Chapter1: Let’s be honest, coming second is called losing

Winner's Podium

Coming second is called losing!

We make no apologies for adapting this line both from Leeds United’s Billy Bremner’s footballing autobiography, “You get nowt for being second”, and from David Keane’s excellent book, “How not to come second”, on the do’s and don’ts of pitching for new business. It’s a wake up call for us all and a reality check for those who indulge in the seven deadly sins (for sins read excuses) on being told they haven’t got the business:

  1. The client wasn’t ready for our solution
  2. They bought a particular individual at our competitor
  3. We are too big for them
  4. We are too small for them
  5. It was a fix – we didn’t have a chance
  6. They think we are too expensive
  7. The client is an idiot.

Although we haven’t come across a more helpful book on the business of successful pitching, we believe that even the best advice can lead to the worst possible outcome. No matter how thorough your preparation, how brilliant your strategy, how compelling its expression, how insightful your research, how competitive your pricing, it can all come to nought.  Which isn’t just a big disappointment to you and your team: it saps morale, undermines confidence and costs your company plenty in terms of time and money. But perhaps worst of all it leaves that question hanging in the air – “if we thought we had got it so right, how come we came second – again?”.

The awful truth is that until you answer that question, no matter how good you are, you are going to lose a lot more business pitches than you win.  Having experienced both the agonies and the ecstasies of competitive pitching in our own business careers, without truly understanding why we won when we won or lost when we lost, we decided to dedicate ourselves to unearthing the dark secret.  Why are some companies almost unstoppable on business pitches whilst others are destined to be always the bridesmaid and never the bride?

We decided that the best way to start our search for this holiest of holy grails was to set up a research study to identify the triggers that influence companies in their choice of creative and marketing agencies. Although this research was about the choice of creative and marketing services suppliers, we believe it holds good for the majority of manufacturing and service sectors and busineses. As with much research, the findings confirmed a lot of what we already knew. But as we sifted through the respondents’ comments we unearthed a rare gem – “cultural fit” – that provided the insight and the confidence to set up that most challenging of ventures: a business development consultancy.

Seven years on, having proved the theory in practice, we have been sufficiently encouraged to publish this book (which we will produce as a series of on-line chapters, complete with updates and comments as we go along), so that we can share some of what we’ve learnt and provoke further thought and study on the subject.

So what was this remarkable revelation that set us off on our new business venture all about? When probed as to what ultimately made the difference, assuming that all of the competing agencies ticked all the boxes in terms of professional competence and expertise, one of the respondents answered  “I ask myself the question: ‘can I sit in a room with these people?’ “.

Why is it that great truths always seem so obvious once they have been unearthed? There you were worrying about the brilliance of your strategy and about putting on a presentation that would put a Las Vegas spectacular to shame, when the most important factor is quite simply whether your collective face fits – or, as we have come to call it, whether there is a “cultural fit”. It’s something we’ve known from childhood – you either got picked for the team in the playground, or you didn’t.  And sure it had something to do with whether you were any good or not, but it had more to do with whether you fit in or not.  We also find this concept in one of those old fashioned homilies that more often than not prove to be unerringly true: “Birds of a feather flock together”. So however much you would like to be friends with everybody, in business as in life, “you can’t be everybody’s friend”.

So rather than chasing business where there is little or no common ground, you can significantly improve your strike rate where there is a “cultural fit”. Sounds great but how exactly do you go about identifying these “birds of a feather”? The answer is that you can’t, well not until you’ve discovered your own company’s culture first.

And how you may ask do you do that?  If at this point you are tempted to refer to the academic textbooks on the subject, your interest in pinpointing what makes your company tick could be decidedly short lived.  The names of the theorists on company culture are enough to stop your new found interest in “cultural fit” in its tracks. There’s Trompenaar, Rorbaugh, Kluckholn, Strodtbeck and a host of others whose theories are as difficult to comprehend as their names are to pronounce. But before you decide to get your daily dose of YouTube, rather than try and understand the arcane theories of organisational culture, let’s take refuge in a more common sense description of company culture – which is “the way we do things round here”.

Every company has its own particular way of “doing things”.  It probably wasn’t created consciously, no one wrote it down on day one.  It just sort of happened. If you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that a company’s culture is often in fact an expression of the founder’s values.  A company’s culture is the heart and soul of the place and determines how a group of people behave.  If you want an example let’s take Walt Disney: that organisation’s culture of “imagination and wholesomeness” didn’t come from any market analysis or requirement, but from the founder’s belief that imagination and wholesomeness should be nurtured for their own sake. And the rest as they say is history.

Do you agree? Do you disagree with what we’ve unearthed? What have YOUR experiences been? Give us your comments below – but first you’ll need to go to the lefthand side column,  subscribe FOR FREE by email by adding your own email address and clicking “subscribe” –  or email them to – and we’ll publish them alongside ours. Let’s get the debate and discussion going!

