Strippers and stomach flus: Agencies dish on their worst pitches ever

Before agencies get frustrated with their clients, they have to land the client. That involves, in most cases, a pitch. We asked top agency execs about their worst pitches ever. In most cases, in true agency fashion, these shops still managed to win the account, despite everything that went wrong.

Paul Venables, founder and chairman, Venables Bell & Partners
“Our lead presenter had the stomach flu and got sick while driving to the pitch. He sticks his head out the window to throw up and the way the wind works in nature, it creates a whole mess. He had to take off his dress shirt, use it to mop up the seat and the car.  We had the meeting, and he wore a very tight, tight, and white undershirt. We still won. There’s another story: We were really young and hungry, in year one. On the website, the client is based out of Miami. But the whole executive team and the marketing team is based in Atlanta. And we flew to Miami, then flew to Atlanta. Showed up dog-tired. We didn’t win. As someone said, we probably didn’t deserve to.”

Deacon Webster, CCO, Walrus
“We were pitching the National Enquirer and we did some research that showed that 6 out of 10 women standing in line at the checkout counter in a grocery store will pick up an Enquirer while they wait, but only one of them will actually buy it. They wanted it, but they didn’t think they should have it. What else is like that, we wondered? Male strippers. For the pitch, we thought it would be hilarious if we hired a real male stripper and dressed him up as if he was a copywriter on the team. We found a stripper that could do it but we didn’t get a look at him ahead of time. At the pitch, our stripper shows up and he’s four feet three inches, overweight, hairy and balding. He was the exact opposite of the Fabio that we were trying to depict in every way. We went through with it anyway. It was beyond a disaster. The client did not crack a smile throughout the entire presentation. Needless to say we didn’t get the business.”

Barney Robinson, CEO, Barton F. Graf 9000
“We were about a year-and-a-half old and Gerry [Graf] got a call from a client who was holding a very big and high profile pitch. She wanted to know why we didn’t want to pitch her business. She had emailed Gerry but didn’t get a response. Gerry said he didn’t get the email. We apologized sincerely and said we’d love to be part of it, hoping they might give us an extension, given the presentation date was only another 10 days away. They didn’t. So we had to do the entire pitch in half the time of every other agency. Happily, we ended up winning. It was only a few months ago that Gerry finally confessed that he did get the email; he just never saw it. I now make sure Gerry reads his emails on a daily basis.”

Adam Tucker, president, Ogilvy & Mather
“We were pitching a government account in London. We went to the main offices for the final pitch where we’d had two previous meetings. We waited in reception up until pitch time. No one came to get us. Finally, 15 minutes later, we get a call asking us why aren’t we there. I say, ‘We are there.’ ‘There’ turned out to be across London at their other office. The only easy way to get there was the Tube. There were seven of us sprinting, schlepping all the pitch stuff, through the crowded subway, sweating buckets.”

Brooks Day, svp, business development, FCB West
“We were pitching a large technology client and were just getting settled in the room. As our CEO went to make his opening remarks and click to the first slide … the power went out. Not just in the room we were in but in the entire building. While we waited patiently, making small talk, we quickly realized the power may not come back on. Days of strategic research, weeks of creative development and we couldn’t show them anything. So we did what we had to do. We proceeded to present without any slides or visuals (in a dark conference room). Fortunately for us, the blackout resulted in an incredibly authentic and personable meeting. Our team wasn’t complaining about our three-pitch rehearsals when that happened.”

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