Enough time has passed now I can tell this story without naming names. I might go to Hell for this because it’s a little self-aggrandizing but it’s so illustrative of the point: how to lead through disruption, particularly when it comes to selling.
And I get my comeuppance in the end.
A few years ago I was invited to speak at a meeting of ad agency owners. It was a group I was aware of but had never spoken to. I was happy to hear from them. The organizers had chosen “Leadership Through Disruption” as the meeting theme.
The bad news was they wanted me to be on a panel with three other new business advisors. I passed. As a matter of policy I don’t do panels.
I believe what most consider to be the best practices of ad agency new business are still bad practices. There’s no benefit to me in being on a panel with someone whose view on the topic is so fundamentally different from mine. That’s what cable news is for.
As I was declining I said I’d be happy to speak to the group in the future when it wasn’t a panel. I thought there was a ~25% chance they would reach back out to see if we could work something out. I hoped they would because the irony of the topic was too delicious.
The Win Without Pitching way of selling creative services is all about disrupting the buying process. While I teach this judo, I’m rarely in the position anymore to get to employ it. And I love this stuff.
I was in luck. They reached back out. Some board members wanted to discuss possibilities.
So we had the call. My POV resonated. They really wanted me to talk about this disruptive approach to selling at this meeting. But they had already hired one of the panelists and were in conversation with the others.
I wished them good luck and knew that we would work together one day. But this meeting was perfect for me. I knew it. They knew it. They had a dilemma. I walked away and left them to it.
A while later I got an email. They had unhired my competitor and called off the others. The meeting was mine. There was more judo around the fee (“Congratulations we’re going with you—at half your fee”) that I quickly sorted out by walking away a third time. (“No, wait–we’ve found the money!”)
When I gave my talk I desperately wanted to tell the story of how I had led through disruption to get to the stage, followed by “Are there any questions?” But it felt even more inappropriate than telling the story here years later. So I didn’t.
I did my talk on how to Win Without Pitching. It was existing material newly framed for the theme, walking through how to disrupt a pitch. I finished with the iconic red pill/blue pill image from The Matrix, saying you can choose to keep doing it the old way or you can come with me. I was pretty proud of myself going into Q&A, convinced I’d won some converts.
And then, crickets. No questions. After a little prodding the questions came but they weren’t questions so much as reasons why my theory wasn’t possible in the real world. Everyone knew you had to play nice to win, seemed to be the consensus.
It wasn’t the first time I had heard this—not by a long shot—but the juxtaposition of the meeting theme and how I had disrupted the buying process to get there was so jarring that it caught me off guard. I was stunned and defenseless to simple arguments I had routinely dealt with in the past.
To this day that group has never invited me back and I don’t think any of the firms in that room have ever bought any of our training.
After my talk an agency owner from the audience came up to me and said, “I saw you speak years ago and it changed my life. We get invited to pitches now and I just say ‘No, we’re not going to do that.’ A lot of time they call us back and hand us the account.”
I stared at him disbelievingly while I searched for the words.
Finally I said, “I could have used that story ten minutes ago.”
He just chuckled mischievously, shook my hand and walked away. Like a boss.
So while the talk was a dud, the sale itself was an illustration of just how fun selling can be. It’s also an example of how the sale is the sample. If you sell disruption or innovation you should view the sale as an invitation to disrupt or innovate.
If you sell coaching you should see every sale as a coachable moment. If one of the things your clients are buying from you is confidence then you should show up with the appropriate confidence.
So I guess there’s a lesson in all this (the sale is the sample), but really, I’ve just wanted to tell that story for a long time. If selling isn’t fun, you’re not doing it right. And that was fun.