The concept of “playing not to lose” sometimes works in sports but rarely does in a consultative business relationship. Playing not to lose assumes that victory can still be achieved despite holding something back, avoiding risk and cautiously approaching the contest at hand. At McGrath/Power Public Relations and Communications, we strongly believe that clients get maximum value when ideas are presented proactively, fearlessly and honestly. This has been part of our agency DNA since the height of the Dot-Com era when I made my #BestMistake.

Back in 1997 we began what would ultimately be a nine-year relationship with a three-person start up in the emerging mobile market. We took the company from pre-product through an IPO and did so working with nine different vice presidents of marketing. Not only did we have the standard technology communications challenges associated with establishing, burnishing and maintaining the client’s brand, we also had to contend with nine different marketing viewpoints and the mania that characterized the dawn of the Internet Era. Along the way, I made friends with the two founders who were not only my age but shared my direct approach to communications. That was the foundation of the relationship, beginning in the initial pitch when one of the founders tested our backbone with a series of the most pointed questions I had experienced in a business meeting.

As the years went on and the company grew, the founders moved away from their hands on approach to marketing and focused more on the business of the business. While we worked with the revolving door of marketing leaders, I also maintained a close dialogue with the founders. VP #7 was anything but lucky for us – a sales guy with little marketing background and an over-sized ego fueled by the company’s surging stock price. He hadn’t contributed much to the organization’s success on the sales side but talked a good game and bullied those around him. We had steered clear of him until the abrupt resignation of VP #6 opened the door and #7 convinced the founders he was the man to walk through it.

After the initial honeymoon period, #7 began to show his bad side and intimidated our account team. He bullied them into agreeing with some questionable ideas and then blamed the team when they didn’t work. This was a significant piece of business for the agency and the team began to grow concerned that #7 was undermining our efforts. They asked me to get involved so I began working directly with him on the program. I rapidly saw #7 was the human equivalent of a classic James Brown song. He was Talking Loud and Saying Nothing. The program was veering off course at an important time. I had ideas to course correct and tried to offer them up to #7. While I am not a shrinking violet, #7’s non-stop bluster knocked me off my game. With each blast of hot air, I retreated a bit more and began to play not to lose the business rather than stick to the proactive and direct counsel that had served us so well with the company to this point.

After a particularly rough meeting, I suggested to #7 that we share some wine and talk through the issues. He appreciated good wine and agreed. I thought I would have my opening to be heard in a comfortable setting. We met at a restaurant one late afternoon, ordered some appetizers and opened up the excellent zinfandel blend from Ridge Vineyards’ Lytton Springs’ property that I had brought knowing it was one of #7’s favorites. He happily leaned forward to grab the bottle and literally poured half of it into the goblet glass in front of him. He didn’t pour any for me. I began to discuss the course corrections to the program as he downed the first large glass and poured himself a second as my glass remained empty. Before I was halfway through the recommendations, he put the nearly empty second glass down and waved his hand to signal me to stop talking.

“You’re fired. We are taking the program in-house. We aren’t getting what we need from you.”

With that, #7 pushed himself away from the table and walked out of the restaurant leaving me with a cold plate of calamari, an empty bottle of Lytton Springs and a huge hole in my revenue stream. After the initial shock wore off, I drove back to the office and called him to try to through the issue. He wouldn’t answer his phone. My next call was to the founder.

24 hours later I was sitting across from the CEO at a popular lunch spot. “What the F is going on with your VP of marketing?” I asked in the direct style that had won us the business years prior. “Good question,” he responded. “I have one too: what the F is going on with you?”

I spent the next hour answering questions that showed me exactly what the F was going on with me – I had become too scared of losing the business to stand up to #7 and counsel him properly. Regardless of whether or not he would take the counsel, it should have been delivered definitively and with confidence. The CEO then kicked me around a bit more by telling me of his disappointment that I wouldn’t trust the relationship I had with him to give them what they were paying for – open and honest counsel regardless of their opinion.

I spent the hour after that with the CEO laying out my ideas to course correct a variety of issues.  He liked the input, shook my hand, called me a few expletive-laced terms of endearment and said he would be in touch the next day.  The next day he fired #7, brought us back in for a full planning meeting and made me swear never to “go limp” again.   The lesson learned reaffirmed the core values around our approach to client service and we have been thanked for it by numerous clients ever since.  Painful as it was, playing not to lose this one time ended up being the best mistake I ever made.  And it will never happen again.