A moment of revelation (not religious)

Actually, to do with how you win new business.  Anyone who’s read Christopher Booker on the subject (link to a good review: http://www.powells.com/review/2005_02_06.html) knows that there are only seven plots in storytelling (actually, I think that some years later he revised the number upwards to nine). 

In a moment of revelation, nowhere near Damascus but not too far, I guess, from the Syrian fish and chip shop in Camden, I suddenly realise that there’s a roughly similar number of strategies available to present in new business pitches - and that the secret of success lies in figuring out which one is most appropriate in each case.

Why is this discovery important?  Well, mainly because it’s how you win.  But also – maybe it’s the same point in different words – because it stops you wasting time worrying about stuff that makes you more likely to lose.

Most of all, it stops you wasting time on worrying about being original.  There may be one pitch in ten where this matters. The other nine, it’s a non-issue.

Let me give you an example, from the retail funds market.  A few years ago, in the depths of the 2002 crash, we won a pitch for the ISIS account.  Market conditions were so bad that this probably was the one time in ten when you had to do something different.  We did a very cards-on-the-table, tell-it-like-it-is, no-more-bull-market-hype thing built around the strapline “ThIS IS reality” (note how ISIS’s name is cleverly hidden in the line…)

The launch poster had a sceptical consumer saying “Overpromising and underdelivering – isn’t that what investments are all about?”, which was the kind of thought that didn’t just capture the zeitgeist but banged it up in solitary confinement, put it on a diet of bread and water and threw away the key.

Excellent.  But.

A few years later – for reasons that, with considerable understatement, I think we can say reflect more negatively on the client than on the agency – we found ourselves repitching for the account.  There had been a merger, and the brand was now F&C, not ISIS.  The markets were more bullish.  It was time for a more positive message.

We built a campaign around another cracking strapline – “Expect Great Things.”  We lost.  They liked the line – I can tell they did because to this day, F&C ads display a disconnected and irrelevant travesty of this line, “Expect Excellence”, bunged in pointlessly down at the bottom among the health warnings.  But this time, they didn’t want an original idea.  In fact, they bought an idea with the brand F&C cleverly hidden in the word “F&CT”.  This is a good idea – so good, in fact, that we’d very happily used it five years earlier in our work for Alex Lawrie Factors.

See what I mean about originality?  But we’re only half way there.  The big investment pitch of 2006 was M&G, and I must say I can hardly think of a brand I’d rather work for.  We lost.  This week, we see the winning agency’s new advertising.  Strapline:  “No promises.  Just great expectations.”  First ad’s headline:  “Surely it’s better to overdeliver than overpromise?”  The headline from our first ISIS poster, with the strapline from our F&C pitch.

For the avoidance of doubt, I want to make it absolutely clear that I’m not making any suggestion at all of any plagiarism here (except that stupid “Expect Excellence” strapline, which was certainly a rewrite of “Expect Great Things”).  Nor am I saying that any of the clients in my story made the “wrong” choice, either of strategy, of creative or indeed of agency.

What I am saying is that on two of the three occasions, we tried far too hard and worried far too much about doing something different and original, when in fact the real skill was to recognise which existing (unoriginal) strategy and idea fitted the situation best.

This task, obviously, isn’t completely straightforward.  Even when you’ve worked out what the seven strategies are (or is it nine?) you still start with an 84% chance (or 89% chance) of getting it wrong. A number of skills are required – in particular listening skills, so often agency people’s achilles ear – to whittle down those odds.

Still, I’m sure I’m right about this.  Now all I need is your help to pin down the seven (or nine) approaches.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *