Pitches and stolen riches: ad agencies reveal how clients have ripped them off
Adland united in outrage when crypto firm Coinbase proudly claimed to have created a Super Bowl ad no ad agency could make. Obviously, an agency did make the ad, and the industry stood up to the erasure from the outsider startup. We caught up with ad execs to hear their tales of the many times they’ve been burned by clients, painting a picture of a practice that is the norm, not the outlier.
The Coinbase Super Bowl ad bounced a QR code around TV screens for 60 seconds. The DVD-screensaver-style spot baited viewers with promises of free crypto, gripping the nation and ultimately crashing the Coinbase website, with 20 million users visiting its site within one minute.
Basking in its success, a Twitter thread from Coinbase chief executive officer Brian Armstrong recalling the creative process irked the industry as he boldly claimed credit for doing something “no agency could do.”
Is the pitch process broken?
Then The Martin Agency’s chief Kristen Cavallo sought to correct the record: “[The idea] was actually inspired by presentations our agency showed your team on 8/18 (pages 19-24) and 10/7 (pages 11-18) with ad concepts for the Super Bowl with floating QR codes on a blank screen.”
Coinbase’s chief marketing officer Kate Rouch then claimed “multiple agencies had pitched a QR code idea,“ and Accenture Interactive was credited for having made the ad.
The episode showed how the pitch process is broken, as outlined here by Love agency chief executive Trevor Cairns. He detailed his disgust at a 16-way pitch for a London restaurant in 2019 – and things have only gotten worse during the pandemic. IPA president and VCCP international chairman Julian Douglas recently warned: “There are a lot of unnecessary pitches taking place and, even among those that are necessary, there is a lot of unnecessary work taking place. This represents wastage we should look to reduce.”
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The Drum asked top agency figures from creative, PR media and production to share tales of times they’d been burned by clients. Some have shared lessons, while others found it cathartic to get their experiences off their chest.
Did they steal it? To hell with them
This creative agency boss pitched for a top entertainment client, and they believe their campaign idea was stolen.
They won the account. And their campaign was very similar. I suppose it could have been a coincidence. It’s won awards. But when we’re all dead, there will be a reckoning. Lots of people will find themselves in hell ferrying junk up and down the Thames in punishment. They know who they are. Three weeks of late nights and weekends gone. Weeks of smiles were stolen from my child. Pitching is broken.
You can steal events?
This one’s from a few years back. A drinks giant reportedly stole an event from this experiential agency.
I’ve lost track of whether there’s still a legal battle around this one, but we were asked to pitch a new event [for a drinks brand] as its current one was coming to an end. We pitched the ________ but did not win. Low and behold, six months later, into the trade press pops the PR release for the upcoming ______, even using artwork elements and maps that were from our pitch.
It had put in the pitch terms that it ‘owned the IP to all work pitched’ (utter twats) so I don’t know if that really counts as ‘stealing,’ but it felt like it and agencies shouldn’t pitch under these conditions.
When screwing over an agency, is it more honorable to do it to its face? In this case, we’re talking about a media strat meeting.
We were working with a big tech brand and had grafted around the clock to write a deck for the media lead. We were then called into a very senior meeting where the media lead stood up, lied about writing the document through the night and then presented the slides as though it was their own. The agency team just sat there dumbstruck. We knew it happened, but to watch it happen in front of us was special. The account lead had it out with them after and reported it to the boss. In fairness, they apologized and vowed never to do it again (which likely just meant they waited until we left the room to steal the credit).
Giants eat the minnows
A thriving regional production house shared how it was nearly eaten alive by the very agency that brought it to the table.
We have stopped giving out ideas, and we’ve been losing work over it.
One time, a third-party agency took our pitch idea and then used another provider. I see this time and time again. The agencies offer you the world. They then just steal ideas off of the younger agencies and pat themselves on the back. They ghost you, then the next thing you know the work is released.
Another time, we had a long-term client, a big brand, and we proposed a strategy campaign. The whole marketing team left and the new one picked up the playbook and ran a year-long campaign without us. Give what you feel comfortable with.
Getting canned after pregnancy
A word of warning from one comms agency exec – don’t get pregnant after winning a pitch...
My highlight would be the client sacking me when I told them I was pregnant. They had just appointed us and then their in-house guy just used all our ideas from our campaign plan.
Outsourcing the outsourcers
Guard your work – the thinking is the valuable part. Amateurs can replicate the idea once it’s formulated. This design agency has been burned too many times.
A brand came to us for a creative pitch. We showed examples of recent work to demonstrate our expertise. The client then got a team of Chinese designers to copy our creative but change the product and brand. They literally copied it all.
The beauty parade with no winners
In the world of PR, once the ideas are out of your mouth, arrogant clients will probably try to go solo.
In the olden days pitches (beauty parades) would happen and no one was ever awarded the contract... but you’d guarantee one of the ideas would surface and be attributed to the in-house team.
Theft, outright theft
On smaller projects, it’s sometimes more effort than it is worth to go through the courts.
I was at a media owner and our client (a massive telecom company) commissioned a small agency to make an interactive game for a new ad format. The client let me know after that they weren’t going to pay the agency, seemingly just because they could get away with it.
Paid or free?
A jaded ad exec weighs in on the different types of pitches.
Theft happens every day and to every agency. For years, agencies have been talking about the tension between getting paid to pitch (brand owns the ideas) or pitching for free (brand can just steal the idea). It’s a false choice, and one agencies rarely stand up for or speak out on.
Such is life in a slim-margin business. But if you can’t change the rules, change the game.
A chief marketing officer at a top creative agency urges pitchers to check out the NDAs and contracts – be wary of clients claiming IP on free pitches. “We’ve got quite hot on this and never sign up to it, but clients often try and sneak it in.”
Pitchers must also be wary of when the process requires everything to be submitted in advance before the client decides who they want to see in person.
Additionally, a top chief creative officer points to “several common and toxic practices including idea fishing, devaluing and disrespecting strategic/creative/expertise.”
All in all, this culture is contributing to staff burnout, and they explain that after all that, the client will often cut the budget and water down the idea anyway.
(Some) clients worry too
It’s worth saying that pitching is an emotional time. High stakes. High risk. Time-consuming. Not every accusation of theft and plagiarism is credible. But the secretive nature of pitching muddies the water and enables such conflict.
A former client-side marketer at a gaming brand said: “It’s staggering how often agencies produce similar work to each other or ideas that have been repurposed. Clients would be banging their heads off walls seeing the same old boring shit again and again.”
And another at a travel brand expressed: “What is the right etiquette when you are pitched an idea you have already had internally, or via (at least) one other agency? I always panic. I am keen to not look like we’ve nicked an idea, but equally not wanting to be churlish pointing out the lack of originality in the idea.”