10 reasons why pitching is the biggest illusion of the 21st century

When I read an email with the line "you are invited to our pitch...", or see more 'refined' phrases such as RFP or RFQ, I immediately assume that it’s going to be an intellectual stick-em-up. Created by an army of purchasing and pitching consultants, selling fake certainty to brands by approaching every collaboration as if they were buying Biros. Or worse: asking agencies for retainers and even kickbacks in case they are rewarded a loss-making contract after a long and expensive pitch process.

I have been in the brand-building business for over 20 years. At Brandhome, we have completed over 2,000 branding projects all across the globe, but we have never, ever participated in a pitch. And this is for one very specific reason: there is no profit in pitching. None. Not for anyone. It is the biggest trick of the 21st century, propped up by a series of illusions that the participants – advertisers and agencies – keep deluding themselves with.

Let’s take a look at the ways we delude ourselves over the value of pitching – but be forewarned: some of these points may be a little too familiar for comfort.

1. The illusion of profit

“A new agency will mean fresh blood for the brand, making it more successful and more profitable.”

Who ever came up with the idea there is profit in a pitch? Agencies? Advertisers? Since when is working for free, spending tons of dollars in unbillable hours, a profitable way to run a business?

It is not profitable for advertisers, who are certain to spend incredible amounts of time with large teams of people, without any calculable certainty that the eventual choice of one of the contenders will lead to a more profitable brand. It is not profitable for agencies, which spend incredible amounts of money in unbillable hours that will be difficult if not impossible to regain if they are lucky enough to win the account. It is not profitable for the brand, as it will trudge on unsupported for too long. Only to be disrupted by another attempt at brand communication, which can take a year or more to catch on before it starts bringing in more revenue than the one before, if it’s lucky.

2. The illusion of motivation

“A new agency will renew the brand team’s motivation and winning a brand will motivate the agency to show what they’re worth.”

Creative people are among the most competitive guys and gals on the planet. They love the quest for a great idea, the Big Idea that can help a brand move forward in a big way. They love the creative process and they love sparring with that great brand team across the table. But, man, do they hate pitches.

They hate being used for zilch. They hate to unleash the best they have on something that has a 99% chance of never appearing in the media. They hate the advertisers running through the agency office to see how cool it is. They hate the advertisers for their “you’re lucky you’re even on our list” attitude. They hate the advertisers saying they are in for the most creative campaign ever, while most wouldn’t recognise one if it walked up and slapped them. They hate the hidden agendas that turn pitches into puppet shows.

And when it’s all over, win or lose, they hate the work that is done for naught. They hate the new account’s brand team, who came in with lots of talk about room for creativity, but a month into the brief show themselves to be nothing more than boring, scared energy-draining drones.

3. The illusion of sharpness

“A new agency will help define a sharper brand strategy, making the brand team and the brand organisation more alert and energised.”

Yeah, sure it does, but in the same way a new and younger wife will sharpen and energise your sex life. Three months on, when agency and advertiser are starting to get to know each other a little better, the passion of first moment is already dwindling. The true characters of both brand team and agency team have started to come out (“They don’t want humor in their commercial, are they serious?” vs. “What, $100,000 for a commercial, are they serious?”) and the first irritations are showing.

Soon the client-agency relationship is just what most client-agency relationships are: settled, going through the motions, not rocking any boats, keeping it going, doing reasonable work, nothing special, everybody happy. Sort of. The brand may be showing some progress – usually just enough to keep the illusion of a sensible pitch decision intact on both sides of the aisle.

4. The illusion of input

“The pitch will hand a brand team new and refreshing insights, picking up different points of view.”

Yes, indeed it will, but generally it is an exercise in picking brains. There is always a lot of nodding at those presentations, a lot of benign humming around the table. “That went well,” the agency says afterwards. “That didn’t impress me,” the advertiser says afterwards. Pitching is like an exchange of views by strangers on a train who get off at different stops. The pitch topic is not the brand; it is the advertiser’s trick to find out useful stuff his brand could profit from, as well as to see which agency shares his own views.

Agencies, in turn, when pitching, are doctors operating in the dark, hardly knowing who the “patient” is. They don’t know anything about the organisation’s identity and values, the way they work, what they like, how they think about the business. The input they get from the advertiser will always fall short, as it is brand-centered and hardly ever about what the people behind the brand are like. The input agencies add to the advertiser will always fall short, as it is gleaned from general market research, ordinary gut feeling and looking at the brand’s previous performances.

Pitch after pitch, the illusion that both sides couldn’t be better informed is kept alive against better judgment.

5. The illusion of secrecy

"This pitch will be conducted under NDA but in a completely open and transparent way; what we know, you will know; at any time you can ask us anything and get the answers you’ll need.”

Right – as if a brand will divulge all its trade secrets, costly market research, details around distribution and sales channels, and relationships between the brand’s decision makers. Every NDA ever signed in the context of a pitch is an illusion. There is no equality of information exchange; there is no shortage of leaks and shortcuts; there is no way an agency will let that stand in the way of hiring a team of freelance experts who sign nothing at all. If it’s a high-profile pitch, the trade press will be hounding anyone involved and, lo and behold, there will always be one person – probably more than one – with an ego large enough to reveal what’s going on.

Secrecy during a pitch was an illusion even before Internet and social media. Now it’s a downright lie.

6. The illusion of specialness

"As an agency we are really honored to be on the shortlist – as a startup we never expected to get this far, so yeah, fantastic.”

