The simple fact is that once an account goes into review, it’s extremely rare for the incumbent agency to keep the business. Yet, what often transpires is that the agency receives very positive communications from the client about how it should definitely stay in the game and pitch the business because the odds are quite good that it will win. So, never wanting to lose a good piece of business, the agency spends countless hours and $$$ trying to show the client(s) just how well the team understands their business, the great results that have been achieved and a host of other positive factors that it believes should position it well above the bright eyed competition.
While I’m sure this isn’t the only reason why incumbents lose, the key reason why the agency is actually the underdog from the beginning of the pitch process (contrary to what the client says) is because everyone likes shiny, new objects in life. And, when the pitch review starts, those shiny new objects (as in the other competing agencies) represent a fresh look at the world. That, in itself, is very appealing to any client… even though he/she will never tell the incumbent that.
We recently found ourselves in just such a position. We’ve had this client for 9 years. It’s a pretty dysfunctional company. That might sound like sour grapes, but it isn’t. If you asked our client contacts there this question, they would agree. The company has had a revolving door of CEOs (probably 7-8 over the last nine years). And, as much as they wanted us to provide them with strategic communications, they never had the ability to let us do anything beyond tactical media relations… up until the last 9 months, that is.
Ironically at that time, a new CEO came into town to shake everything up. At first, we viewed this as a very scary new reality. He beat us up pretty badly (I still have the bruises to show for it), as well as our clients. He wanted to know why there hadn’t been more strategic work executed on the brand to set the company apart from the serious competition that exists in the marketplace. Those were anxiety ridden discussions because as much as we tried to push through new campaigns that could have delivered the type of results he screamed about not seeing, nothing ever happened due to the internal inertia that exists within this giant company. So, we assumed that our agency and some of the clients would be summarily terminated.
Instead, because we pushed so hard (for one more try) this CEO gave us a reprieve. For the first time, he provided the tools we needed (and senior level approval) to offer a strategic assessment of where the brand should be and then we implemented a nine month campaign to generate results. I tip my hat to our team because those results are simply phenomenal… and they keep on coming. Our client(s) gave us uber praise and this hard-nosed, tough CEO actually handed out a number of compliments as well.
Still, that wasn’t enough. This CEO decided that his marketing people needed to conduct an account review just to see what other firms are out there. According to the CEO, he wanted to make sure that his company had the right firm for the long run. We talked it over and decided not to enter this review. We felt that our work should speak for itself and understood that incumbents rarely every win. But, one of our clients told us that because of the great results achieved, we had a very good chance of keeping the account and it really was “ours to lose.”
So, we decided to compromise. We didn’t officially pitch the business, but still left our hat in the ring to potentially keep it. Of course, that never really mattered and we pretty much understood that from the beginning. Ironically, I think we won the CEO over. In our last meeting a few weeks ago, he said to me, “You are the agency to beat because you know us and have generated some really good results. We’ll make a decision very quickly.” Those words were his last to me, though. Last week he was ceremoniously let go. And yesterday, those marketing people decided to choose a shiny, new agency to take our place. The parting words we received were, “We just need to make a change.” Nothing more was said.
So, what’s the moral of this post? I’d say that there are actually a few:
1) Incumbents rarely win – regardless of what the client says. Keep your head about you and know that you have very little chance of maintaining the business for all the reasons I explained above.
2) If your client organization is completely dysfunctional, know that it often takes more than a very strong willed CEO to actually change the culture or your ability to really make a dent.
3) Don’t get upset or angry about being terminated. Use your experience as an advantage. We will – we’re excited to leverage our knowledge of the industry to help a different competitor in the not so distant future.