How Many Balls Do You Have in Your Bucket?

By Thought Leaders Archives
Cover image for  article: How Many Balls Do You Have in Your Bucket?

Occasionally, useful metaphors present themselves in unusual places, in this case on a driving range; a place you find yourself more often when you no longer participate in new business pitches.  Of course, on a driving range it's not possible to win.  It's possible to construct an argument that no one wins a new business pitch either, rather than all the contenders, bar one, lose.

In this argument imagine that each contender gets a finite number of balls in a bucket as the process starts and then more or less quickly the balls are lost until only a single contender remains and is the non-loser of the contest.

To be clear the playing field is never level.  The starting number of balls are determined by pre-conceptions of the buyer in respect of relationship history, reputation, peer group influence and logistical issues like geographical convenience and existing client rosters.  From there the balls start to exit the bucket.  Who returned the NDA quickest?  Who agreed to the draft master services agreement?  Who asked the best RFI questions?  Who has most experience with the MarTech and AdTech stacks?  Clue: If it wasn't you, you lost more balls than at least one of the other contenders.

And so, it goes on through the detailed RFI and RFP responses, few opportunities to add new balls, any number of opportunities to lose any number of balls.  In fact, any number of ways of losing all the balls at once.

Then the first opportunity (just maybe) comes to top up the bucket.  The chemistry involves people meeting people.  If the buyer falls in love with a contender, the dynamic changes.  Not only does that contender move ahead; it also loses less balls for minor infractions later in the process as the buyer is inevitably more tolerant of the errors of those they love.

Despite this, the process of ball reduction continues.  The meeting in Milan went better for them than us, and that cost us more balls than their performance in Helsinki cost them, meanwhile the reverse was true for our U.K. TV costs (big win -- we lost no balls) as compared to their non-compliance with a U.S. spot rate template (balls everywhere).

We are now in the short grass.  Maybe two contenders ran out of balls and are out.  Three are left including the incumbent who has the "handcuff ball" which keeps them in the game for no other reason to keep them going to the end, and beyond to the purgatory of "transition in loss."

It's right about now that the last and decisive chance to change the game presents itself.  No one can resist magic; they can't help but project to the moment when the speaker invitations roll in, the carpets are red, the statues titanium and maybe just maybe a Harvard Business Review case study is written.  Magic rarely comes from process; it never comes from staffing plans or from discounts against 18-49 year-olds in daytime.  It does come from insight or the application of data that unlocks new sources of demand, from media deployment that stops an audience in its tracks and from creative ideas that make the spine tingle.  New balls.

What can we conclude from this?  First, that price and process while necessary can lose you a pitch far more easily than they can win one.  Second, that if you can keep your balls while all around you are losing theirs, happiness may ensue.  And finally, that real differentiation lies at the intersection of relationships and magic because people executing great ideas together unlock opportunities for growth and if that's not your business you don't work in marketing.  

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