It was the earliest days of the original dotcom hysteria (I'm talking 1993, which was way early).
The firm for which I toiled had a solid record in cable and interactive television. Through some high-level contacts, we were introduced to a tiny start-up called c/net (how 'bout that?).
We went into the pitch and dazzled the original founders with our knowledge of TV and this nascent thing called the Internet. Our star was a guy who led the Discovery and Learning Channel accounts and really knew his stuff. As we ended the meeting, we handed them an Etch A Sketch on which we'd written: 'c/net and EPB: partners in a new era of communications.' Or, words to that effect. Since c/net was a pioneer in streaming news on the web, they loved the retro parting gift. We were hired.
Now, fast forward three or four weeks. Our account star, who had been in the midst of moving from New York to Bethesda when we pitched c/net, was gone. Our other team players knew next to nothing about the new medium, the media who were springing up like weeds to cover it or the technology analysts who, we would soon learn, were so critical to the overall communications equation.
Long story short, we were summoned to c/net's tiny offices for a showdown. We were fearing the worst, but hopeful they'd give us a second chance.
That's when the doors swung open and the founders walked in carrying all of our folders. I spied what sat on the top of the folders, leaned over to my boss and whispered, 'Uh oh, Bill. They brought the Etch A Sketch.'
After a mercifully short tongue lashing for misrepresenting our capabilities, we were fired and, as Chris Hansen likes to tell Dateline predators, 'free to go.'
The Etch A Sketch disaster was a great learning lesson for all concerned. Nowadays, we not only make sure we go into a new business meeting with the right team for the prospect's challenge. We also bring the team that will do the actual day-to-day work. We typically end new business presentations by saying, 'What you see is what you get.'
We've lost accounts for other reasons, but no one's ever nailed us for doing a bait-and-switch (or returned an Etch A Sketch either).