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How are network agencies cutting the human cost of pitching for new business?

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By Sam Bradley, Journalist

May 31, 2023 | 13 min read

Leaders from IPG, WPP, Publicis, Omnicom and Stagwell agencies explain how they’re working to diminish the strain of pitching on staff.

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Pitching takes a toll on agency staff. What are network businesses doing to solve that? / Unsplash

New business is the lifeblood of pretty much any agency. But the traditional pitching process is growing more and more exhaustive for agencies, both in time lost, IP traded away and in the impact it has on staff. A recent MediaSense survey found that 87% of media agency execs thought pitching was “excessively time- and cost-exhaustive.”

Though clients hold most of the power in this dynamic, agencies don’t completely lack agency. We asked 11 business leaders from agencies within IPG, WPP, Stagwell, Publicis, Accenture and more how their businesses had adapted the way they worked for new work.

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Erica Riccobono, managing director of client services, Elephant: “Yes, pitching is critical this year. But, the overall climate hasn't changed our core new business evaluation criteria – is the brand right for us, can we make standout work, and will our team be excited about the opportunity? Committing to these principles, even during a more aggressive year, helps our team feel both invested and excited about growing the business. It’s always a delicate balance, but it’s easier to ask the team to go the extra mile, dedicate the extra hours and take on the extra work when we know we'll have the potential to collectively celebrate a positive outcome.“

Damaune Journey, global chief growth officer, 72andSunny: “There’s no doubt pitching is incredibly expensive, time-consuming – and the pitch investment comes at a real financial and human cost.

“We want to work with truly ambitious brands whose businesses can benefit from the real impact of our creativity, so we are very selective about which pitch opportunities to accept. We have a rigorous evaluation process that ultimately helps us manage our talent so they are spending time on the most important, exciting opportunities, helping to reduce burnout. That said, we give so much to our client-partner relationships to ensure we’re delivering impact and to pitches that we pursue, that our people are never bored.“

Jill Mastroianni, CMO, Tank Worldwide: “One word: readiness. It all comes down to preparation and constantly looking at ways to refine, finesse, and future-prep creds, capabilities, and offerings with teams year-round.

Proactive planning might not come to mind when skies are blue – but talent will thank you during inevitable tough times and tiring pitches if they can spend less time on draining processes and avoidable logistics. Without burnout, talent will have higher motivation and be able to focus solely on the client’s business challenge, enabling them to deliver vitalizing creative ideas that stand above the rest. Be ready, don’t get ready.”

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Katie Grosvenor, chief engagement and growth officer, GroupM UK: “Firstly, as an agency, we need to understand and communicate WHY we want to work with this client before we enter the process as it gives a greater sense of purpose. Then management teams need to empower individuals to contribute and to proactively understand how being part of the process will impact their role and remove barriers, so they can give it their full focus without being overwhelmed.

“Also, to maintain enthusiasm for the next pitch, it’s critical for the team to celebrate regardless of the result. The pitch process is exciting, brings together the best of the agency, and is a significant learning experience for all involved. Win or lose, celebrating the effort and energy you put in will set you up for success next time.”

Helen Lee, head of growth and marketing, UK & EMEA, Wunderman Thompson: “First off, if you’re pitching make sure it’s for something you want to win so your effort is in the right place. If you don’t have a qualification framework, I would highly recommend getting one in place that works for your company’s vision and objectives so you’re saying yes to the right things, and importantly saying no. I believe the success of the pitch then falls to the process and team. The best pitches work when the right people are in the room from the start, you have a north star everyone is rallied behind and a plan the team respects. From here you can create an environment for creativity to flourish. Every pitch should challenge us to be better but in a positive way.“

Nagmeh Taheri, chief business development officer, Publicis Media UK: “Agencies need to understand that its people’s well-being is non-negotiable. At Publicis Media, we have created a pitch-qualifying scorecard that allows us to determine the right pitches based on factors such as the length and requirements of the process, rationale for calling the pitch, and senior client availability during the review. We only pitch if we think we are right for the client, and that client is right for us, and our capacity and the proposed process match up. Last year, we declined 50% of pitches. Finally, we always ensure we have full engagement from our talent as a worn-out and disgruntled team will never win, and it won’t be a positive experience for anyone.”

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Laura Brown, head of growth and marketing, Accenture Song UK: “I've always been a firm believer in applying optimistic realism to the world of pitching. Long-term growth – both culturally and commercially – is determined by the well-being of our people. When it comes to pitching, this is central to how we decide what we pitch for. And that involves asking important questions that prioritize our talent throughout the process.

