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The new business rulebook hasn’t been ripped up

By Dan Cunnighan, Head of new business

April 15, 2020 | 4 min read

An article in The Drum last week posited the question, ‘has the rule book been ripped up for pitches?’. The overriding response was “yes”.



From my perspective in new business, I don’t think it has.

The rule book is a big old thing and I guess some pages have been torn as it's been frantically revised and revisited, but it hasn’t been ripped up. There are still core principles that work. And still more re-edits to come.

Our industry has always bemoaned the pitch process. And part of that bemoaning is directed at a lack of payment for the privilege. That’s a noble debate. But in the here and now with downsizing the order of the day and delayed decision-making as a bi-product, to suggest agencies should be paid to pitch is maladaptive.

In the widely-socialised Simon Sinek speech to his team, he said ‘these are not unprecedented times’, and rather an opportunity to adapt and transform. That doesn’t demand a radical shift in new business strategy or ridding it of the fundamentals; in actual fact, they remain the same.

We’ve had two pitches during the lockdown, and I’m not sure we would have done them much differently. They’ve been good and we’ve enjoyed them. Sure there is different gameplay, but generally speaking, the pitch hasn’t changed: you still put your best foot forward and do what you can to tilt the table in your favour during the process.

What it has made us focus more sharply on is greenlighting the qualification process around why this pitch is taking place and that it is right for us. Beyond that, we’ve certainly not pushed for punitive terms or to be paid. That wouldn’t be realistic.

Yes, we’re under strain. So are clients. But you turn down work that isn’t right, not because it’s not a perfect opportunity.

Pitch behaviour still matters, of course it does. But in the same way, it would in a pitch pre-coronavirus. And that all comes down to due diligence and ongoing dialogue. If you have visibility and presence, crack on.

In terms of the pitch response, for us, it’s meant being more creative with the limitations we have. That’s become an opportunity, and the delivery of one of our pitches was one of the most creative things I’ve seen us do.

Where I believe there is room to really look at the rule book is in what production means in a new world. We are bringing about a new model of production - if only temporary - that is more experimental. That will require a different remuneration discussion.

There have also been other revisions that I believe should be incorporated into the new rules going forward.

Process-wise, pitches have been quicker and slightly more streamlined. It means everyone has been more efficient. We’ve also found new ways of collaborating and iterating in real-time, and it’s that sort of behaviour which will lead to tighter relationships down the line.

We’ve also been in reinvention mode during the crisis and put a call out to the agency to lean into new business. By doing that, we’ve found hidden new business Jedi’s in the ranks and mobilised them into virtual members of the new business team. This is a time to build relationships proactively and they are helping to do that through a mix of tactics. That shouldn’t stop either.

Overall, the agency selection process can be a funny business. But it's not completely changing now. The time to address it is in a post-Covid-19 world when we’ll do things differently. Our equity as an industry - understanding human behaviour and solving problems with creativity - will matter more than ever then. And that’s when the real Road to Damascus moment will come because the ‘new normal’ isn’t here yet.

Dan Cunnighan is head of new business at Dark Horses.

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