Business on the Move Agencies Pitching

New business pitches not worth the time or cost, say media agencies


By Sam Bradley, Journalist

May 25, 2023 | 8 min read

Survey finds practice has a harmful impact on agency working culture and on the mental health of workers.


A new survey of media agencies has found widespread dissatisfaction with the pitching process / Unsplash

A significant majority of media agencies believe that pitching for new work is a bad deal for their businesses, a new study has found.

86% of respondents to a survey by advisory firm MediaSense said that pitching was “excessively time- and cost-exhaustive”. A further 54% said that pitching was having a bigger and bigger impact on the mental health of their workers, while 64% said the practice had a corrosive effect on agency working culture.

Kim Peatling, head of growth and marketing at Havas Media Group UK, says that “it’s an open secret that pitching is time-consuming, costly and lacks transparency. But stats give you only part of the picture and pitching shouldn’t be impacting people’s mental health nor agency culture.”

The poll included over 100 C-suite respondents from network and independent media agencies across the world.

The survey suggests that attitudes within agencies are hardening against the traditional pitching process. Though 64% said that the process was an “essential” part of their agency’s working philosophy, 46% said that it was harder to persuade colleagues to work on new pitches, while only 44% of respondents agreed that the process could be “energizing” for staff involved.

Furthermore, asked to score the quality of the opportunity pitching presents to agencies to showcase themselves, execs were ambivalent. Network and holding company respondents gave an average rating of 5.8 out of 10, while indie competitors scored an average of 5.7.

Problems with the pitching process go far beyond the media agency segment, though. Last May, the Institute for Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) and the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA) released the Pitch Positive Pledge, an effort to ameliorate the impact of pitching on the mental health of staff.

“When you have an over-supplied market like the agency world, clients call the shots,” says Paul Hammersley, managing partner at Harbour. “Mental health is an issue. It’s about agency resources, which have been stretched and stretched. The pressure to deliver results at a time when clients are definitely paying agencies less money must put a natural squeeze on resources, and resource is people.”

“Unfortunately the pandemic and the downturn have definitely made it worse. There are more people chasing more stuff,” he adds. “In the end… the pip that will squeak is the human pip.”

What can agencies do?

Peatling says the “open conversation” about pitching within the industry has begun to trigger some positive changes. “especially with clients being open to check-ins in the run-up to pitching.”

“These are important as we need moments to interact with clients and test our thinking outside of the usual chemistry and pitch meetings,” she explains. “But there’s of course still room for improvement and those improvements will only happen if we all work closer with clients and consultants throughout the process.”

Agency businesses need to directly confront clients asking for too much from the pitching process, she says. “As agencies, we need to get comfortable saying what we really think: if the timings are tight, say so; If the process isn’t clear, say so; if you need another round of Q&A, ask. Far too often agencies just rush to jump in. Honest and transparent conversations at the start of the process are essential.”

They need to be prepared to walk if standards aren’t kept to, she adds. “We put our people first when selecting which pitches we go for and which we don’t. It’s not just about ‘is this a brand we’d love to work with’ and ‘can we make a meaningful difference’ but also ‘do we genuinely have the resource ready to go to give this our best shot’ – if we don’t tick all of these boxes, then we walk away.”

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Should agencies abandon the pitch?

Dan Cullen-Shute, co-founder of the agency Creature, says that the pitch process is necessary to ensure competition in advertising. Without it, he argues, clients would be forced to rely on a closed shop of established firms.

“Whenever people start talking about abolishing the pitch, the only thing they can ever come up with to replace it is to look at the previous experience and to look at what agencies have already done. None of those people have ever started an agency. None of them have ever had to convince Carling that even though they’ve never made beer ads – or really many ads at all because they’ve only existed for a year – that they are the ones they should trust with their budget.”

“The pitch is a genuine opportunity to gather around the table and where the best thinking, the best creative, the best strategy, can win out. The flip side is that they are increasingly arduous,” he adds.

Peatling agrees that “some of our best work is created at the pitch, and looking at our latest wins, we’re actually executing the work that we pitched. This is incredibly empowering for everyone who worked on the pitch and empowering for people’s careers – and these things matter for new talent in the industry hungry at the earlier stages of their career.”

MediaSense’s managing partner for strategy, Ryan Kangisser, concludes that “while the pitch still remains a necessary vehicle for advertisers to source the right agency partner, this study reveals an overwhelming desire to evolve the process to one which is more streamlined, practical and transparent.

“While tempting to test everything, advertisers should focus on the capabilities and values that matter and design a process accordingly.”

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