Ditch the Pitch: Virgin brand chief Lisa Thomas says not to always use the pitch to find the right agency

Ditch the Pitch: Virgin CBO Lisa Thomas says you can't always use the pitch to find the right agency

In this week's 'Ditch the Pitch', The Drum speaks to Lisa Thomas, chief brand officer at Virgin on how pitches aren't always the right way to find the right agency and because of the overcomplicated pitch, how the process can get in the way of what the clients really want.

What was the hardest pitch you have ever done? Was it successful?

The hardest pitch was when I was at LIDA and we pitched for the Boots Advantage Card. We were eager to secure the account as it was a critical opportunity for us to move from a ‘boutique’ agency to a credible medium sized agency working with some more significant brands and larger budgets. The pitch process was a difficult one, there were multiple stages which culminated in a shoot-out between us and Proximity which thankfully we eventually won.

What did you learn from it?

The pitch process is not just the responsibility of the pitch team, sometimes it requires the whole agency to get behind it. At the same time the pitch needs an owner, it’s often one person’s vision and drive which ensures you're over the line in the end. Ultimately though, pitching is about the people and the trust they can build not just the formal process and paperwork.

Has the pitch process become far too complicated?

The simple answer is, yes. The fact that it has become complicated has gotten in the way of what clients are really looking for which is a great agency partner. Often you end up with quite a long shortlist. There are lots of agencies at the beginning, then there are a few that pitch and at the end of the process, quite often, it ends up as a shoot out between two or three agencies. There's quite a lot of focus on getting to the absolute answer by the end of that process, which makes it very complicated and pressurisation. There is a tension in that. The pitch process becomes long and complicated and is getting in the way of what might be a brilliant, simple solution.

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

I think the RFI and trail of paperwork can really slow the process down and doesn’t ultimately help in your agency selection. It can often preclude smaller/ newer agencies where the talent may sit and where the new ideas may come from. However, done well chemistry meetings are critical. A chance for the team on both sides to connect, bond and set out how the pitch might run, understand what the real objectives are and if there really is chemistry in the room.

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

No and pitches are often not the right way of finding the agency you need to help you with your challenge. It's difficult. As an agency you have to pitch. If you say no to a pitch then you have no chance of winning it. There is an onus on that and if we are going to continue to have pitches as part of the industry, on balance that is a good thing.

I don't want pitching to go away, it's good for agency, they strive on it and it's helpful for clients to be able to see agencies in a competitive context.

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

It’s probably a little more difficult for me to answer that these days but given we’re even having the conversation then I imagine so. If we want to build strong partnerships with agencies and work with truly exceptional talent we have to think more creatively about how we select the right partner and put ourselves in the shoes of our agency partners.

Thomas will attend Pitch Perfect on 13 September to discuss how she approaches the new business process, what she likes and don’t likes and how she sees industry trends progressing from their heady heights.

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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