used to put you in “the oval” back then, meaning you stand in the middle surrounded by tables stretching the length of the room. “This reminds me of a runway in a strip club,” I said. One of the clients yelled back “How would you know that?” Now everyone was in hysterics.

Somehow we got through the presentation and won the account.

You’re probably saying, “Well, we like to start off with a joke, just to loosen everyone up.” That’s not it at all. What the client saw was an agency that obviously enjoyed working together. Maybe you think it’s a small thing, but it’s not, and I’ll tell you why.

Pitches often include different departments who feel they should be part of the agency hiring process. Outside of that, they rarely socialize. That’s just the way companies are structured these days. It may be efficient, but it isn’t fun. Here we were having fun. It wasn’t just the laughter that was infectious, it was the camaraderie.

So, okay, now you’re saying, “Is that really a good thing? Maybe the client gets jealous. Maybe they don’t like seeing us having so much fun.” Again, that’s not it at all. Most companies languish in politics. It divides people. Everyone’s looking over their shoulders. We came across as a team. We believed in each other. We didn’t waste our time on internecine warfare.

Think for a minute what the clients saw earlier that day. The first agency came in tired. The presentation was stiff. They formally addressed everyone, introducing the next person with, “I’ll turn it over now to…”

Clients see that every day. With us, we walked around, handing things to each other, enjoying ourselves. It was like when Frank Sinatra and his gang did their thing at The Sands in Las Vegas. For two hours, Frank and Dean and Sammy and others had a good time up on stage. You laughed because they laughed. You had a good time because they were having a good time.

As Sinatra once said, “We had a party every night up there. It was all off the cuff. Some nights Sammy was the funniest, sometimes it was Dean. You never knew what was coming next. Those were great nights.”

Obviously, there’s a limit to how much fun you can have in a pitch. You don’t want to come across as clowns. A lot of money is involved. But think what happens in social situations when you act all stiff and formal. In the end, people gravitate to the circle laughing, having a good time.

Ever notice how most meetings take place at the client’s these days? That wasn’t always the case. Remember in Mad Men? Clients always came to the agency. They liked getting away from their own offices. Spending the day at the agency was a break, a chance to see something different. In my five years on Ford, we were only out in Oakville once.

That’s something to keep in mind, especially if you’re losing pitches. The work itself is rarely the issue. More often than not, it’s how the agency presents itself. I’ve been in presentations where the clients were clearly bored. Maybe the information was sound, maybe the agency covered all the bases. But it was boring. More importantly, those white faces showed fear and panic.

Do you honestly think that’s what a client wants to see? They probably see fear and panic every day. At some point, they need a break. If the agency is as boring and stiff as the client, no wonder they request having the meeting at their offices. It’s not like you’re showing them anything different.

Agencies are supposed to be different. We’re communications experts. How are we conveying that if we come across as stiff and formal? Clients don’t need echoes. They need an agency that breaks molds and generates excitement.

If you don’t show that in the pitch, why should they expect it in your work? The answer is, they don’t. That’s why you’re losing pitches (and probably employees as well). Good agencies tend to keep both.

I’m not saying you have to take a squirt gun to a pitch. But I’d suggest you do something. Otherwise the business will go somewhere else. And, pretty soon, so will your employees.

What do you think? Should agencies show their camaraderie? Or should they stick to being serious and responsible? Let me know at:

Robert Cormack is a freelance copywriter, novelist and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores (also libraries; Perth, Australia has copies at both their libraries). Check out Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for more details.

I did a poor imitation of Don Draper for 40 years before writing my first novel. I'm currently in the final stages of a children's book. Lucky me.