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Should agencies proactively re-pitch – or reimagine – their clients every year?

A few years ago, a really smart strategist I was working with (Walt Barron at McKinney) and I had an idea.

Some context: Walt is one of those strategists that creatives love. He’s always pushing for great work and gets as frustrated as creatives when great work doesn’t get sold.

Well, we were in a rut with a particular client and we were having a few beers and reminiscing about the “good ol’ days” with this client. They weren’t really that long ago, but in an advertising marriage, they seemed a lifetime away. In hindsight, I’m sure we sounded like a couple of old men bemoaning their marriages right before the inevitable divorce. “How did we get here?” we asked. “We started with such promise. Everything used to be so exciting.”

Does this conversation sound familiar to you? If you’ve been in advertising long enough, then I’m sure it does. And in fairness, all parties are generally to blame. It goes a little something like this: The relationship starts with such promise. Clients are open-minded and complimentary. Agencies are motivated and focused on the business. But as time drags on, clients become frustrated and distrustful and agencies become disengaged and mail it in because, “they won’t buy a good idea, anyway.” If not corrected, both parties start to resent one another until either the client is resigned, or (more likely), the agency is fired. Such is the circle of life of an advertising marriage...the most awkward, tenuous relationship ever conceived in the history of business.

After a few more beers, we decided to figure out if we could fix this situation...to see if we could short circuit this inevitable slide...and prevent the same thing from happening with other clients. After lots of discussion, and after examining the peaks and valleys of an agency/client relationship, we came up with a solution:

We should proactively re-pitch the business!

But why stop there? We should make it an agency-wide policy to re-pitch our client’s business on an annual basis. Once a year, we should throw all the cards up in the air and come in with a completely different approach to their business. We would show them that we still love their business and they would be reminded that they still love our great big brains. Clients could take it or leave it, but they would certainly stretch their thinking and be introduced to new worlds of opportunities. It seemed like a great idea.

Advertising is a brutally difficult business with a currently unsustainable business model. Agencies race to the bottom to give away more and more thinking for less and less money. But the pitch? The pitch is different (particularly the paid pitch.)

The pitch is the only time when the world is your oyster. You put your smartest brains on the most interesting challenges. You are unencumbered by history or expectation. Your only goal is show this brand the excitement of its fully realized potential.

When my agency pitches business, we swing for the fences. We don’t want to win or lose around the edges. We want to win or lose by a long shot. We embrace a point of view that we believe is right for their business...the more non-traditional the better...and we know within a few minutes in the room if we’re going to win or lose. If they agree with our vision, we win. If they disagree, we lose. But we don’t pull any punches. We don’t have any institutional knowledge holding us back, so we bring the best ideas forward, regardless of decorum or history or office politics.

The sad truth is that the pitch is when the client gets the most value out of its agency. Because that’s when institutional bias isn’t yet formed and anything can be presented without fear of admonishment. That’s when norms get crushed and business models get questioned and products get overhauled and agencies act more like consultants than advertisers. That’s when advertising reveals what it can and should be all of the time.

The problem is that the pitch is usually as good as the thinking, and the relationship, gets. From that day forward, the idea only gets more diluted. And the excitement starts to wane. When was the last time a client bought and ran the pitch work untamed? Too often, a client is seduced by the Lamborghini only to later force it to run on a Yugo engine.

The downside of pitching is that you often recommend a process overhaul; a re-examination of the status quo. And process exists so that things can move forward. TV buys require TV spots. Digital buys require digital things. Radio buys require radio spots. What is a brand manager supposed to do with a brand citizenship idea? There is no playbook for that. It requires reinvention. And what person on the marketing team is willing to put their neck on the line for that?

Walt and I never could convince anyone to agree to an annual re-pitch, but I still think the idea has merit. I still think clients appreciate being the center of the agency’s universe and listening to a completely different approach. I still think that relationships naturally get stale and comfortable and need to be rattled around from time to time. I still think the best thinking is pitch thinking, because during the pitch, there is no wrong answer. I think it was probably the word “pitch” that killed our concept. Maybe we should have called it an annual brand re-imagination?

Whatever the name, there would have been ground rules: 1. We would have to present a very different approach. 2. We could not be accused of being wishy-washy for bringing in a completely different point of view. 3. Client-side operational hurdles could be temporarily forgotten. 4. Client-side bias and institutional knowledge could temporarily be dismissed. 5. No idea would be “too big.” 6. The goal would be to tackle the business challenge at hand, with no allegiance to precedent or means.

Brand re-imagination? Brand re-ignition? Brand re-canoodling?

Whatever it’s called, I still want to do it. Every year. Who’s in? Send me an email.

Joe Parrish is partner and chief creative officer at The Variable

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Joe Parrish

Joe Parrish is partner and chief creative officer at The Variable.

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