The pitch process is broken – here’s how to fix it

The pitch process is broke, here’s how to fix it.

The pitch remains a constant in an advertising industry undergoing radical change but as the dynamic between marketer and agency shifts, is it time the age-old process did too?

Yes, was the unsurprising answer from senior marketers and agency executives at an Oystercatchers event. However, each side is split on how different pitches will be in five years’ time, with deep-rooted honesty and transparency issues the biggest hurdles to overcome. If the process is to break from its malaise, then there are some fundamental points those in both camps are aware they need to fix.

Marketers need to be honest about how ‘bold’ they want to be

If the pitch process is as broken as some advertisers say, then more honesty throughout it from both brand and creative has to be the fix, agreed the panellists. Whether it’s being honest with the agency about what’s needed or being honest with creatives about why an account is being chased, too much energy is being wasted talking about what they think the other wants to hear instead of tackling the actual problem.

“Never underestimate the importance of the chemistry meeting,” advised Dominic Rowell, the commercial director for Vue’s UK and Ireland business on when all players in a pitch should be upfront. “We need to be honest about what budgets we’ve really got, what the company is really like and how long does it take to approve something. And you [the agencies] have to be honest about whether or not you want to work with us….we want to work with you [the agencies], that’s why you’re in the chemistry meeting and we want it to competitive because that’s better for prices but it [being honest] is also better for the end product as well.”

Chemistry meetings are also probably a good time for marketers to come clean about how far they’re willing to be pushed creatively. Or as Fenella Grey, managing director at Porter Novelli, puts it: “So many times we’re we get clients saying 'we’re really comfortable with being uncomfortable, push us, we’re happy' and then they see the work and they’re not happy. Actually, it would have been better off and more effective if we’d been safe and more secure with a little bit of white space around that [idea] to show a bit of creativity. It’s about asking yourself upfront from a client perspective about what you really want from a brief – that’s critical.

…And agencies shouldn’t chase new business

It’s easier said than done given the current climate, though for those agencies of a large enough size more attention should be given to why they’re actually pitching for an account.

Leigh Thomas, chief executive of Dare, described the choice as one between whether the agency pursues a “necessary evil or actually go for something that can transform a business”. The “’why’ becomes very important to us,” she continued. “Clients are facing so many problems do they really understand the need to pitch.”

To that point, both Daryl Fielding, the former chief marketer at Vodafone and Jonathan Harman, managing director at Royal Mail, agreed that they pitched “as little as possible” in order to ensure they were doing it for the right reasons. The main one being that they’ve got a problem they can’t solve internally and need an external party to push them a different way.

It’s a tell-tell sign on pitches that both Ian Millner, chief executive of Iris and Jason Gonsalves, the chief executive of Mcgarrybowen, watch out for when deciding which ones to bet on.

“I’m most motivated when I believe there’s a real, big problem to solve because I think out of those comes great work and relationships,” added Gonsalves. “I think big problems demand a disarming degree of honesty [from the client] because it requires them to say ‘what’s wrong’ and ‘maybe these are some of the areas where we’re weak'."

It’s an approach that Millner likens to “building a business that doesn’t need new business”. “We all know that depending on the life stage you’re at then it’s easier said than done but we have to break from this Stockholm syndrome and realise that it’s an open market and there’s always going to be something up for grabs”. By that he means that agencies need to realise that in being part of the market they have the freedom to be more strategic with which accounts they go for. “Pitches are time-consuming and can be game-changing but you have to look at like you’re not just looking for a one night stand and want a marriage. It’s asking yourself whether you can actually see actually the agency working with this client in two, three, five years from now."

Beware of brief degradation

It’s a bugbear of John Allert, the group brand director for McLaren, who said it happens when the brief is allowed to slip away from its original concept for the pitch. “We’re not immune from poor briefing,” he admitted, likening how easy it can happen to when "people focus on the wedding itself rather than why they’re getting married".

“We had a fantastic pitch which ultimately VCCP won several years ago now. We peaked with probably the best pitch and brief we’ve ever come up and therefore got the best work. The great shame though was the brief degradation over time. The agency won awards for the brief we used at pitch but any brief we did as consequence to that just got more and more away from the original idea and what we ended with was worse work. That wasn’t the fault of the agency, it was down to us.”