Wooden Spoon

Also, if you would like to find out more about how to identify your own company’s culture and how to use this knowledge in building your own business, you can contact us directly. Look under “About this book” (at the very top of the screen) for our contact details.


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  1. ChristineBhatt

     /  March 1, 2012

    I like the fact that your ideas are so clear and accessible. I do agree with the sentiments expressed thus far, not through personal experience, but from what I knew of the company my husband worked for before retiring.

    It was a manufacturing company, begun post World War II by a very straightforward, straight-talking tough Northener, who gathered like-minded men around him and grew the business very successfully. The difficulty arose when trying to explain how the business worked and what the success was based on to analysts in the City, who had no point of contact with the ethos or “culture” of the company.

  2. Uncle John

     /  March 1, 2012

    Thanks for your kind comments, Christine. So many “analysts” use “making money” as the only criteria for assessing the success of a company. Whereas building a “culture of success” around a shared vision and shared values is a much longer term and more sustainable investment, as your husband’s company has demonstrated.
    The same is true of relationships with customers and with suppliers, forming the right type of “cultural fit” between them.

  3. Phil

     /  March 1, 2012

    Cultural fit is everything. Culture as seen in values is frequently established by the founder. Depending what the culture is this can be a major issue if the founder is not there as void can be left!
    Culture is how things are around here, so takes long time to establish and like a rocket a lot of energy to change.
    Organisations need a few catalysts to start small fires. Like they need mavericks otherwise closed in by the culture. The world is changing faster than ever, expodentialy. This and the recession will catch many out. Carry on doing what you have always done and you will no longer get what you have always got.

    • Uncle John

       /  March 3, 2012

      Thank you for your comments, Phil. Let’s keep this debate and discussion going about the importance of understanding culture and cultural fit.
      As a maverick myself at times, I appreciate your points about the need for catalysts to move things forward and do things differently – or rather adapt what you’re doing to the new and changing environments. I plan to cover my take on Darwin’s adaptation theories in a later chapter – “The survival of the fittest means the survival of the fittest = the most adaptable, not the survival of the fittest = the strongest” How words can be misused! do you agree?

  4. John, I agree with much of the sentiments expressed in this post. Cultural fit is really important but it also needs to be backed up with the best marketing/creative solution for the client. It is rare that a piece of work will be won purely on the strength of ‘chemistry’ – there has to be some backbone of talent and smart solution to back it up. I agree that the importance of business owners understanding their own brand and cultural values is huge. Great blog – looking forward to hearing more.

    • Uncle John

       /  March 3, 2012

      Hi Peter, thanks for your comment – glad to agree!
      Of course, cultural fit needs to be supported by all the necessary skills, talents and solutions to the client’s needs – but you’ll have to wait until Chapter 3 “The iceberg syndrome: How to build a winning a team” for my fuller views on this. If you’d like to discuss them further, how about that coffee and chat we promised?

  5. Hi John

    It strike’s me that the whole issue of company culture is one that is becoming ever more important, though not just from the point of view of companies choosing to work together. Web 2.0 (the ability for people to discuss and share almost anything, or conversely the inability of companies/brands to hide some things) has made organisations much more transparent and aware that they are much less able to say one thing and do another. Some have responded by paying greater attention to their CSR policies and the extent to which they are living it to it in a real and meaningful way. Others have gone further in opening up their organisations to the world, effectively saying ‘this is us, this is what we believe, this is why we are in business, and why we act like we do’. Often this expressed as ‘brand purpose’ and there is growing evidence (see Stephen Jones – Who Cares Wins) that this approach is leading to stronger business performance. The ability of brands to take this approach cynically is limited by this high degree of transparency that pervades.
    So what does this mean? Here’s a few thoughts:

    1. If brands have to increasingly recognise and consistently live their cultures outwardly and inwardly, are they more likely to look for business partners who also reflect the same values and views of the world? Does this mean that, for example, that the chameleon like nature of many agencies, or their staff, will be a barrier for particular clients?
    2. Conversely might this lead to the development of agencies that specialise not in markets (pharmaceutical, travel etc.) but in business philosophies. For example will it be sufficient to tick boxes on a procurement questionnaire or tender that indicates that your agency recycles print cartridges and paper.
    3. With increased transparency it will be easier for businesses to get to know more about each other before they commit to a ‘commercial relationship’ (and might that phrase mean more going forward?). Thus all parties will be less able to talk about ‘how we do things around here’ without being seen to walk the talk.
    4. Increasingly company culture may not be represented by policies as it will by the behaviour of its employees. Indeed the example set by Zappos ( shows how successful building a company culture from the ground up with employees can drive success.

    The other thing that comes to mind especially in relation to agency pitches and cultural fit – is it possible that there may often be a difference between the culture of the company and the marketing team. And if so, are their types or sizes company where this may be more or less likely?


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