Business on the Move Agencies Reinventing the Pitch

One year on, has the Pitch Positive Pledge helped stop bad pitching behavior?


By Sam Bradley, Journalist

July 21, 2023 | 9 min read

Kicking off our new series looking at how the ad industry is attempting to reinvent the pitch process, we explore the impact of the Pitch Positive Pledge one year on.

Pitch Process

One year on, what has the Pitch Positive Pledge achieved? / Adobe

The quest to bring in new clients costs agencies dearly in billable hours and lost intellectual property. And it costs agency workers by piling more pressure on an already stressful job, keeping them at their desks long into the night.

Though it has its critics, the Pitch Positive Pledge is the most significant intervention in that state of affairs from within the industry to date.

The Pledge aims to make the pitching process more intentional, accountable and responsible for advertisers and agencies. Its original backers, the IPA and Isba, say its impact went far beyond its original, modest aims – though it could have gone further.

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Ahead of a new series of articles on The Drum examining how advertising businesses are looking to improve the way they pitch for new work, it’s an excellent moment to explore the impact of the Pledge.

Released last year by the Institute for Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) and Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (Isba), plus scores of agencies and brands, the Pledge came at a time when agencies were hurting from lopsided pitching arrangements that cost them time, money and piled pressure on to workers.

It contained a set of “fair trade” guidelines for agencies and brands, encouraging them to adopt a standardized set of good behaviors (it didn’t discuss, however, whether or not agencies should be paid for the time spent pitching).

Those guidelines set out in the Pledge added to the industry-wide conversation – but has it made a practical difference?

Pitch positives

VCCP’s Julian Douglas, who shepherded in the Pledge during his time as IPA president, says it has had an impact “more positive than [he] expected” since its introduction. He’s pleased that it continues to feature in conversations about the impact of pitching on those in the ad business.

In particular, Douglas says the Pledge has enabled more and more agencies to turn down disadvantageous work.

“Agencies are saying ‘no’ far more often than they used to, which is interesting given that all agencies are hard-pressed and need revenue. But in the old world, you felt under pressure to go for pretty much anything. Your default position was, ‘Yes, we’ll do it; what is it?’”

He adds: “I think that default position has flipped in many cases. The fact that this became an industry-wide conversation has, I think, given agencies a lot of confidence to ask questions. It used to be that if you went up to a big client with questions like ‘What’s the budget?’ you’d look like you were being difficult. You’d be seen as a stroppy one.”

Isba’s Nick Louisson says the Pledge has enabled a more “empathetic approach” to the pitch process. “It’s not radically different to guidance that people have received on good pitching, but I think it does a better job of helping people really see the human impact of the process, of where not following the process negatively impacts your outcomes and the relationships. From the advertiser perspective, I think people have found it resonates quite deeply with them. They appreciate the value and see it as providing a roadmap on what is good practice.”

Douglas, the international chief executive officer and vice-chairman at VCCP, says that from the experience of his own agency, it has been a “brilliant tool for shifting behavior.”

Awareness of the Pledge among marketers, however, is still low, he concedes. That hasn’t stopped VCCP from using the guidelines to coax marketers towards a more equitable process, however, and as a license to ask those difficult questions of clients. And it gives it cover to withdraw in the face of unhelpful client behavior. “They’re not all gits. The vast majority are normal, decent people. There are some gits, but [The Pledge] flushes them out.”

Pitch negatives

There are some sensitive areas the Pitch Positive Pledge didn’t approach – one being whether and how much agencies should be paid for time spent pitching for new work. Douglas says it was always supposed to be a “fair trade policy for pitching” rather than a full manifesto.

One means of reinforcing the Pledge, he suggests, would be for intermediaries running pitches to ‘stamp’ each review. “I’d like to see any pitch that comes through an intermediary that is a signatory [of the Pledge] effectively put a stamp on it that this pitch will be run in accordance with Pitch Positive, just like your Fair Trade stamp says on your coffee.

“The fact intermediaries aren’t doing that suggests to me that they’re doing what agencies used to do – ducking a tough conversation.”

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Charlie Carpenter, chief executive officer of Creativebrief, doesn’t share that belief. He tells The Drum that, despite being a signatory of the Pledge, he also thinks it has some fundamental limitations.

“There are lots of good things about the Pledge; it’s raised awareness of the issues… and it has got people talking about whether the pitch is fit for purpose in this day and age, about what we could do that might improve it. I just don’t think it goes far enough in terms of trying to drive real fundamental change in behaviors in pitching.”

In particular, Carpenter argues that it doesn’t go far enough in ensuring agencies get paid for the time and IP lost during the pitch process for closer enforcement to be useful. “A lot of what it talks about, such as being clear about budgets or transparency over when a decision is going to be made, are hygiene factors.”

Though Creativebrief uses the Pledge as a resource with clients, he says that it doesn’t actually propose they run the pitch based on the principles of the Pledge. “We actually push them to go further than that. Our point of view – and I can’t by any means tell you that we win this argument with every client that we talk to – is that asking agencies to give away free thinking and free creative ideas during the pitch process... is asking them to give away their most valuable commodity. That does nothing to reinforce the value of commercial creativity. In fact, it does everything to completely undermine it.”

Though Louisson acknowledges that industry critics believe the Pledge doesn’t go far enough – “a Band-Aid” is how he describes it – he says its biggest aim and most significant benefit has been improved communication between advertisers and agencies.“Communication at the front end of any process in marketing is vital to get the outcome you want.”

He adds: “It’s about you, as an advertiser, communicating with your agency so that they better understand your objectives. What are you actually trying to get out of this process? And if you communicate that, well, your agency’s capacity to respond effectively is improved.”

In Reinventing the Pitch, we’ll be breaking down the pitch process stage by stage, exploring how different agencies are altering their approaches to win new work without wearing their staff down.

Business on the Move Agencies Reinventing the Pitch

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