When Your Agency Loses, Don't Try to Move on Too Soon

Be Sure You Examine Your Failure -- and Learn From It

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Karen Albritton Karen Albritton
Right after a shocking, season-ending first-round loss in the NCAA women's basketball tournament, Tennessee coach Pat Summit had her team back on the practice court. "This to me says, at Tennessee, we're not going to accept losing in the first-round game and go home and go on spring break. No," said the Hall of Fame coach.

Like college basketball, if you're successful in the agency business, you will also have some gut-wrenching losses -- new-business pitches, clients, employees. In "My Losing Season," Pat Conroy relives a season on the Citadel basketball team and posits, "We learn more from our losses than our wins."

At Capstrat we've taken this sentiment to heart and, painful as it can be, tried to grow out of losses. It's not fun, especially when you want to go crawl in a hole and lick your wounds, but there's no denying it's made us better over time.

The first step is listening. After every new-business loss, whether it is in a final pitch or an early round written response, we ask the prospect for feedback on where we came up short. This can be done is a brief call. We do not question their feedback, but we do probe to get to the real reason. If they preferred another agency's work, we ask what it was about the work that resonated with them.

Once you've gotten feedback, you have to be open to hearing what the client really said. We were pitching an assignment a few years ago that was perfect for our firm. The communications director said they needed an agency that understood their issues with the "arms and legs" to execute the work and a team with great writing skills. We went in with a strong team and a polished, professional presentation that detailed a long list of relevant clients and relationships. When the client called me to tell me we had been beaten by a solo practitioner who came in with a freelancer and no presentation, I was crushed.

Her explanation for the choice was, "The plant manager was more comfortable with them." The plant manager? What does he know? What happened to needing arms and legs? What happened to writing? The person they hired had no staff, no writers. It took time, but I came to realize that I had made some very basic mistakes. First, I had not been talking to the real decision maker. Second, we did not establish good chemistry. We were so focused on convincing the client that we had the smarts and experience to do the job that we failed to connect.

We also find it's helpful to deconstruct our approach and our pitch internally. After one particularly painful presentation to a stone-faced group of clients, we realized our pitch team had not worked together previously and as a result didn't have great chemistry with each other. It might not have changed the outcome for that particular pitch, but we now block off time for our presentation team to not only rehearse but also to have dinner together.

You also have to be willing to be self-critical. This can be especially hard when you've worked tirelessly for a client and get the dreaded call ending the relationship. Sometimes the reason they give may obscure your learning. No matter the reason -- budget cuts, restructuring, agency consolidation -- they determined they could live without you. You owe it to yourself and the agency to look for anything you could have done differently. Did we really understand the client's expectations for success? Did we build relationships with all of the key players in the client organization? Did we have the right team? What would we have done differently?

After a tough loss, it is tempting to want to block it out and move on to the next opportunity. We've found you can move on, but you can't move forward if you don't learn from your losses.

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Karen Albritton is president of Capstrat, Raleigh, N.C.

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