Yeah, fantastic, you are so special. At least that’s what you keep telling yourself. There are worse illusions. That startup winning the pitch – it’s the fairytale everyone likes to see happen once in a while. Advertisers know that, and as of today there are as many startup agencies as there are tulips in spring. Naturally, just to be sure, they also throw a couple of dinosaur agencies into the mix. But they are all special! They are all on the shortlist of that great, big, shiny account! How great is that? As an advertiser it’s such joy to see them gamboling about all over the place, pulling out all the stops, just for you. So they make you feel special too. A win-win, right?

Think again. It’s more like lose-lose. Whatever the outcome, that agency will never work that hard for you again. It was a one-time deal. After the pitch, the agency will never be the agency you saw during the pitch. The disappointment will set in quickly on both sides, the work will suffer, and with it the brand.

7. The illusion of objectivity

“All agencies will receive exactly the same brief and will be judged strictly on the basis of how their strategic and creative proposals fit the brand’s goals.”

Judged, that is, by people. As long as humans are involved in judging and choosing, objectivity will always be an illusion. Everybody brings their set of values to the table, their own sense of humour, their taste, their own professional views, their mood. The agency presenting on Monday morning at 9am will have different judges than the agency presenting Monday afternoon at 2pm.

From the very first phone call there can be a rapport between the caller on the agency side and the advertiser side. From the very first personal meeting there can be a click between the marketing & sales guy and the two creatives, while the vice president of marketing is looking at those two and thinking: what’s with the hipster beards?

Objectivity is nowhere to be found during the pitch process. It may feel good to think of yourself being capable of making an objective choice, but you’re fooling yourself if you think you can. We’re only human and there is no human on earth who can truly be objective when making a choice.

8. The illusion of gratitude

“There can only be one winner of course, but we have been very impressed with the extremely high standard of work all the agencies we visited have shown us and we thank them for their time, energy, and efforts.”

Thanks, nice try, goodbye. There is no gratitude in pitching. Not even for the agency that wins. That agency can start over with a ‘more realistic campaign,’ which is a bummer after imagining that the advertiser was really ecstatic over their creative pitch. Is that what you worked so hard, so late into the night, so often during the weekends for? Yes, it is. Don’t think for a minute that your new clients will fall on their knees and thank you like you’re some kind of god that will snatch their brand from the edge of the ravine.

After the champagne is emptied, it’s back to business and the grim reality of hearing that this year’s budget is not as big as expected. Nor does gratitude flow from the agency to the advertiser, because for the agency it’s also back to business as usual, the new account just one more client to serve and actually we do have bigger accounts than yours, you know.

9. The illusion of impact

“We are both extremely pleased with this new relationship and we are confident that this will lead to work which will boost our brand’s future.”

Confidence that a new advertiser-agency relationship will work brilliantly is another illusion that seems hard to let go of. It makes me think of football, when a 21-year-old new recruit is shown wearing the the new club’s shirt in a tweet about the impact he will be expected to make on the club’s future. The illusion is the same.

A brand is not a motorboat you can just turn around, it is a large ocean-going vessel that requires consideration and care to change its course. Thinking you can create an impact on a brand’s future by changing agencies is as human an error as they come. It is time, money and effort wasted on a totally unpredictable trip around the agency world. Spending the same amount of all those things on your regular agency has a much better chance of making an impact on the brand. If the brand is slipping, it’s not just the agency’s fault; the brand side has just as much burden to bear.

A brand is not an ‘us and them’ thing, it is an ‘us together’ thing. Invest more time and interest in your current agency and inspire them to double their effort, to get cracking, to surprise themselves and who knows – chances are it will rub off. Changing the spirit inside your brand’s agency is the real way to make an impact on the brand’s well-being.

10. The illusion of (in)sanity

A pitch is what Albert Einstein described almost 100 years ago: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

Pitches follow the same pattern all the time. A call, a meeting, a longlist, a shortlist, a brief, two or three weeks or months of wasted agency life and an outcome. Because agencies pitch so often, and so often for accounts in the same branch, they are sorely tempted to fall back on what they created in an earlier pitch. “We did not win this pitch for bank brand X. No worries, put the presentation and ideas in the fridge, and we’ll use it for the next bank that stops by. Or send it to our sister agency across the border.”

Don’t think this doesn’t happen. Plenty of pitches out there are won by second-hand, recycled pitch campaigns. It’s insane. Brands convincing themselves that another agency will do a better job, just like that. Brands telling themselves that this time a pitch will make them see the light. And every time the result is the same. You don’t have to be an Einstein to figure it out. When you really want to build and boost your brand, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. True, there are a lot of one-trick-pony people in this industry, but why should your brand suffer for it? Or worse: why would you, as marketing executive or manager be prevented from building your own brand and marketing strategy?

I always say this to our future clients: enjoy these first 60 minutes, since these will be the only ones you’ll get for free. No worries, I have prepared these first 60 minutes well and this is what we should do together. Call me arrogant, fine. But if you do, you’re missing the point. If people responsible for their business or their brand come to me, I know they’re not here as part of a pitch, because they know I don’t do pitches. That simple truth helps me and them. It levels the playing field. It makes us one before we have even met. It makes their business and their brand the key issue of that first 60 minutes, not the rules of engagement set out for the agency pitch. That is waste of time nobody wants.

Whoever participates in pitches is going to pay the price. It degrades your value. It demotivates your people. It stimulates the very thing any brand should watch out for: commodification. It never, ever gets the best out of people, because at that point they lack deep brand knowledge. It consumes profit and people. It leads to unnecessary stress. It brings about ego battles. It’s an insane process.

Pitches are a business leader’s worst enemy. It’s an illusion to think they are not. It’s time to ditch the pitch.

Erik Saelens is founder & executive strategic director of Belgium's Brandhome group

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