“As leaders, pitching serves as a reminder that the best new business culture strikes a balance between formidable ambition and fair boundaries. Permission to pitch new ideas within the everyday conversations that we have with our current clients is underestimated as a new business tool and something that our industry has always done so well. So long as creativity and relationships are our IP, there will always be room to grow the clients we are lucky to already keep.”

Eric Damassa, managing partner, global CMO at Anomaly: ”If you have found yourself in a position where declining a pitch isn’t an option, you’ve already lost. Declining a pitch is ALWAYS an option. Not every opportunity is right for your agency. And not every agency is right for a particular opportunity. And when either side (agency or client) says ‘yes’ for the wrong reasons, win rates go down, burnout goes up, the partnership tends to not last, and reputations can be damaged.

”If you’re clear on who you are as an agency, stay true to yourself, and stay committed to saying ‘yes’ to the right opportunities, for the right reasons – based on mutual respect, shared ambition and values, and a legitimate ability to do a great job – staff tends to be more motivated, win rate goes up, thinking and work is better, and partnerships are more enduring.”

Jimmy Kollin, executive vice-president of business development and communications, Doner: “So many ways to solve this. First, be selective about what you pitch; the effort will be more focused and directions easier to align when you’re pitching in categories you know and on opportunities where you have a right to win. Smaller, focused teams work more efficiently than going wide with part-timers. And make sure you’ve assembled a team with great chemistry. Bad chemistry is exhausting, and good chemistry energizes.“

Nuala Doyle, content marketing manager, Oliver: “Pitching for new business is a tough balancing act for agencies. Too little leads to stagnant growth, while too much risks burnout, stretched resources, and financial loss. The key for us is being selective. Our approach in exclusively designing, building, and running bespoke in-house agencies makes us truly client first, with our pitch scoring criteria aligned to this. By staying true to this, our selection process ensures our time, flexible talent, and investments are wisely directed towards great pitches that foster, rather than hinder, growth. Our model allows us to pitch selectively without overburdening staff or short-changing our clients.“

Kate Barker, executive director, growth and development, R/GA EMEA: “In a downturn, it’s easy to run after every brief, but it’s a fool's errand. If we abandon being strict about how we qualify opportunities we open ourselves up to losses, not to mention team burnout and demotivation. There’s nothing worse than dragging teams through pitches that say – fall out of our core expertise – in the blind hope that they will convert. We also risk pulling agency resources away from existing clients and precious organic opportunities. Focusing on converting the right opportunities and still walking away from the wrong ones is more important than ever for these reasons.

“I think working on pitches is an absolute privilege and ultimately fun because it’s about coming together as a team and representing the best the agency has to offer. As leaders, we must bring that energy to every internal review and galvanize the team. I like to think of pitches as the innovation hub of the agency, they make us better. They are a chance to develop new thinking and processes. They push us creatively in ways that ultimately benefit every client in the agency, old and new.”

Tracey Barber, senior vice-president of client growth, RAPP UK: “Pitching more, isn’t the answer. It creates an unhappy environment which is counterproductive. Take this strategy and you’ll lose – not just the pitch, but people too. The trick is to pitch smarter.

“It’s important to be selective and don’t be afraid to challenge clients if requirements don’t adhere to the IPA Pitch Pledge. Prospective clients respond well to these requests when they realize their ask could compromise existing clients or the well-being of talent. Then it’s about running a great (and fun!) pitch process which makes for happy teams and results in the best work. Let’s pitch smarter, not harder.“

Courtney Berry, managing director, Barbarian: “We have two pitch strategies to not burn out staff. Firstly, openly discuss our rationale for taking on every pitch so everyone is clear on the end goal. If it’s all about the revenue, we talk about that. It’s important to adjust our approach accordingly.

“Secondly, honor the intensity of pitches by making decisions quickly. There is nothing worse than swirling on a one-week sprint. Sometimes that decision does mean bowing out as soon as a red flag presents itself. We have too many obligations to invest in a partner that won’t respect us back.“

Katie Newman, global chief marketing officer, No Fixed Address Inc: “Agencies often pitch for opportunities worth half as much (client/agency tenure and the average pitch value have declined by almost half). No pitch is worth the cost of killing your culture, mediocre case studies, and losing good talent; we say no to 92% of the opportunities that come in — even during uncertain economic times. Winning is more than short-term revenue. This is a long game, and agencies should consider all the costs, including the less obvious ones when they say yes to a pitch. What agencies say yes to shapes them. But what agencies say no to defines them.”

Reckon you know better? Give me a shout via sam.bradley@thedrum.com. If you like, I can clue you in on next week’s debate.

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