Why the dreaded free pitch is bad for everyone

RAR Awards keynote speaker, Tom Foulkes, global head of marketing for engineering consultancy Buro Happold, launched the inaugural RAR Awards by hitting out at the outdated free pitching system that still exists today.

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The world doesn’t look like it did in 2006 or 2007. Fresh from the bruising suffered during the downturn - businesses have changed.

From my perspective at least, dealing with the boards at both Land Securities and Buro Happold I would have to say that decision making criteria have shifted.

Procurement processes and criteria put in place last year won’t disappear now and look like they are one of the many legacies created by the downturn...

More than ever, Senior Management want to know that they’re management teams are making the right decisions. That those decisions will deliver value to the business and pose as little risk to the company as possible.

And unfortunately when faced with difficult decisions marketers seem to outsource responsibility to the dreaded free pitch…the long standing dysfunction that our industry has to endure.

Leading as it does to so many poor decisions on agency selection. I can never understand why the free creative pitch is used at all.

As far as I can see it has four major problems:

Firstly it can favour the weak. It is very likely that the least busy agency involved in a pitch will spend the most time preparing their response. This means they are likely to over deliver and perhaps unfairly influence the decision through sheer volume of work produced.

Secondly, it sets up a dysfunctional dynamic between client and agency from the start that will last as long as it takes to recoup the money spent during the pitch. Having worked at agency myself I know that the time spent on a pitch is often recorded in the same way as it would be on any other live fee-paying work.

It will then fall to the plucky account director to find ways to recoup this money during the first couple of jobs with the new client. In which case the client ends up paying for the pitch work anyway but has started the relationship with a dysfunctional, potentially resentful agency.

Thirdly, what value has the creative work really got? After all even in the best of circumstances the work will have been prepared in a matter of weeks, without the full engagement of the client and without full access to all of the research and facts that the company is unlikely to have released even in the most confidential of pitches.

And finally it allows subjectivity into what should otherwise be an objective process. Deciding to use agency A over Agency B because the MD prefers purple to blue is never going to ensure best value but it still happens ... all too often.

Depressingly, I have to concede that it seems that the unpaid pitch isn’t going anywhere soon and it is to the unpaid pitch that the majority of marketers will turn when making future agency selections.

In which case you need someone on your side.

This is where I think a solution like RAR really works well. I'm sure will become an increasingly relevant resource for marketers. Their site gives an independent, agnostic view of agency performance through client feedback and on top of this the RAR offer agencies and clients an assurance that if they run a pitch or agency selection process they will guarantee the process to be run fairly. Free of cronyism, nepotism or any other ism that plagues more old-fashioned and no doubt unfair pitch processes.

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