What can we learn from coming in second?

The email comes in: the client you’ve just pitched has sent you the note you’ve been waiting for – did you win the business or not? If you win – fantastic! Break out the beer, congratulate each other on being funny and good looking and go roll around naked in your pile of money. If you lost it – put on a positive face, pull everyone together and break the bad news – all the effort was for nothing. Or was it?

According to ad legend George Lois and his comments in the film Art & Copy, there is nothing to learn from failure. He says to never give your failures a second thought cause you’ll start thinking like a loser. Only think about your wins, is his advice.

Sure that’s worked pretty well for George, but I’m glad not everyone follows that philosophy. It took Thomas Edison over 10,000 experiments and failures before perfecting the light bulb. In each case he took notes about what went wrong to learn and move forward. If George was in charge of making the light bulb, we’d still be in the dark.

We recently pitched a piece of business that would have been a game changer for ZGM. It was a tourism account and we were one of three agencies shortlisted to pitch.

Having been through enough pitches, you know when you’re connecting and resonating with a client, or when you’re talking to someone who already seen the light and it looks nothing like you. Unfortunately for us, we left the room feeling we were preaching to a choir already converted to another religion.

Not surprisingly, the email came through yesterday saying the assignment had been awarded to a national agency that had more relevant experience, etc. etc.

The agency we lost to is very good at tourism. We would have gone to the mat to deliver for this client. But the agency they chose will also move the needle in a positive direction for the client.

But we still lost. The question we ask now (George wouldn’t) is what can we learn from this failure? There were a number of things that were said and implied as to why the decision went to the other agency. Based on those, we can learn the following:


– perceived as a weakness against a larger multi-national agency, our smaller size needs to be better positioned as a strength in our ability to adapt and respond quickly. There isn’t much we can do about our size compared to a multi-national, but we need to do a better job positioning it as a strength, as we believe it is.

Innovate – as a one-office agency the people required to make a shift in direction, skills, competencies or technology are all sitting within earshot of each other. I could yell across the room right now that we need a better solution for problem X and that answer could be implemented 30 minutes later. No big ship to turn or approvals from boards of directors. It means if we’re getting beaten in pitches on technology or innovation – we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Partner – we believe in an integrated approach. And we’re very good at a number of disciplines. But our team isn’t as deep or specialized as a 300 person national group would be. So we need to enhance our offering in areas that are of strategic importance to our clients that we don’t offer in house, or find that our offer isn’t as strong as it might be from a specialized agency. Media is a good example of this. As is Public Relations. We don’t do it in house, so we need to make sure the partners we bring to the table are the best possible and elevate our team to the next level.

Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight – pitches are similar to first dates in that first impressions are critical. Both parties are evaluating fit, strengths, weaknesses and, umm…capabilities. So while the “dog and pony” show without any substance is a waste of everyone’s time, an agency needs to make every effort to not only address the issues of the RFP, but showcase how they’re marriage material. Sure you’re smart, current, engaged and have an understanding of the issues at hand – but make sure that comes across in your presentation. Because we often don’t know who we’re pitching against. And doing anything less than everything you can does everyone a disservice.

There are a few other points about our specific offer to this client that we know we can improve on as well. And if it wasn’t for this failure, we might not have made them the priority they are in the office today. We’ll be a better agency for it. So if looking at lessons we can learn from failure makes us think like losers – well, anyone ever seen Revenge of the Nerds? No, me neither.

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