Some years ago, an agency owner came to me seeking help with their new business efforts. They were no longer being asked to participate in pitches, and their prospective opportunities seemed to be shrinking.
After I started working with them, I came to realize that this agency’s universe had been progressively narrowing because the owner had a habit of taking offense when they didn’t win a pitch. Because he wasn’t able to lose graciously, he had left behind a trail of burned bridges. He had taken the agency’s most likely future sources of new business and made them feel strongly about not wanting to work with them.
Because he was the owner, he set the tone for the agency. His thinking was that the agency had poured a lot of resources into chasing these opportunities, and they were confident in their work. The prospective client(s) simply didn’t “get it.” From the owner’s point of view, the prospects did not value his agency’s contribution when they declined to engage them.
He felt the agency was being taken advantage of or slighted. So his attitude towards lost opportunities was essentially, “you’ve wasted my time, but you won’t waste any more; you’re dead to me.” He’s probably not the only one to have felt that way at some point, but most people have learned to suck it in and not convey that to the prospect because they understand it's not self-serving.
It took some doing to get this agency owner to see things from a different perspective. First, from his prospects' perspective, and secondly, taking a longer view towards his agency's best interests. Was he able to fix it? Many of the relationships weren’t salvageable, and he had done permanent damage to his reputation. In business, relationships are everything, and people remember how you make them feel. Remaining professional and understanding the right way to handle lost opportunities can greatly impact an agency's downstream new business.
What is the right way to handle a lost pitch? Some tips:
- Keep in mind that even though you didn’t win the pitch, the prospective client was still interested enough to engage you this far in the process. Competing agencies may have different internal champions, and you may not be privy to all of the politics in the decision-making process.
- You may never get the whole story about why another agency was chosen over yours, but those who don’t ask may remain completely in the dark. When you lose a pitch, you deserve to understand why, so ask questions. (TrinityP3 has published a great list of questions for agencies to ask at the end of an unsuccessful pitch process.)
- Don't personalize losses. Take honest feedback and constructive criticism as a gift. It may provide a path of entry to a future opportunity with this or other clients. So thank them for it. Be gracious.
- Losing stings. But you can’t be defensive or aggressive about it. If there is a personality on your team who struggles to rein in their emotions after a disappointing loss, or maybe has a prickly personality, omit them from your pitch team. You can’t afford to lose future opportunities over one team member.
- Avoid making passive-aggressive comments that denigrate the process, the decision-makers, or the winners. You don’t want to look like a sore loser. Just because you may not understand or agree with the decision doesn’t mean that it’s a bad one, or for the reasons you perceive. There is a certain saying about why we shouldn’t make assumptions for good reason.
- Keep the door open for the future. Things may change in 6-12 months, and they may decide they made the wrong decision. Your agency may start to look like “the one that got away.” Additionally, since they now have vetted you, your agency may be the first choice for project work—which is often a better entryway than the pitch process.
What do you have to show for it?
- Do an internal debrief to discuss what worked and what didn’t. If you need to take a few cathartic minutes to complain about things, do so in closed quarters, and put a time limit on it. Ten minutes should suffice. Then you have to own your role in the outcome. Note where missteps were made, but don’t be too hard on yourself. Celebrate the fact that you worked hard and will emerge stronger from this loss. (Of course, this only works if you learn from it.)
- Discuss whether this opportunity was the right fit for your agency. In hindsight, could you have done a better job of vetting it? Was it a reach? Did you lack vertical expertise? Were you too small, too inexperienced, lacking in proven results? Did your presenters connect with the pitch review team? Knowing what you know now, would you still want to work with this client in the future? What questions can you ask next time to improve your odds of closing the business for your agency?
- Assess what you have gained from this experience. For example, you should come away with a better understanding of this prospective client, which you can leverage in periodic lead nurturing and future opportunities.
- Another gain will likely be research done for the prospect’s industry vertical and immediate challenges and opportunities. Don’t let this valuable content sit unused until it’s no longer relevant. Use it to reach out to the prospect’s competitors and pique their interest with your insights and ideas.
Plan your next steps
If you allow it to, a loss can trigger a state of self-doubt and negativity for your team that can snowball into additional losses. Don’t allow your team to become demoralized and internalize the defeat. Put it into perspective: even the best agencies lose pitches regularly. Don’t let it mess with your mojo. It’s critical to maintain your momentum and stay in the positive.
Part of your positive momentum will come from focusing on constructive next steps to leverage what you’ve learned in the process of going after this opportunity. There are at least four recommended next steps when coming out of a losing pitch:
- If you determined that this opportunity was never going to be a great fit, change your qualification process to avoid wasting resources on unwinnable pitches in the future.
- If it was a good opportunity and you’d still want to work with them, make a plan to continue to nurture the relationship by reaching out periodically. Sign up for any news or updates on their blog and follow press releases and news about their company (via Google alerts or another tool). When there are significant events or movements in the company (such as a new CEO or CMO, for example), that’s when you want to be first to reach out and keep your agency top of mind. (Note: do not make contact if you are still resentful about losing the opportunity; this would be counterproductive). See some of our other tips for farming lost opportunities.
- Address whatever missteps and weaknesses were identified in your team, your creative, your strategy, your presentation, and the way you presented. While this is subjective and relative to your competition, the goal is never to make the same mistake twice. Maybe the honest answer is that you did nothing wrong, and all of the candidate agencies were in fierce competition. But odds are, there is an opportunity to improve somewhere. Continue to advance your pitch game and know that if future mistakes are made, at least they will be new ones.
- Think about how your work on this pitch can be repurposed. If you just delivered a highly-informed strategy on how the client can bring their plant-based CPG food product to market, identify other CPG brands that may have plant-based CPG food products, and see if you can get in front of them to share your ideas. Start a new business outreach campaign to break through while your information is still current. Perhaps you can publish a thought leadership piece in a relevant industry publication to build visibility and share in your outreach.
The art of losing should be discussed more often than it is, particularly given the frequency with which pitches are lost. Not every loss will remain a potential future opportunity. Still, five lost opportunities are more likely to be sources of new business than five—or even fifty—cold prospects with whom you have no relationship. They are high-value contacts, and relationships with them must be carefully handled.
Among agency leaders, where sizable egos sometimes reign, handling losses with grace and professionalism can be a challenge. All it takes is one or two people on your team to sour future opportunities with the prospective client. Planning to deal with loss should be part of your pitch preparation process, especially when new team members are participating or when there have been road bumps in the past.
- How to Farm Lost Opportunities for Your Agency
- Improve Prospect Qualification To Boost Agency Close Rate
- 6 Ways Agencies Botch Prospect Meetings
- Factors that Decide the Pitch — Aside from Creative
- Rethink Your Agency’s Approach to RFIs & RFPs
- 6 Can't-Miss Insider Pitching Tips for Creative Agencies