Freelance Publicist Extraordinaire Greg Schmalz often forwards blog suggestions to me. And, more often than not, I act on them.
Today, Greg sent me a fascinating survey undertaken by the Society for Human Resource Management. Unbeknownst to Greg, though, his idea prompted a different blog than the one he intended.
That’s because I have a Pavlovian response whenever I see the SHRM acronym. It immediately reminds me of one of my all-time worst new business experiences.
Back in the early years of this century (sounds romantic, doesn’t it?), I’d nurtured a lead within SHRM’s management hierarchy. I knew they were doing a lot of publicity work and was hoping we might snare some of it. And, sure enough, it paid off. We were invited to pitch a significant program with a sizable budget. The goal: to advance the image and reputation of human resource managers and increase their credibility with the C-suite.
Cool. We can do that.
There was one major hitch, though: we needed a strong public affairs/lobbying firm with whom to partner. And, back then, we didn’t have one. So, we needed to scramble. My partner, Ed, had a college buddy who worked with one of DC’s most powerful law firms. He happily agreed to join our team. We also added Dr. Richard Harte, our strategy consultant, to what we thought would be a presentation dream team.
Instead, it became a nightmare.
To begin with, we were scheduled to present at the very end of the day. As we waited outside the conference room for the competing agency to wrap up, we heard lots of hearty laughing. Ugh. Not good.
Finally, we sauntered in. It was already 4pm. We were tired, but the SHRM people were even more fatigued. Some yawned openly. Undeterred, we went ahead. The first part went fairly well. There was some head nodding and a few grunts. But, then, we came to the public affairs/lobbying part. And, that’s when all hell broke loose.
Not only did the SHRM president disagree with our lobbyist guy’s recommendations but, worse, he disagreed with hers. They actually started arguing with each other. One could cut the tension with the proverbial knife.
And, that’s when Dr. Harte stepped in as only Dr. Harte can. He shouted "Stop!" He told us he didn’t like the energy level in the room and asked us all to stand up and stretch our limbs. Talk about bizarre. If looks could kill, we were already dead, if not buried.
We somehow stumbled our way through Harte’s recess, discussed the budget and a few other items, but it was like attending a wake. In this case, our own.
And, sure enough, the call came the next day. "We really liked what you had to say, Steve, and will be back in touch if things don’t work out. But we’re selecting a global agency partner. Thanks again for your time and effort," she sniffed.
I’ll never forget the SHRM battle or Ed’s buddy. Funny how one experience can color one’s feelings about another person, place or thing. That said, I’m not liking the energy level among my readers right now, so I’m going to ask you to stand up, stretch and share your new business war stories with me.
Thanks to Greg Schmalz for the idea.
Thanks for the comment, Martin. That must have been brutal. Talk about an inappropriate comment. Ouch. We once pitched a big name account and, as you might expect, carefully rehearsed each team member’s role the night before. Now, fast forward to the meeting. One of our group was walking through her part when she suddenly decided to take a shot at President Bush. Ouch. Talk about introducing an inappropriate subject to a new biz pitch. Happily, like you, we won the business. Unlike your associate, though, our staffer became quite a star.
Great post, Steve. Thanks for the gut-wrenching honesty.
Here’s one of my experiences from my days at another agency: I was once part of a Canadian pitch for a global footwear company that was repositioning its brand. They gave each person in our team a pair of the new shoes to try out. Mine were great. The women’s versions weren’t as comfortable (this being from a brand that prided itself on comfort).
Flash forward: We’re sitting in our boardroom presenting our ideas to both the Canadian and U.S. clients (who had flown in for the occasion). And it seemed to be going really well. Suddenly the client asked what we thought about the shoes. I waxed poetic about mine – I truly liked them and wear the brand to this day. It could have ended there.
But one of my colleagues felt the need to pipe up and say the shoes hurt her feet and were generally uncomfortable. She then started to give them pointers on how to redesign them. That was one of those awkwards moments in life when you find you are a a complete loss for words. In a daze, I broke the silence and, while I can’t remember what I said (due to shock probably), it somehow salvaged the meeting around and we won the business. To this day, I still can’t believe it. My colleague? That was the beginning of the end of her days at the agency.
The moral of the story: don’t lie to a client – ever. But sometimes, a little discretion doesn’t hurt.