The Art of the Pitch Post Mortem

If you did win, it is important to know why.

Like medicine, advertising and marketing services is a practice. The landscape is ever-changing, and you can never do, or know it all. But no part of our industry is strewn with more dead bodies than new business pitches. So why are pitches wrought with so many mistakes, deaths and collateral damage?

  • Because pitches are thrilling and full of hope, which tends to obscure the realities of the challenging path down which you’re sprinting. A pitch begins by aligning with our most addictive instincts.
  • Like falling in love, we are optimistic with no evidence.

Pitches are more stimulating than our regular work, because we are learning new things, and we are learning them really fast.

  • In a pitch we are asked to do many tasks at once, it’s completely unreasonable and as we multi-task away, we’ve never felt better or worked harder.
  • There is a sense that the agency has never been more creative.

Bob Kuperman had a great saying that sums up the process exactly.

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and you never really know what you won, until you got it.”

Appoint a “Cool Head” to Drive the Post Mortem

If you did win, it is important to know why. Was it the idea you presented, the fact that your team is brilliant and works well together, or that your agency resides in a place with great weather in winter. If you lost, there is usually a lot of rumination, self-blame and finger pointing. In both cases win or lose, there is usually not enough learning.

That’s why in advance of the pitch, it’s a good idea to appoint an “answer man/woman.”

  • This person is cool-headed, didn’t work on the pitch itself, and can come from any discipline in the agency.
  • The most important traits this person needs is to be both a good reporter and curious enough to dig and uncover the truth — without getting emotionally involved.
  • Introduce this person to the client at the beginning of the pitch process and explain their role. This makes the client more comfortable because it creates an atmosphere of objectivity – leaving egos at the door.

A cool head will help you define a clear version of what worked and what missed. How you connected your solutions to client business impact — or didn’t.

A cool head will help you understand what you should never repeat, including understanding the roles individual team members played and what senior people you should leave at home next time.

A cool head will help you see what you have learned from each and every experience.

Execute the Post Mortem Methodically

If the Pitch Post Mortem were an autopsy, objectivity is the “Y incision”.

Win or lose, following the pitch, have your Cool Head interview the client decision makers and the consultant if there is one. If you lost the pitch, however, be prepared for the client to have trouble communicating exactly why. Some clients will have a scorecard, but most will not. Your Cool Head may hear useless comments like, “we had better chemistry with the winning agency.” Duh.

Prepare your Cool Head with these three questions:

  1. What was the promise the client saw and bought in the agency they selected? (This gets at what they are looking forward to about the agency they hired and what excited them during the pitch — this insight allows you to reverse engineer your pitch to understand where you came up short.)
  2. Was there anything unclear or missing from your pitch? (This could be a capability, the right talent, your response to the brief, or a just a style issue.)
  3. Would the client be open to hearing from you in the future? (You will never know more about this client than on the heels of a new business pitch. Lick your wounds, regroup and get back on the horse for this client or someone else in the category.)

Then with client and consultant debrief in hand, find a wall and with a stack of colorful Post-Its representing disciplines, process and content, have the team map their thoughts on how you would do it differently, to obtain a different outcome. Ask yourselves, knowing what you know now:

  • Would we have engaged with this client in the first place and would we pitch them again in the future?
  • Learning what we’ve learned, would we have done things differently this time, or in the future?
  • And if so, what things?

Task the Cool Head with keeping the team honest. And finally, when you’re done developing all of the inputs, distill it down and share the learnings with the whole agency.

Use Post Mortems to Benefit Your Entire Agency

At the end of a long pitch process, a strong Post Mortem gives the whole agency the benefit of the team’s learning and a lesson in continuous agency improvement. It also gives the team some closure and an opportunity to get over the pitch, whether that’s by grieving or celebrating.

Oh, and the best news is that by adopting a consistent Post Mortem practice, you’ll reduce the number of dead bodies and collateral damage strewn around your agency.