The best pitch I ever lost

By Simon Derungs, 18 August 2023 | 4 mins read

I remember the pitch as if it was only yesterday, though in truth it was 30 years ago. It was back at GGT and we were pitching for London Regional Transport’s fare evasion account. LRT (the precursor of TFL) had been running the “Get a ticket. Not a criminal record” campaign for some time and were looking for something new.

The clients, ID cards hanging from their necks, were seated, introductions were made, and we were invited to begin.

Our Creative Director, Tim Mellors, reached over and pressed ‘play’ (it was a Umatic) and the test ad we’d made began. We’d shot it by secretly filming people being stopped and questioned by inspectors at London Underground stations. The film was raw, unsettling, the woman being filmed clearly uncomfortable, maybe a little scared. The super appeared, “Everything she said was used in evidence against her”. When the film ended there was an awkward silence in the room, and Tim let it linger, staring from client to client.

It was powerful stuff, and made a big impact, with much fidgeting and nervous laughter. We were just 3 minutes into a 60 minute presentation. There followed, of course, the thinking behind the work, the research, the insights, the rationale. But the immediate impact was undeniable.

It was the first and maybe only time that I’ve seen a creative presentation (and certainly a pitch) open in this way. Agencies (and clients) are creatures of habit, so typically presentations follow a tried and tested formula:

  1. Your brief
  2. The strategy
  3. Our brief
  4. …and only then the creative

All well and good, but here’s the thing – it’s a cheat. Your ultimate target audience do not have the benefit of your slides, of having the idea explained to them, building up to the actual work in a beautifully logical and compelling argument that leaves you agreeing that the message is indeed bang on brief.

Your audience just witnesses the ad. Cold, unprepared, and if it captures their attention and interest, they may watch, engage, even respond. As Howard Luck Gossage said, “…nobody reads ads. People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad”.

What Tim did was simply to mimic real life, and its effect was equally real.

I wonder why agencies don’t try this more often. Is it fear that their work won’t land without a clearly drawn out flight path? That clients will not ‘get’ the brilliant insight, big idea, inspiring execution?

Surely it would be better to let the work speak for itself, because a good idea, just like a good joke, shouldn’t need explaining.

There are obvious benefits of this approach:

  • It treats your clients (or prospective clients) as grown-ups. If they’re smart, and understand the challenges they face, they’ll appreciate how the work might have the desired effect
  • It’s authentic, letting the clients experience, to some extent, the agency’s thinking through their audience’s eyes
  • It creates an immediate impact in the room. It zags, gets their attention, sets you (and your work) apart from the other agencies, and ensures they’ll remember you when they’re back in the taxi
  • No question, this can be as uncomfortable for the agency as for the client. Agencies typically have lots to say, and try to say it all in order to ‘sell’ the work. The reality is that this can just get in the way, creating too many layers of preparation and explanation
  • It’s brave! For the simple reason that the clients may not like it, and the agency then faces an uphill struggle to change their minds. One might argue that this is better, for you can listen to the clients, flush out issues, and seek to assuage their concerns right there in the room

By the way, we didn’t win the business. The clients wanted a new tagline, and ads that were less ‘uncomfortable’, regardless of possible effectiveness.

So what do you think – is it better to build up to it? Or build from it?