The lighter side of awards 2010

Hold off on teleconferencing, bring on the Starbucks.

The awards pitch season is definitely one of the most intense parts of the year for us here at FinanceAsia, as we look back on the past 12 months and try to determine which deals deserve to be remembered, what really happened when a particular transaction soared or soured, and who should get the credit for a particularly clever solution. As always, this year’s pitches included discussions and debates, as well as the occasional heated argument, but they also gave rise to a lot of laughter and one or two revelations about issues and trends that are doing the rounds.

We learnt, for instance, that it is definitely okay to wear a striped suit with a checked shirt or tie, that the majority of equity issuers now make use of incentive fees to get the most out of their bankers and that “rail is the new auto”.

Among the lighter awards, we are once again thankful for the Starbucks coffees and goodies on offer that kept us alive and kicking and ready to throw in a zinger or two of a question. The growing preference for branded java meant this year we didn’t have to watch bankers spit out the coffee brewed by their in-house kitchen. And we appreciated, though respectfully turned down, all those who suggested it would be better to pitch in a pub. We get that this process is even more exhausting for all of you, as you’ve got to do it for multiple publications, but we reckon sobriety is a plus.

Hands down, this year’s nonsensical award was won by the banker who gave new meaning to why you shouldn’t pitch via speakerphone. The banker in question was parroting that familiar tune of “Can you hear me? Can you hear me?” while another – who was in the room and frankly better placed to pitch as a result – carried on with the actual presentation (of a deal, we might add, that was quite good). The bloke on the phone, who clearly couldn’t hear a word of what we were saying, ultimately bellowed some rather colourful language questioning what was going on -- which of course carried through to our end in surround sound. Frantic texts flew while the poor banker in the room seemed to wonder for a moment whether his colleague’s cursing had been directed towards his pitching ability rather than the phone lines.

This was followed, days later, by the man who evidently didn’t realise that the Skype camera on his desk showed a close up and rather personal image of his face. As he sat there rubbing his chin, we saw the pores of his skin in great detail and could literally hear him grunt, groan and moan – a definite distraction from the pitch that was going on in the room.

Teleconferencing may be green, it may be cost-effective, and it is in theory a good idea, but until folks master the technology, the actual deal record is usually more persuasive than a broken pitch.

As for language, this year was clearly theatrical. You should all know we began to cringe every time someone referred to their transaction as a “marquee deal”. Apparently, 90% of what most of you did, fit that top billing. One bank noted that it is “setting templates for others to follow,” and several of you worked on deals that either “defined” or “redefined” a particular market or sector. Another house shrugged off a few potential misses by explaining that they focus on deals that are “relevant” – as opposed to all the irrelevant trades that the competition is busying itself with, we suppose.

But such exaggerations and self-promotions are mostly amusing and much preferable to having bankers tell outright lies while saying “hand on heart” as happened in previous years. And we were thankful only one set of bankers told us that a deal was so easy “even the team at FinanceAsia could have executed it”.

As always, bankers used a lot of creativity in the slicing and dicing of league tables to make their own bank come out on top, or to take the edge off their rivals. We are the first to agree that a degree of subjectivity is needed when interpreting the role some banks played on certain deals, but we do struggle to understand how all four banks on a particular deal can outsell the competition, or how several banks can get the biggest share of the economics on one single transaction.

One of the boldest moves this year came in a real estate pitch where the bank in question had decided to include Swire Pacific’s aborted IPO among their completed deals this year, on the basis that “it almost got done”.
Sports analogies have become an annual feature of awards pitches and this year was no different, although the focus was on the physical rather than the technical side of sports this year. Investment banking was referred to as “a competitive, blood sport industry”. DCM bankers referenced the “heavy lifting” they had to do to get deals done. “The gauntlet was thrown down,” said another banker. We were “blocking or tackling as normal”, was another phrase we heard. And one head of investment banking said his bank is “hunted pretty closely” by rival firms.
Descriptions of deals were, as always, creative. The deals one bank closed were like spaghetti – nothing came together. Another bank had to engage in “a strategy of improving the gene pool”. It was “a cuckoo in the nest”, said a banker about a deal he closed, while a colleague at a rival firm went as far as acknowledging that “the company did a very good job of selling a story that was frankly not very interesting”.

We also enjoyed how banks described the efforts made by their colleagues in other departments suggesting that competition is heating up not just between banks but within them as well. “Peel me an onion, I have to cry for my colleagues in ECM,” said one DCM banker when we suggested some of the ECM deals may have been as challenging as the debt deals he was pitching. “We had to give ECM something,” replied another banker on the question why the bank had chosen to pitch an equity deal rather than a debt deal as the best transaction in a certain country.

Perhaps the best response came when we asked a banker whether a particular issue hadn’t in fact been placed largely with the bank’s own private bank. That would have been nice, if we had such a good private bank, was the quick answer.

But one of the most refreshing conversations we had was with a DCM banker about one of the deals his bank had to abandon this year. After initially asking us not to remind him about that terrible period of time, he acknowledged that he had made the wrong judgment in thinking he could have sold the deal when he brought it to market. While we don’t have a prize to give him, we’d like to salute his honesty – and hope that in next year’s pitch season we see more such candour.

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