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Ditch the Pitch: 'Pitching agencies are like bickering lambs jostling for the attention of wolves' says Stein IAS' Reuben Webb

Ditch the Pitch: pitching agencies are like bickering lambs jostling for the attention of wolves says Stein IAS CD

Many brands and agencies agree that the traditional pitch process is outdated and in need of an alternative approach.

The Drum spoke to Stein IAS' creative director, Reuben Webb before his panel at new business conference Pitch Perfect in September on his biggest pitching fail, the importance of team work and how the industry has created an environment where they are "vulnerable to unscrupulous penny pinchers".

What was the hardest pitch you have ever done?

It was for one of France’s most famous brands at their very imposing, fortress like facilities. It was my first pitch outside the UK. I had to hand in my passport and face interrogation by their FBI like security. I was inexperienced and bloody terrified. It was like my first day at school.

Was it successful?

No, it was a disaster and it was all our fault. We hadn't rehearsed the timings, and we let our most self-indulgent colleague do an introduction we hadn't heard yet. It was some bizarre twenty-minute ramble about partnership based on the story of the Taj Mahal. Very poetic but utterly irrelevant. We weren't together on the creative or strategy, I was presenting work I thought was fundamentally flawed. The client hated it. And we ran out of time before one of our colleagues had even had a chance to present. Spectacular balls up.

What did you learn from it?

To do the opposite of what we did. It was a great example of how not to do a pitch, once the PTS had settled down it was a very useful experience. Everyone involved was individually brilliant, it could have been great, but we worked in siloes. We needed an independent helicopter view to make it come together. We shouldn't have changed fundamental things late in the process, it meant the story didn't have time to coalesce. We should have rehearsed to pre-agreed timings and above all, we should have all believed in the solution – never go in divided.

Has the pitch process become far too complicated?

Since the digital revolution everything in life got more complicated. Why should pitches be any different? Gone are the days when you could just pick the creative you liked and run some ads. Now marketing departments are accountable on a million data points, including agency selection. But some clients run a thorough process that uncovers the positives, some clients run an ass covering exercise that wastes a lot of people’s time. Agencies need to tell the difference early and know when to keep going and when to withdraw.

Is it time to ditch ‘request for information’ documents (RFIs) or even the ‘chemistry meetings?

If I believed anybody actually read RFIs I’d say they were reasonable, but I don’t. They are box-ticking exercises, so they should just have the appropriate boxes to tick at that stage. I.e. Are you going out of business? Do you burn down forests? No? Tick.

Chemistry meetings are unbalanced experiments. For the agency it’s like meeting your partners’ parents for the first time, and nobody acts like themselves then do they? Start by not calling it a chemistry meeting so you don’t look like some intermediary’s puppet and retain a bit of street cred with the agency. Just have a no-agenda meeting to talk about your challenge and see what people have to say. A normal working environment can give you both a better idea of how suited you are than the pitch itself (which is anything but normal).

Is taking part in a pitch always a logically financially viable process these days?

To pitch or not to pitch? This should at least always be a question. If you go for everything you will lose money, weaken morale or win the wrong type of business that drains you. A good qualification process should help you establish if the work is in your sweet spot which will increase your chances of winning and retaining the business. If you haven’t pitched in a while you may want to bend your qualification rules to keep the team in pitch practice. But whatever you do, don’t fall into the habit of using freelance to work on pitches, that’s money you won’t get back and valuable experience you won’t be keeping in-house.

As an industry are we guilty of pitching ourselves to the ground?

Sometimes I think pitching agencies are like bickering lambs jostling for the attention of wolves. I wish we’d stick together a bit more but when it comes to winning business, we have definitely created an environment where we are vulnerable to unscrupulous penny pinchers. I couldn't believe it the first time we were invited to a reverse auction – literally playing one agency off against another to see who was prepared to cut their own throat the furthest. Who dreamt the reverse auction up? We withdrew but not before we’d gone through the full set of hoops. We all moan about it, but agencies have made their collective bed and it’s up to the individual businesses to decide how much they are prepared to do for potentially nothing.

Webb will attend Pitch Perfect on 13 September for a panel on business development, discussing how you can create a culture where you make everyone feel responsible for new business and transcend that positive attitude, to ensure it becomes an infectious trait across the whole entire agency.

This event focuses on helping agencies win new business. Check out the website for more information and to purchase tickets.

​Sponsors of the event are BD100 and Digitas.

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