Inane by the Insane: War Stories of New Biz Pitches

It was all triggered by a cute story. The Milk Board had awarded FCB the account in Chicago, supposedly because they painted their beautiful wood-paneled boardroom with Ben & Jerry-like landscape scenes of dairy cows. Suddenly, everyone considered himself a brilliant pitch strategist. The gimmicks flowed.

There was the Miller Ice pitch where a senior agency executive, unbeknownst to the pitch team, sent up to Milwaukee a man dressed in an Eskimo suit. He handed out flyers telling leery (and, for some, offended) brewery employees to “Vote for Nanook,” referring to the creative idea that would be pitched later that day. A Miller executive called the still-in-the-dark agency director on the pitch and told him to “remove the Inuit.”

Another in the annals of Midwest agency high jinks was the storming of a health care facility. The agency pitch team took their bonding exercises a little too seriously, developing a military pitch motif. They wanted to stress their aggressiveness and their discipline. The morning of the actual pitch, they donned camouflage fatigues and came rushing to the doors from a military-style helicopter. The alarmed – and apparently agile – receptionist managed to both lock the doors before they could come in and to call the local SWAT team.



No one got shot, thank Heavens, but the agency team wound up being driven home without the new business.

This isn’t to imply that gimmicks always fail. At J. Walter Thompson we used to surprise potential new clients as they emerged from the room at the end of the pitch. The entire staff from every floor of the building would quietly collect outside the doors. When the clients emerged, the staff would applaud, inexplicably cheering both clients and pitch team. It gave potential clients an adrenaline rush and suggested that their account would be taken seriously, even in an agency with giant accounts. We would later hear that the applause was sometimes the slight element that pushed some clients in our direction.

For me, the gimmicks stopped in Australia. It was the end of a 44-country pitch for the Australian Olympics account. After running through a marathon of pitches, the potential clients were arriving in Sydney for the final pitch by JWT. I was supposed to handle the interactive element.

The director in charge of Australia had set up his enormous boardroom overlooking Sydney Harbor as a piece of the Outback. Tons of sand was brought up the elevators to cover the floor. Strange indigenous plants were strewn about the room. Aborigines were hired to play didgeridoos and dance. It all seemed quite impressive until our man from New Zealand arrived.

He had spoken to the clients after their most recent pitch viewing in that country. His one piece of advice: “They’re sick of the %*#%$ gimmicks.”

He hadn’t yet seen the boardroom. But he did a few moments later when he, I and even the SVP in charge of Asia were all handed spades to start shoveling sand back into the rolling bins. If I remember correctly, his exact response was, “Oh, bloody God.”

We managed to get most of the sand out in the few hours that we had left, but I suspect we appeared a bit disheveled. We paid off the Aborigines (which, incidentally, is a cultural faux pas. If ever in the need to get rid of Aborigines, do not – I stress do not – try to pay them off.) The didgeridoo player, deeply offended, staked out the lobby downstairs and harangued the clients as they came through.

We met them on the top floor elevator bank. After perfunctory greetings, one said, “The strangest thing just occurred. We were accosted by a group of people downstairs.”

The office’s manager looked surprised and concerned. “My goodness.”

The client lowered his voice for fear of appearing culturally insensitive, “I think they were…” and he began to whisper, “… Aborigines.”

“That’s incredible,” the office manager said, as though puzzled.

And that straight-faced denial marked for me the end of the big pitch gimmicks. It was fun while it lasted. Although I’m sure that somewhere out there, there’s an account director talking to a man in a monkey suit, asking how much extra it would cost to throw in the flock of geese.

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