Pitching’s harder than ever on agency teams. What are US indies doing to help staff?
Indie agency leaders from agencies across the US share how they’re trying to reduce the burden of pitching for new business on their colleagues.
Pitching takes a toll on agency staff – so what are indie agencies doing about it? / Unsplash
Bringing in new business is vital for indie agencies – especially so during an economic slowdown. But the traditional pitching process is growing more and more exhaustive for agencies of all stripes, 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. And though they’re typically smaller than network counterparts, indie agencies can often act more flexibly to adapt to tough conditions. With that in mind, we asked 11 indie agency leaders in the US what they were doing about the issue.
How do you solve a problem like... pitching for new business without working staff into the ground?
Brett Edgar, chief executive officer, VCCP NA: “The pitching process has come under the spotlight in recent years, especially with the increase in agency rosters, frequency of pitches, complexity, and, ultimately, cost on people, profit, and the planet. In the UK, an initiative was kicked off by the IPA under the helm of Julian Douglas, the Pitch Positive Pledge, backed by agencies, consultants, and clients that focuses on behaviors in a bid to improve mental health, cause less waste, and reduce costs without completely overhauling a process we all know works for a reason. This initiative is a great reference point for agencies to turn to when they feel the process is having a negative impact on their people, and perhaps something we could adopt on this side of the pond.“
Stacie Boney, president, Hanson Dodge: “You might be surprised to hear, but many of our people view pitching new business not as an onerous task, but rather, a chance to grow and learn. A chance to learn about a business they might not ordinarily work on. A chance to plan, organize and present to new people. A chance to work more closely with others in the agency. Obviously, too much can be too much. But for us, it helps that many of our folks approach new business with eyes wide open, and open minds that want to learn.“
Adam Charles, executive vice-president, Freeman’s Agency: “Agencies need to be selective in the RFPs they take on. This should be handled with a solid “Go/No Go” process answering a series of questions to work out whether this is a good fit that your entire team has bought into. Agencies must be clear about their value and be prepared to stand up for what’s right to show why they are the best partner for a client.
“It’s also about ensuring you have a good dialogue with the client so that you understand the core issue to be solved. Ensure you have an agreement with the client on your understanding. This is key. Finally make sure that as an agency you are adding value at every interaction, and your deliverables must add value.”
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Natalie Walby, group director, growth and partnerships, Big Spaceship: “During onboarding, Big Spaceship has all employees fill out a survey that seeks to understand past experience as well as interests outside of the office. Having this information enables us to craft pitch teams of category experts who are passionate about specific client opportunities. During times of economic recession and increased pitch efforts, this invaluable element of our process helps ensure pitch teams feel invested in their work. This framework has yielded an increased win rate by ensuring we bring the right experts to the right prospects, effectively solving client challenges with passionate pitch teams.“
Simon Davies, managing director, Embrace: “Declining to pitch is always an option but often seen as the brave approach. It’s not brave, it’s often just sensible. Pitching for a job that doesn’t feel right, where you can’t see the value, or you just don’t know enough to feel confident in winning, should always be a no-no. Even more the case in a declining economy where desperation for work is the road to ruin. If you evaluate your chances properly and decide to go for it, you will have thought about the impact on the team, and by default, you will focus effort without killing people.“
Ed Rogers, managing partner, Alto: “At Alto, we believe in valuing expertise and creativity, which is why we don’t pitch for free. This approach allows us to establish relationships on a foundation of mutual respect. Moreover, we prioritize efficiency and avoid lengthy drawn-out pitches. This respects our existing clients, the agency and our teams at the same time. When it comes to ideas, we swing big – if we only love one big idea, we only share one. Finally, we make sure there is chemistry, as we aim to be fans not only of the brand but also of the people behind it.“
Jennifer Allen, chief operating officer, Raw Materials: “We use an approach we call ‘Phase Zero.’ The project starts with the first intro call, or the ‘pre-engagement’ period. Our biggest goal is to deliver great work, and great work starts the very first time you meet someone. Every action shapes the work. We find this avoids team burnout and business over-investment because we don't 'pitch.' We start the process of doing the work with the client. By starting the project in phase zero, our clients get far more out of the experience than the transactional pitch. The sense of ownership and collaboration sets everyone up for truly novel thinking. And the team does what they do best and enjoys the most, real work.“
Richard Ryan, creative director, Something Different: “All of these issues are really the same issue. How much are you willing to give away (in terms of money, or ideas, or hours, or suffering) to try and get this business? And the bar is different for different companies. You avoid burnout by drawing a line in the sand, and not crossing it. You set a benchmark (management does) and then you do your best with your allotted hours or with the allotted budget and then stop. Professional gamblers have a line – win or lose – that once they hit it they go home. Agencies should do that.“
Alex Gardner, chief marketing officer, London Alley: “The current pitch landscape is requiring agencies to be smart with resources. Agencies are going after multiple pitches at once with short timelines, so managing momentum and spirits is critical as well. It’s crucial to staff pitches strategically, allow pitch teams downtime, and ensure that energy remains high (NOT having late nights and working weekends). If pitches are kept at a sustainable pace, running subsequent pitches is easier.
“Fewer decision makers, fewer meetings, and more collaboration allow for the team to not feel burnt out during the process, and enable them to stay motivated to tackle the next one.“
Kris Tait, managing director US, Croud: “Pitching is as competitive as it’s ever been—that’s for sure—but I don’t believe that it needs to cost agencies more. The reality is that more of the new business process is under your control than you might think. However, if you only do what the brief asks and only follow the relevant instructions, you won’t be in control and it’ll feel like a drain on both your team’s time and energy. But if you have something distinct that brands want, and you position your agency as the expert and not just a vendor—and qualify why that’s the case—that’s when you’ll be able to shift the dynamic in a positive way.”
Anton Jerges, CEO, We Are Collider: “When deciding on which pitches to go for, it’s crucial to establish – and stick to – robust pre-qualifying criteria. For us, there’s the standard pre-selection of ‘Fun, Fame & Fortune’. But also, crucially, questioning whether our unique research and experience mean we’re on point for delivering the behavior changes needed to fulfill the brief. The whole agency signs up to these criteria to ensure we only pitch when we feel we can add value and have a chance of winning. Because we aren’t sucked into a continual pitch cycle, our pitch teams are always energized and buzzing. By being selective, pitching remains positive.”
Reckon you know better? Give me a shout via firstname.lastname@example.org. If you like, I can clue you in on next week’s debate.