Ogilvy & Mather, San Francisco, a small agency at the time, was invited to pitch against larger firms. Hal Riney led this office.
Most agencies knew that the Gallo Winery was, in those days, very demanding and those that worked with the winery had their hands full. Agencies prepared expensive pitches and had strong opinions about how these new wines should be marketed. One by one, large agencies made a stand on how best to position and sell Gallo varietals.
Gallo had not been in the business of selling higher-end varietal wines prior to this and there was concern about how these wines would be received because of perceptions about the quality of some of its existing products.
Hal had a different idea on how to pitch this business.
In my opinion, I think Hal wanted to be respectful in how he pitched the business and not make assumptions about solutions, given the client's concerns. He knew that Ernest Gallo would have an opinion, or two, and he understood the situation and gamesmanship better than most.
Several meetings took place between Ogilvy & Mather and Gallo over the course of this new business pitch. I witnessed a key meeting that took place late in the pitch. Hal did not take in a room full of people or creative work. Instead, he took two things into the meeting with Ernest Gallo: A yellow legal pad and a pen.
He sat down in front of Mr. Gallo and asked this question: "Mr. Gallo, what would you like to say about your wines?" As it turns out, this question was the tipping point for winning the business.
Agencies are always tasked with finding the best way to present their clients' products and services to the public and may get lulled into thinking they're the ones that always know best. In the theater of a new-business pitch, one can get a sense that it is all about an agency, an agency portfolio, agency presentation skills, an agency's recommendation.
Isn't it actually always about the client and their business?
Today, when I am involved in a new-business pitch, I am reminded of this meeting and the good work that followed. And of how much money is spent on pitches shooting in the dark with ideas to demonstrate "what agencies think" vs. what is really needed by clients to engage customers.