If the pitch process remains broken, winning still means losing

If the pitch process remains broken, winning still means losing

Trevor Cairns, chief executive officer of Love agency and former chief marketing officer at Umbro, reflects on how to fix the pitching process.

Today, agency relationships seem more akin to a succession of Tinder dates, with a fleeting chance to make an impression before the next swipe right. The result being that agencies are increasingly seen as a disposable resource, yet promiscuity erodes both efficiency and effectiveness for clients.

A Manchester PR agency recently won a 16-way pitch for a London restaurant – at the third attempt. It left me dumbfounded. Who enters a 16-way pitch? Having failed to land the same client twice before? And which illustrious venue could be worthy of such a bunfight? Bibendum? Le Gavroche? Core? Unfortunately, according to TripAdvisor at the time of writing, the pitch was for the 3,789th best restaurant in London. 16 agencies battled it out for restaurant number 3,789th.

Pitching can be positive for client and agency alike, but there’s little to be positive about 16 agencies slugging it out, over multiple rounds, for the affections of a restaurant in a Doubletree Hotel.

In the 20 years I spent client-side, we ran from one pitch when we hit an impasse and invited another agency (one, not 16) into the process as deadlines closed in. At the risk of sounding like Theresa May, agency relationships then felt strong and stable. Relationships built on mutual commitment and a refusal to jump ship at the first sign of difficulty. And while long-term partners may still one day drift apart –​ see Audi and BBH – creative brilliance was built on the foundation of true partnership.

So let's improve the pitching process.

Let’s talk about splitting the bill

Offer a pitch fee. It’s a gesture but a big one. A fraction of the cost you are asking us to commit to, but a huge demonstration of understanding that sets an expectation from the start about the type of client you’re going to be.

Let’s talk about honesty

Pitches are increasingly non-committal. “I don’t want to give you a budget as it may constrain your creativity” is one typical sweet nothing. We both know you know, so let’s not dance around it. Creativity is magnified tenfold when you tell us what we have to work with.

Pre pitch communication sets the tone for any future relationship and there is no relationship without trust. Every agency has different pitch criteria – by giving the facts upfront, you’ll end up with the right people pitching wholeheartedly on your business.

Let’s talk about commitment

If pitching and project led work is on the rise, the demand for exclusivity is growing in parallel. If you’re a retained agency, with an agreed scope of work, exclusivity is a logical client request. But running a project led agency is a hand to mouth existence. Typically, the next quarter looks healthy. The quarter after that, less so. And the quarter after that, bloody scary. I cannot commit exclusively to you, unless you commit exclusively to me.

A recent pitch illustrates the point. We received an approach to pitch from a well-known Scottish beer brand, (no, not that one), which we won.

Post pitch the budget was halved to a budget that we wouldn’t have pitched for in the first place. But with the work approved we pressed on.

Meanwhile, we were approached by another well-known Scottish beer brand (yes, that one) to develop its spirits offer. A category we have deep expertise in. We quickly formed a commercial agreement and created six new brands in six months. The brands are on shelf, while the original pitch project remains in a state of paralysis.

Suddenly, the pitch brand “fired” us for working with an actual client in a totally different category. With exclusivity, put a ring on it or don’t ask for it.

Let’s talk about respect

Finally, a plea to respect the process you are running and the work involved. Last year, we pitched for an “on-demand studio cycling” brand, who were launching in the UK.

After five weeks of intensive (free) work, the pitch verdict was delivered in an 85 word email from its marketing chief with the usual pleasantries.

They "decided to move in a different direction for our brand launch”. Maybe I should be grateful for an email, since Anomaly found out it hadn’t won BMW through the trade press.

Pitching isn’t a one-way evaluation of an agency, it’s a two-way evaluation of chemistry and opportunity. Great pitches should galvanise the agency and have creatives fighting over the brief. I’ve seen it happen, but unfortunately it’s the exception rather than the rule.

It’s never going away, so let’s make it better, with honesty, respect and a long-term point of view.

Until then it’s a fight to the death for restaurant number 3,879th.

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