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The phantom pain: a lack of pitch feedback is harming the client-agency relationship

The agency-client conversation is currently not one between equals

As research demonstrates that lockdown has enflamed some existing pain points for agencies, we’re taking a look at what needs to change. In this article we hear how lockdown and the lack of chemistry meetings have removed the impetus for clients to feed back to agencies – and the unfortunate impact that has had on the relationship at the core of the marketing ecosystem.

The pitch process is a conversation. From the initial approach to the follow-up – whether the outcome is successful or a failure – pitching is an extended dialogue between agency and client.

Over the course of the past few years, however, a pain point has become more acute for agencies. A lack of client feedback after unsuccessful pitches has risen to become an impediment to the client-agency relationship.

The latest New Business Barometer from JFDI and Opinium found 22% of agencies were rarely given detailed reasons for failed pitches. However, given that the pandemic provided a good excuse to instead cite 'withdrawn budgets', a better measure of the lack of feedback can be found from 2019's results, when fully 38% of respondents said they did not get given detailed feedback at all.

A lack of feedback in general was cited consistently as being among the biggest pain points for agencies in the immediate aftermath of discussions. Given that the past year has seen mid- and large-sized agencies pursue 40% more pitches on average, that absence of feedback is hitting harder than in previous years.

Pitching in the time of Covid has led to a number of changes that have exacerbated the need for feedback. The first is that timelines on pitches have been significantly constricted, with a fast turnaround on tenders colliding with decreased resources at agencies hit by the pandemic.

Rocketmill’s managing director Sam Garrity says that the increased pace of pitches means that the conversation between both parties is being truncated. “Much like people that have been sitting at home looking at their gardens or kitchens and investing in their houses, clients have had time to appraise their landscape. This has taken place at a time that has highlighted the need for a strong digital backbone to businesses, both internally and externally.

“This has now naturally led to a deluge of pitches. My experience of most pitches is that they are taking place because the client has a problem they have diagnosed that they want solving yesterday. That can create timescale pressures in the pitch process, and often when a client is onboarded in an agency.”

Distant and remote

David Tillet is a client partner at Greenlight. He believes that the remote nature of pitching – while one that agencies have adapted to relatively quickly – means that clients have used that to be less discerning when putting together RFPs and calls for creativity. “Bad practice may have been exaggerated across the past year because it’s been easier for companies to engage more agencies within a pitch process. This has been helped by the fact people haven’t needed to travel to various agency locations, as everything has been done virtually.

“You could also say that the personal element may have been lessened because of this, so if there’s less engagement built up across the process the prospect is probably less willing or bothered to provide feedback.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by founder and chief executive officer of Wilderness Tom Jarvis, who notes that the resurrection of the in-person chemistry meeting is potentially a way to course correct the lack of feedback. Given the power disparity between client and agency that’s perhaps unsurprising – though Jarvis also says it means the dialogue between partners is more interruptive and less helpful to both parties.

The JFDI and Opinium research also found that agencies were most likely to find getting client attention and turning this into pitch opportunities difficult during lockdown times, but that building chemistry with client pitch teams was by far the biggest difficulty encountered at this stage, with 47% of respondents noting that was the biggest factor.

The two-way street

While the lack of feedback has re-arisen as a pain point, some agencies note that it also helps them select which clients are worth working for in the mid- to long-term. Angelo Giaquinto is creative director at APS Group. He said: “Fortunately most of our pitches receive constructive feedback from clients, which really helps us sharpen up and deliver stronger future pitch work/proposals. We do have certain clients, however, that ask us to pitch just to make up the numbers as part of their process and in turn don’t usually get feedback, and if we do it’s not constructive. This is very frustrating, especially when we see the work that has won the pitch.

“All pitches we work on are not paid for and as an agency we put a lot of time and investment into pulling together the best pitch deck we possibly can, so if we lose it’s a lot easier to take when the client invests their time in giving us good constructive feedback.”

Jarvis says that the good conversations with clients that care to provide feedback ultimately prove fruitful for both parties. He notes that one recent pitch – though unsuccessful – ultimately led to a feedback meeting with six client staff members providing thoughts on what Wilderness could refine in the future. As a result, he says, he and his agency are cheering the successful agency on as they are invested in the creative work and campaign.

He also believes that some clients – particularly when their staff have an agency background themselves – are taking the time ahead of putting the RFP together to reach out to agencies based on their values and qualities: “There’s a change happening because I do think there’s lots of brands that are way more aware and conscious of this stuff. We get asked a lot more questions about us as an agency, our people, diversity and inclusion, our culture ... more consciously-aware brands seem to be aware that it’s as much about the people that they’re working with.”

Moreover, a lack of feedback or clarity helps time-strapped agencies prioritise clients who value them. Mike White, co-founder of Lively, says: "There is a lack of feedback, which often makes you question the process in the first place. Good clients, that are fair and understand the full process and write good briefs, are now called Unicorns at our agency. Luckily we found a few and are now very careful as to what we respond to."

Making detailed feedback part and parcel of any approach can also help, as can appointing an independent party to provide feedback, according to jfdi's Camilla Honey: "You get them to agree upfront, and you get it in an email or you get it in the diary. So even if they cancel it, you can reschedule this meeting, because what normally happens is people do afterwards, and then they struggle to get hold of the client."

The pandemic has accelerated many aspects of pitching, and often that has come at the expense of the conversation between agency and brand. Less discerning brands (and typically the larger ones) are providing less feedback because they can afford to do so. As we transition back to hybrid and in-person pitches it is likely the pain will lessen – though it is unlikely it will vanish entirely.

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