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Amid ‘endless’ 15-month pitch processes, new biz experts dream of standardization

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By Sam Anderson, Network Editor

April 4, 2024 | 9 min read

When The Drum sat down with nine new business and commercial directors, they painted a picture of pitch processes still in desperate need of standardization and work reduction.

Piles of paper on a desk

Is there a hope for standardization in the marketing agency pitch process? / Wesley Tingey via Unsplash

The Drum has spent quite some time recently documenting the minor nightmare of the pitching landscape for marketers and new business pros. A third of pitches withdrawn entirely; successful pitches seeing post-win reduced budgets; ballooning due diligence and procurement requirements. In short, the kind of behavior that the Pitch Positive Pledge (PPP) valiantly tried to put a stop to almost two years ago is still rampant.

Plenty of agencies have had enough. Some have become determined to swerve the pitching process entirely (with good success); many others, for reasons of resource and sanity alike, are working to limit their exposure to the ravages of pitching.

When we gathered nine new business leaders from marketing agencies together for a roundtable-turned-pitching-support-group, one overall approach emerged as a universal: pitching less, but pitching harder. “When we pitch, we go all in,” says James Townsend, global chief growth officer at Indicia Worldwide “We don’t make it easy for ourselves if we go after everything… But as we mature, as we become more sophisticated, more confident, we’ve made it a lot easier for ourselves because we qualify really, really hard and we’re not afraid to walk away from opportunities.”

And with spiraling demands from procurement and financial and time costs associated with each pitch, another call became clear: for standardization across the pitch process to make the new business profession less onerous.

‘It can seem like an endless process’

For our panel, pitching more selectively is both a positive move, laudably encouraged by the PPP’s drive towards more limited, selective processes, and a quite pragmatic response to the fact that pitching has (still) in Townsend’s words “definitely been getting harder”.

Things like the Pitch Positive Pledge and wider awareness about, for example, the lengths of clients’ lists have helped agencies to rationalize their own involvement. Claudia Harris, business development director at experiential shop George P. Johnson UK, says “we really need to drill into every opportunity. How do they know us? Do we have a relationship? Are we just on a list for the list’s sake? Before, we didn’t question that hard enough. We should only be going for opportunities where there’s a very good chance.”

Even with the best qualification and rationalization in the world though, the game is tough. “Finding good quality opportunities that will convert even if successful has become trickier,” says TRO’s new business director Christopher Booker, with budgets so often withdrawn or revised down after the pitching phase.

These kinds of eleventh-hour reversals are just the tip of a very troublesome iceberg, with our panel painting a picture in which even successful pitches that result in work are time-consuming and onerous. “The number of hoops you have to jump through is considerable,” says Celia Clark, international client engagement director at Team Lewis. “From a stamina point of view, it’s hard – in terms of keeping engagement and keeping things going during what can seem to be an endless process – even when it’s originally set out with a very robust and specific timeframe.” Another panel member says that a recent successful pitch was won only after a 15-month process that saw “four or five” changes to the brief and “countless different proposals from countless different teams”.

The dream of standardization

Against this backdrop, it’s no surprise that agencies are coming together behind initiatives like the PPP, and sharing more with each other about how tough new business can be. As Mark Buist, director of group sales at DRPG, puts it, “some clients will send a proposal or a brief out to 15 agencies. And I just wish we could all pick up the phone and get together and share what we’ve heard. I really would love to see us work together more closely.”

But our assembled group of new business people would like to go further – beyond comparing notes, to standardized requirements and collective action to root out bad behavior. Here’s Christi Tronetti, head of growth at M&C Saatchi: “it’s still hard for one agency to stand up and say, I don't agree with this process – with the timings, the costs, or whatever. But it’d be much different if we had an outside body like the IPA or ISBA (who are the founders of the PPP), who could, on behalf of agencies, if it's flagged to them, stand up and say, ‘Hey, are you aware of the PPP? Are you aware of the parameters that we work within?’ We need someone to be the voice of agencies.”

Once the idea of external checks and balances has been raised with our panel, the list of things they would like to see some guardrails for is long: a limit on requirements to pitch for individual pieces of work even after successfully pitching for the relationship; clearer understanding of the role of procurement; feedback on unsuccessful pitches. Chief among their gripes, though, is the ballooning costs of pitching – principally in time, but financially too.

Nitin Rabadia, commercial director at Kepler, says that “Pitching has just got bigger overall. Say five years ago, there’d be a small team from the agency going to meet a small team on the advertiser side, generally run directly. You’d build chemistry, you’d answer a brief, and you're done relatively quickly. Not now: now, procurement comes in’ data and privacy comes; legal’s got a lot more stuff to sort out. On the client side that gets a lot bigger, purely in terms of the number of people you have to get through. And it’s the same agency-side. There are loads of SMEs that we need to bring in: a team for climate change, a team for sustainability. On both sides, it's just got much bigger.”

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This manifests not only in the form of interminably long processes, but an awful lot of repeated work, says Tronetti: “reams and reams of Excel documents” covering DEI, sustainability, and data protection “and they’re all tailored; they’re all bespoke” – so each pitch brings this same work afresh. This is before the work even reaches the idiosyncratic requirements of every procurement department, whose “mandates are always totally different,” says Harris. Our panel reports initial RFIs with over 200 questions – “a full day of basic hygiene” each time, says George Sanders, head of growth at Earnest – “when we don’t even know if we want to do this yet”.

And procurement is also just as likely to put a spanner in the works at the other end of the process, says Claire Duggan, head of engagement at Seven Stones: “procurement can really block the process now – whereas your marketing department used to be able to smooth the process over, not anymore”.

Thus the dream of standardization: while there are plenty of options for accreditation around, say, sustainability or diversity practices, none of those accreditations are a shortcut to the lengthy and heterogenous requirements of the pitch process. “There are plenty of platforms; they’re just not standardized,” says Rabadia. “There are too many of them and they are a real headache, and it takes half the company to get a score from someone, which is then out of date in three months’ time”.

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