That’s the term our management committee created earlier this year. No, I’m not referring to an ugly skin growth. Our definition of a mole is someone who gathers intelligence or is 'in the know' within a prospect company that we are targeting. The mole is typically a friend of our agency and, unbeknownst to the prospect, is feeding us intelligence on how to win his business.
One would think that having a mole as your friend is only a positive, right? We’ve found that at times, it’s actually just the opposite. On countless occasions over the last few years, any one of our new business teams have staked large (or entire) parts of their strategies and campaigns based on specific moles telling us that this is “absolutely” the direction or approach that the prospect wants to see. Sometimes, we’ve even reshaped or changed our entire presentation (even when it instinctively didn’t feel right) based on the mole’s strongly worded counsel that what we have now is all wrong and he/she is utterly confident that this other approach will win the business for us.
I’m guessing that we lost 75 percent of those mole-led pitches over the last few years. Sadly, I can remember a few that ended so poorly that you could actually see the prospect’s look of utter confusion after the pitch because we had gotten it so wrong. For me, the worst of these mole-led pitches happened about two years ago. I’ll never forget it because the business clearly should have been won by Peppercom and the entire episode is embarrassing. We were in a competitive pitch against just one other firm (great odds in this day and age) for a large financial services organization. This prospect company was conservative in nature and had never really executed any ‘big idea’ creative programs before. Our mole was already acting as a consultant within this company. I had worked with him in previous agency lives and aside from being a pretty smart guy, it seemed like he really understood the mindset of the top decision maker at the prospect organization. So, we were all ears in listening to his recommendations. I remember how we developed a program that included both big ideas and many conservative approaches that all flowed with the objectives laid out for us by the prospect. Everything seemed to fit nicely within a greater theme we had created. And most importantly, we had many choices to choose from, depending upon the decision maker’s appetite for risk and reward.
A week before the actual pitch, we asked our mole if we could present our program to him for candid feedback. I actually assumed that he might make some slight changes and give us a few ideas that we hadn’t thought of. Instead, he boldly exclaimed that this wasn’t what the decision maker wants to see. Instead, he excitedly told us that we needed to go with one huge idea that should be fleshed out in much greater detail to show how it could work over a two year program. He said that this big idea campaign would set us apart by demonstrating how we would make a huge impact from beginning to end and the details would provide smart rationale as to why this program can work.
Now, those of you who aren’t in the business should know that this isn’t a normal way of recommending communications programs. For starters, it places far too much emphasis on just one recommended idea or approach. And, that’s plain dangerous if the prospect hates it. Secondly, we typically don’t go into excruciating detail until the business is won and then, once the prospect is a client, together we create a detailed program that is tailored to that company’s needs, nuances and cultural fit. So, when the mole recommended that we take one risky big step forward, I questioned his recommendation a number of times. Of course, what I heard for the next 15 minutes was a strongly worded counter argument that because he’s been consulting with said prospect for two years, he understands the way the decision maker thinks and this is exactly what we need to do to win him over.
So, I acquiesced. Over the next three days, we turned our presentation on its head by going with our best, most creative theme/ideas and, in a linear fashion and created tactics that would build on this month by month over a two year period. A few days later, we presented to four executives (including the decision maker) within this organization. What we received were a lot of blank stares and a few confused looks. To our credit, my team was pretty good at articulating why this program made sense and how it could really have a tremendous positive impact on the organization. But, that had little influence.
After the presentation, we made small talk with the prospects for 15 minutes and left. They told us we’d hear very soon who had won the business. Then, we waited. And, we waited. And, we waited some more. Finally, about two months later, the decision maker called me to say that he decided to select the other agency. He was very professional and cordial and didn’t offer much detail (even though I greatly probed) as to why we had lost. Except he reinforced a few times that the other agency just gave them a program that seemed to make more sense for his company.
Fast forward this story to about one year later when one of our senior executives happened to meet this same decision maker at an informal industry cocktail reception. As she made small talk with him, he decided to let loose (finally) on how he viewed our presentation. I probably have the exact words wrong, but it was something like “…a bizarre meeting. They gave me a program that could never be executed by our conservative company because the ideas were too big and then all the details were just too much. The program made no sense for us, so the decision to choose the other firm (who had recommended something easy to execute) was simple. I won’t be calling on Peppercom anytime soon.”
Hearing that feedback felt like a slap in the face. But, it was a true lesson learned, as well. The moral of this post is that we learned (the hard way) that while moles can provide some interesting intelligence into any company, we will never use their information or feedback in any type of vacuum again. Instead, we look at their advice as just one slice of the informational pie when pitching business. Some on our management team believe we should have an entirely ‘mole-free environment", meaning, we should turn a deaf ear towards whatever they tell us. I don’t. But, leveraging their information the right way is critical in the greater scheme of how we understand what a prospect really wants and needs.