Why we tried very hard to start coming second

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I promised to follow up my post of the other day and talk about why, when I ran new business at BMP, we abandoned our chemistry meeting technique despite the fact that it was delivering 100% success.

To recap our approach - by demonstrating to clients we were the most effective agency in the UK, delivering a better return on advertising investment than anyone else, we always got shortlisted.

The problem was that after the chemistry stage, our conversion rate at the actual pitch was very poor. Dismal in fact. And we didn’t know why.

In proper BMP style we did some research. We got an excellent strategist from outside the agency to interview the clients from every pitch we had lost in the 12 months previously. And she quickly came back with the explanation.

“It’s true they all felt they had to have you on the shortlist after the Chemistry meeting” she said (I looked smug).

“In fact – you were almost always the first agency they put on the shortlist” (I looked smug again).

“And that’s your undoing” (I went quite red, while colleagues raised eyebrows all round).

The safe pair of hands


She went on to explain that our technique, based around risk aversion, meant that every client saw BMP as the banker, the safe pair of hands, the safety net in their agency choices. The agency that, no matter what happened with everyone else, would deliver a solid solution to their challenge.

Then having got their insurance policy of an agency – they could then choose the second agency on the list, which she called the ‘interesting agency’; the one that had most excited them in the chemistry meetings, got them buzzing with their ideas, the one they had all talked about afterwards. And that was the best position to be on the list – the one from which most agencies converted the final pitch.

The third name down was the ‘wild card’ – the agency that seemed fun but slightly crazy – ‘who knows what that lot will come up with, it might be brilliant, it might be awful, but we can afford to take a chance – we’ve got the banker of BMP’. The ‘wild card’ was the next best position to be in terms of success rate after the ‘interesting choice’.

And then you come to 4th (and 5th) on the list – the ‘making up the numbers’ or even worse, ‘the incumbent’. These at least were a lot worse than being put first on the list. Small comfort.

Born to runner up


Our chemistry meeting strategy was terrific and doing what it was meant to – getting us on the list – but put us completely on the back foot from the start of the pitch process itself.

So, we changed it. We aimed to be the most interesting agency on the list at the chemistry meeting, not the most reliable. And it worked. We got on fewer shortlists – being interesting makes people choose whether they like your brand of interesting or not - but our pitch conversion rate improved markedly.

There was method to the seeming madness of abandoning a winning approach.

Header image by Nikola Hostonska