‘CEOs have ripped my creative off the wall’: TikTok star Rob Mayhew on pitch culture
TikTok’s favorite creative director Rob Mayhew shares his suggestions on how to blunt the edges of this common agency pain point.
TikTok’s Rob Mayhew has been basing recent sketches on true stories of agency pitches gone awry / Rob Mayhew
“Pitching can be really fun. It’s probably one of the best parts of the job. But I have experienced founders and CEOs ripping creative off the walls, having slides deleted, or being brought into a pitch 20 minutes beforehand, not knowing anything about the slides and being told to present.”
You probably know Rob Mayhew from his ubiquitous presence as a TikTok chronicler of ad agency life. But 20 years in the industry, and a regular flow of horror stories from fans and peers, qualify him for a second role campaigning to draw attention to one of the worst aspects of agency life – pitching.
According to a survey released this week, 50% of new business professionals at agencies have experienced burnout because of pitching. A further 11% say that they or a colleague has had to be medically signed off from work due to the stress associated with a pitch.
Creative director Mayhew, a veteran of Ogilvy, Grey and currently Gravity Road, tells The Drum: “I definitely fall into the 51% of people that have experienced signs of stress from pitching. This is a culture that we create, and we expect, and it’s a legacy of people doing what’s always been the way it’s been done.”
Earlier in his career, Mayhew says, he experienced exhausting, pointless pitch processes. “I’ve been in pitches where you could tell straightway by the client’s face that they weren’t interested. Why were we even there? How had it got to that point? I’ve had lots of that,” he says.
In association with the survey on the topic, Mayhew gathered hundreds of pitching “horror stories” from industry peers, some of which ended up re-enacted as excruciating sketches on TikTok.
A few common themes emerged, says Mayhew. Agency staff caught between the rock of a client’s demands for world-class, original creative and the hard place of agency colleagues unwilling to help out on an unpaid project. Late nights and pizza bribes. Malfunctioning presentations. And most of all, the cumulative effect of stress and pressure upon “absolutely frazzled” heads.
“All the things that can go wrong do go wrong on the day because of that pressure that is put on you. Especially in his moment, there’s such a pressure to win business that mistakes happen – and so much is riding on it. It’s difficult to perform at your best when there’s that kind of heightened pressure.”
It doesn’t need to be this way
That pressure can be more acutely felt at smaller agencies or independent companies because a failure to land an account might trigger an existential crisis for a business. Despite some of that friction caused by rogue egos or unreasonable clients, Mayhew suggests that the people best placed to alter the “relatively unchanged” pitching culture are agency owners and founders.
“It doesn’t need to be the way that it is. You can change it, you have the ability to change the way you pitch and the way you work with clients,” he says.
Gravity Road, he notes, eschews the late nights usually associated with the industry. “There’s no work late culture. We get the work done through planning and resources.”
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More agencies should reject opportunities to pitch for work if doing so would mean subjecting staff to a poorer work-life balance. “If agencies could get together and say, ’We’re not going to pitch for this under these conditions,’ ...that might move the dial,” he says.
Most of all, he suggests “bringing back the creativity at the heart of [pitching].” Mayhew says that making time and providing support for creative thinking and strategy work, and prioritizing the chemistry stage of a pitch, could be routes to that destination.
“Bring back the factory tours, bring the client around to your office. It’s less about having two or three weeks to do a whole campaign, but about seeing how we can work together as an agency and client and picking based on that.”