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Creative Agency Models Pitching

When pitches go to pot: how can agencies maintain momentum in the pitch process?


By Laura Blackwell, Content Executive

March 23, 2023 | 7 min read

With stakes for agencies higher than ever, we summoned five leaders from The Drum Network to discuss how to minimize mess when pitching to prospective clients.

Hourglass containing blue sand on beach

Pitches are taking considerably longer, but what's the pay-off? / Aron Visuals

For some, lockdown sweetened the pitch process: generating more business opportunities, more time to respond to them, and even providing a means to get more creative when working within time and location constraints. This was the gist, at least, from a recent panel discussion with agency leaders from The Drum Network.

“The ability to handle them without taking days out of the office to fly and drive to places made a huge difference to how many we were able to respond to”, says Jago Sherman, head of strategy at The Goat Agency.

Inevitably, this new global paradigm has also come with its challenges, with one-third of pitches reportedly being withdrawn in 2022. “Obviously, relationship building became much harder”, says Sherman. “So what we’ve had to do is go above and beyond and ask: how can we make this a really special experience?”

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Power struggles

The remote situation has arguably made pitch processes more malleable, but not necessarily in a way that is productive. In fact, Zone’s chief design and product officer, Esther Duran, talks of the disregarding of foundational steps altogether. “There is always one person (or two people) that come into the room and say, don’t worry about the research, I know exactly what they want,” says Duran. “That is probably one of the downfalls of the pitch process; when one person’s authority is imposed on the rest”.

Changes among external teams can also strain the client-agency relationship. As Sherman describes it, “coming back to the reporting of relationships after you’ve put in months of groundwork with people, only to have someone suddenly come out of the woodwork you've never spoken to before” can stall the pitch process.

Roger Barr, chief digital officer at agency iCrossing, says that, sometimes, this misalignment can cost the whole pitch. “We had a process last year that lasted for five months, and that was partly due to personnel within the brand changing multiple times”, he says. “In this scenario, we’d pretty much been picked, and then procurement got involved and the whole process got up-ended”.

Pitches seem to be taking longer – typically six to eight weeks – with extra focus on things like a contract negotiation. For highly regulated industries in the public sector, this process can be especially long because of boxes that need ticking and things like industry-specific standards. “I’ve been in the process and it took us over a year, and you just lose track of what you were doing at the beginning of the year”, says Duran.

On the flip side, Mikey Emery, commercial director at Impression, recalls, “you’d go through the whole process and be selected as the agency to proceed and then, all of a sudden, a whole new level was layered in right at the last minute.”

Finding the spark

When navigating a new client relationship, agencies should be wary of giving away their ideas for free. In the e-commerce space, Robert Bassett, commercial director at Optimizon, has seen clients and go away with information from a pitch and do the work themselves, or change course completely. “Typically, we’re pitching to people who do not know how to do what we do,” he says. “You have to be very careful that you're not just giving a client all of your resources.”

It’s a call for agencies to focus on the chemistry between parties, rather than handing the client their processes on a plate, which Sherman believes will strengthen the relationship in the long run.

“One of our biggest clients last year was quite a shock,” says Sherman. “We had to have what ended up being chemistry calls. We’d never had that happen before. They met a few of us and then we introduced the wider team, and the chemistry was just incredible. They said: ‘you know what, we’re not gonna put this out there.’ And since then, working with them has been an absolute breeze.”

Knowing your worth: when is a pitch not worth the risk?

The feeling from our panel is that having to go through miles of red tape and surprise shake-ups to teams can stifle the creative process, and throw weeks of work off course. From a performance marketing perspective, Emery confesses to not going ahead with a client “if there isn’t a clearly mapped-out plan” – although this might not necessarily suit creative or project-based work.

Another way in which agencies minimize risk is by limiting how many others they are willing to compete with. Barr goes as far as to say, “if there were going to be more than three agencies, we would have to have a powerful relationship already with that potential client, whether it be known people or some kind of previous relationship with some of the key decision-makers.”

Impression takes a different approach to minimize pitch waste. The agency qualifies the viability of a pitch by looking at the gross value of an opportunity, says Emery. “If we know that [a project] will make way more profit margin in year two of the contract than year one,” he says, “we start to consider way more, like are there additional risks; emphases that we can cross-sell in the future; we’ll also factor in things like our kind of broad business portfolio, like do we want to be more [known] in certain sectors?”

So: beyond the brief, engage with the people you’re pitching to, and don’t expect to win people over with minimal contact.

Creative Agency Models Pitching

Content created with:

The Goat Agency

We’re the leading global social media marketing agency powered by influencers. We pride ourselves in bringing together data-led performance, real human relationships,...

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Zone is the customer experience agency inside Cognizant. We generate value for businesses by creating transformative customer experiences.

Zone does this...

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iCrossing UK

We are iCrossing. We build seamless digital experiences that influence consumers to act. With unrivaled access to Hearst’s powerful consumer insights, we uncover...

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We are Digital Growth Specialists helping ambitious brands push boundaries and drive impact. We define and deliver integrated digital strategies that transform our...

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Optimizon is one of the UK’s fastest-growing eBay and Amazon Agencies, with clients including global brand leaders in homewares, garden machinery and sports equipment


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