Having too many processes in place is one way to quicken that decline, said Porter Novelli’s Grey. “Processes is quite a dangerous approach from an agency perspective,” she added. "I’ve never seen the creative ideas at a pitch translate into the realty of what’s in the market place. You have to have the creativity but you really need the process and the power to judge that creativity.”

Senior executives need to care more about pitches otherwise they shouldn’t help decide who wins

Marketers aren’t always as invested in a pitch as they should be, much to the chagrin of agencies. Whether it’s an unwillingness to share data with an agency, poor briefing, absences during pitches or unreasonable terms, to many agency executives these issues suggest a lack of care in the brand’s problem or at best poor clarity on what is actually needed.

“I think the issues is that sometimes people expect the pitch process to reveal to them the right answer [rather] than the right agency,” said McGarry Bowen’s Gonsalves.

And when a marketer does get it there are often other executives that aren’t always of the same mind. It’s a hard fought decision for those at global companies like Expedia where a pitch may have several internal stakeholders all insisting on their say on the final outcome despite a limited involvement in the pitch.

“You could be the lead marketer in a company but you know it’s not just your decision because that’s not how the culture of the business works, but as long as you’re upfront about it at the start [of pitches] and everyone knows it’s the way it will be decided with some clear rationale then that’s fine,” said Andrew Cocker, senior marketing director at Expedia.

“The ideal is that everyone who is involved in the pitch all the way gets to be involved in the decision making but the reality is if the managing director or the chief executive wants to be involved or can’t make it to all the pitches then what are you going to do? I think every client Is unique in this way and all we can do is have a very clear set of parameters and goals… ultimately you’re the decision maker as the senior marketer but it’s not just your decision and you can’t expect a team to follow you if you’re just going to overrule them straight off. You have to have enough time to have the debate.”

Some clients are abusing the pitching process

It’s much harder for agencies to pitch today because they have to apply a broader range of skills to ideas and often that’s more expensive, according to Neil Simpson, founding partner at The Corner.

He referenced a report that was conducted by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising and ISBA in 2013 that found large agencies spent an average of £178,000 on a pitch, while the client expectation of what it cost an agency was £31,000. “There’s a discrepancy there,” mused Simpson. “And I think there are some clients who are abusing the process."

He went on to suggest that clients “are seeking ideas at the moment” and aren’t being transparent with “how much budget they have”.

“I think it would be great it there were some tighter terms or some aggrievance and actually we would find that it didn’t always have to be a full-blown pitch. We had one client for example and the NDA said any IPs that we created for the pitch would be owned by the client. There are certain things that we will do as an agency but that has to be something that we paused on – it’s becoming an open practice now – we said no [we wouldn’t sign it] and the client came back."

Building on the idea of a more magnanimous mindset from clients, Will Abbott, the marketing director at Hiscox, said marketers need to empower their agencies to “bend the rules a little bit” in order to better gauge which one is the right one.

“Because it’s always the ones that bend the rules a bit more than the others, whether it’s asking for more time, challenging a brief a bit more or sharing work when you didn’t ask them so that they can get that little extra insight that do well and understand your brand a bit more. I think allowing that bit of flexibility and for the rules to be bent or broken really helps the process.”

Processes and the work aren’t key in a pitch, it’s the people that matter

Clients (should) choose the people they want to work with, not the work, during a pitch, advised Fielding. The marketer’s insight draws on an earlier pitch whereby she did the opposite and “lived to regret it”. It’s a thought not lost on Rebecca White, head of marketing and brand at Heathrow, who recalled a similar instance but instead of going with the work she opted for the team they liked and the results were strong.

To allow marketers to make that judgement call on the quality of the people, Rob Lawrence, a consultant at Bowers & Wilkins, urged agencies to put forward the actual thinkers behind an idea in a pitch rather than the showmen. “Just having the big hitters from the agency selling someone else’s idea is pointless because you can see through it. Put the real thinkers and the people who are doing the work at the coalface in front of the clients because it gives you more grip with us as we’ll be more engaged with the people that have done the work.”

“I think it’s better to actually see how the team works,” said Helen McRae, the chief executive of Mindshare. “You’re buying the people and you’re buying the way they work together and by doing that it allows you to have a better idea of who these people are and what they’re capable of. You [marketers] need to see that because you will be interacting with these people on a daily or hourly basis and it's important to feel out the people that can actually do that."

Seb Joseph

Hi, I'm the news editor at The Drum. Give me a shout if you have any questions about our news coverage or would like to pitch in a story.

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