What We Learned From a Client's Parking Lot

Having Compatible Cultures Can Be Crucial for Agencies and Marketers

By Published on .

Milan Martin
Milan Martin
For the past several months, we've been in the throes of a pitch. A big pitch. We really wanted to work with this client, so we threw ourselves into it. Multiple creative teams across several offices, customer focus groups, brand videos -- the whole nine yards.

If there's one thing we've learned about pitching over the years it's that you absolutely have to show your true colors. With this pitch, we went to great lengths to give these prospective clients a taste of what life would really be like for them if they chose us.

When they visited our agency, did we take them to Chez Francois for lunch? No. We had Shake Shack brought in. Double cheeseburgers, black-and-white shakes and fries. On paper plates. Because that's us. We're burger-eating, jeans-wearing, show-you-an-idea-even-if-it's-not-completely-baked-yet kind of people. And that doesn't work for everyone.

Misrepresenting your agency culture or your personality in a pitch would be like convincing a beautiful girl to marry you based on your common love for Michael Bolton. You may have won her hand, but you've got a lifetime of Michael Bolton ahead of you. And if you weren't a Michael Bolton fan to begin with, the thrill of "victory" will soon fade with each rendition of "When a Man Loves a Woman."

On the same token, we asked as much from them. How do you see agencies in the context of your marketing organization? What would your current agency say about you? Talk to us about how you like to work. SHOW us a day in the life!

So throughout the pitch process, we made several visits to this prospect's corporate headquarters. It was a nice building in a corporate park in suburban New Jersey. At first glance, nothing out of the ordinary. But each time we drove into the parking lot we noticed something strange: large groups of people in business suits walking in gang-style through the parking lot, some engaged in gregarious conversation with each other, some more stoically focused on some unknown mission.

We never really said anything to each other about it, but each of us, we later found out, was trying to imagine where these people were walking to. To us city folk, we can't imagine not having at least two Starbucks within a half-block walk, so maybe these poor suburbanites were walking to the closest Starbucks, three miles down the road. Or were they on a "Blues Brothers"-style mission from God?

The big pitch day came and went. Two questions rested heavy on our minds. Did we do everything we could to win? And where the hell were all those people in the parking lot going?

Well, we won the business, and in our first, much more casual, immersion meeting with these great, shiny, new clients, they opened the floor to us for questions. At this point, one of our account guys raised his hand with a furrowed brow. "Here we go," I'm anticipating, "a smart question, maybe about the detail behind their segmentation or their CRM program."

"So, uh, yeah. Where are all the people in the parking lot walking to?"

Keep in mind, the contract's not even signed at this point, so for a brief moment in time I was a little worried our first question of this newly christened relationship wasn't more ... strategic.

"Where do you think they're going?" the head client responded with a grin.

("Don't say mission from God. ... Don't say mission from God.")

After a minute or two of us awkwardly trying to guess, they finally revealed that it was simply a part of their corporate culture. They drive to and from work, have desk jobs and work long hours -- this just gets their heart rates up for a few minutes a day.

Logical enough.

As luck would have it, just then our new clients realized that this was their team's scheduled "walk" time. "You want to see our culture, do you?" the head client offered. So off we went. Walking. Around the parking lot. In 91-degree heat.

And you know what? It was an amazing way to get to know each other, cut through the formality established by the oak in the conference room and have a "date" out of school. One last chance -- for both parties -- to "speak now or forever hold their peace" (or at least for the length of the contact).

Fortunately, we don't mind getting a little sweaty. But if we were the type of people that were worried about staining our Louis Vuitton shirts or scuffing our Prada shoes (we're more Gap kind of people), we wouldn't exactly fit within their culture.

They invited us into their culture. And we fit into theirs the way they fit into ours (they're big fans of Shake Shack).

Since then, each time we've visited, there's been time allotted on the agenda for a "walk around the parking lot."

And so far, it's a very happy client-agency relationship.

Now, you'll no doubt ask: "If you had won the business and in that pre-contract meeting found out that you had nothing in common and didn't really like each other, would your agency have walked away from the deal?"

Maybe, maybe not. I guess it would depend on the severity of the culture riff. But what I will say is that if you're looking to establish deep, long-standing relationships with your clients, sharing your culture, honestly and openly, in the courting process is critical.

Otherwise, you may be in for a whole lot of Michael Bolton. And nobody wants that.

Milan Martin is president of GyroHSR, New York.
In this article:
Most Popular