Creative Pitching New Business

Let them eat cake: what happens when the pitch process isn't respected

By Tom Foulkes

December 10, 2019 | 6 min read

Picture the scene: you’ve been invited by a billion-dollar dot-com to pitch for their global advertising account. You and your colleagues are excited. This is your opportunity to make your mark and get noticed. The company is one of the few truly profitable dot-com’s to emerge in the last couple of decades. Alongside Amazon, they were one of the early disrupters turning business upside down and re-forming expectations about a whole category of the consumer economy.

chocolate cake

Let them eat cake: what happens when the pitch process isn't respected

You’ve had a great career within your agency, but always felt like the bridesmaid and never quite the bride. At university, you were marked out early as one of the most promising on your course. You breezed into your first internship in a creative studio and after graduation steadily worked your way up the ranks of the agency on merit. At your last appraisal, the agency managing director listened to your concerns. Sure you’ve made some great shorts and that charity campaign you made last year won a few awards (but also never saw the light of day outside the award dinners), but you want to apply your creative chops on your own terms. On a really financially significant brief.

So, you were delighted to get the chance to pitch to this household name, to be judged against your peers. You know you can win it. You’ve put an amazing team together, the planning is on point and your account team comes with amazing testimonials from other global brands.

The client team seems cool too. They were all wearing jeans at the briefing meeting. One of them had an ironic t-shirt on. The chemistry seems really good. You got on well with the client and the interior of their office (while a bit of a dot-com cliche) really brought to life the culture of this company. They are disruptive. Brave. They are doing things differently to the norm. It’s annoying that they aren’t paying for the pitch creative. But who does? And anyway they were brave and disruptive and they wore jeans in the office and had toys hanging on the walls in a hipster fashion. They wore ironic t-shirts for Christ sake! These were your people. Except you work for a medium-sized low margin advertising agency and they make literally billions of dollars in profit each year.

After two weeks your finance director is concerned about the time you’ve accrued, although he doesn’t even know about the late nights, and the favours you’ve called in. But, you’ve produced the best creative of your career and once you win the pitch the timesheets will take care of themselves and you can repay the favours. Fitting it in around family commitments has proven less easy and things at home are strained - while you’ve been working your family has taken up the slack. School runs have been rearranged. Family dinners postponed. But you’ve got this.

On the day of the pitch, you are exhausted. The client, wearing another ironic t-shirt, meets you at reception. The rapport is great. The banter flowing. You’ve got all your boards prepped (the production costs alone brought a tear to the finance director’s eye) and each member of the team has done their bit. The script is tight. The client shows you into their kitchen. Laid out in front of you is all the ingredients for a chocolate cake. The oven is on and warming. What is going on?

The clients got a smirk on their face. They think this is hilarious. They are just so kooky and disruptive. They want you to make a chocolate cake. You don’t understand. Sorry, what is happening? They want to see how you and your colleagues work as a team and to judge this they want you to make a chocolate cake. They have cameras set up and they want you to make a chocolate cake so they can decide if you are fit to do their global advertising. This is the most important business presentation of your career and they want you to make a cake. You are a degree educated advertising professional and they want you to make a cake. Without any instructions. To see how you and your colleagues work as a team. That ironic t-shirt is hilarious.

So you make a chocolate cake and later on, you pitch your creative. But your cake wasn’t very good and you snapped at one of your team when they queried if the recipe you remembered was right. You didn’t win.

This is an apparently true (if slightly embellished) story. I know it’s a true story (except for my embellished bits) because it was the client from the household-name-dot-com who told me it. In fact, they didn’t just tell me, they told a whole audience of people who attended The Drum’s Pitch Perfect event last month. They also told it proudly. Unashamedly even. See that’s the problem with dysfunctional norms. They normalise abusive behaviour.

If more clients respected the creative process they would think more about how they treat creatives and the pitch process would change. This would not only be for the good of agencies, but clients and their shareholders as well. Good for clients and their shareholders because the pitch process imperils the fortunes of client organisations. But that argument rarely gets made. Until now.

The editor has asked me to write a column like this every month. Next month’s column is about egg farming. Have a good Christmas.

Tom Foulkes is marketing director at Carter Jonas.

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