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Here’s everything that’s wrong about pitching and how the agency world can fix it

With mental health being a top concern for the industry, Anthony Young, co-founder of The Digital Café, says it’s time to look at the impact too much pitching is having on teams at agencies.

A damning article in Campaign recently threw a spotlight on the industry’s long hours culture and the draining effect it is having on the mental health and well-being of employees. What is alarming is how many of the industry’s bright talent whose best years of their career should be ahead of them are considering their best option for work/life balance is to leave the business. And that’s a real shame.

You can blame procurement departments of clients looking to reduce fees. You can also point to corporate agency headquarters push to preserve margins. Of course, Covid is having its effect. But let’s face it, none of those issues is exclusive to the advertising industry.

Much of our industry’s woes can be pointed towards agency pitches. A practice romanticised by Don Draper clicking the carousel of a 35mm slide projector is the stuff of legends. Working on pitches used to be a badge of honour. Now it’s seen by this next generation as a dreaded curse. The burnout from endless work streams over days, weeks, nights and weekends is taking its toll on staff. Those in agency leadership positions need to take a moment to consider does this level of pitching still make sense?

You wouldn’t meet six architects brief them on a design, expect them all to develop custom concepts, then draw up the blueprints for free. Then choose one firm to move ahead with, but not before negotiating on their fees.

Can you imagine walking into a restaurant, asking their head chef to design a menu totally customised to you and your guest's dietary needs and desires? Then have their staff prepare, cook, and serve it ahead of their existing paying diners.

What about visiting a supermarket. Would you fill your basket with products, take them home to try, before you decided to buy them?

On all those occasions, those businesses would simply refuse. In the supermarket example, they would likely call the police and have you charged with shoplifting!

The problem is that there doesn’t appear to be any downside to a client calling a pitch.

Prospective clients get a ton of fresh strategic thinking, consumer insights and creative ideas from an agency’s smartest people all for nothing. They likely will see a reduction in fees. And if it’s a media pitch, more than likely a promise of lower media pricing. And anyway, if agencies are willing to agree to do it, then is it the client's fault? Afterall, no one is forcing anyone to participate. And why wouldn’t a company try to get the best for itself? That’s business, right?

I guess that’s the same argument Nike management would have contemplated when they signed off the use of cheap child labour in their factories. But the consumer and media backlash won the day. Conscience trumped capitalism. So industry can change. Can we change ours?

So instead of griping, I’ve developed a five-point plan on how the industry could reduce and minimise unnecessary pitching and in doing so, really put our people first.

Say No to Re-pitching

When I was running an agency in New York, I analysed across a two year period every pitch reported in the media, who won them and how many of those that the agency defending actually retained the account. Just one in seven re-pitches was successful. My suspicion is that many of those cases were a procurement exercise designed to get the incumbent to sharpen its pencil. In the ad industry, the incumbent agency will almost always choose to re-pitch. It might be that they are just in denial. Maybe it’s pressure from their head office or holding company telling them they need to. It could be that agency CEOs just aren’t that great at math. Nonetheless, the impact on team morale is awful. Being forced to keep working on and worse re-pitching a client is akin to telling someone to stay in a bad marriage. Your team deserve much better.

So here’s my tip. Don’t.

Recently, we had one of our largest clients inform us that while they liked the agency and team very much, they were going to have to ask us to re-pitch the account. We said that while we appreciated working with them, but if there was a re-pitch we wouldn’t participate. We reasoned that he knew exactly what he got, if he wanted to look around and felt the need to change, to go ahead. He put the pitch on hold.

In fact, I would go one further and suggest to all your clients that you have a new agency policy in place that the agency will never do re-pitches. That will help raise the barrier of exit if a client knows they don’t have the safety net of staying put. It also puts more on the line to an agency to continuously deliver, and I believe that’s better for the client too. If a client still wants to re-pitch, then guess what, they’re going to leave you anyhow.

Don’t pitch at all (or at least limit them)

BBH London at the height of its powers announced a no-pitch policy. It added to their mystic and clients only wanted to work with them even more. Maybe that’s not realistic to expect agencies to call a moratorium on pitching completely. One agency CEO would no doubt blink. But how about declaring a number publicly? i.e. We will only do four full-blown pitches this year. What would that do? It would limit the supply and clients would have less choice to include those agencies, maybe they might even reconsider pitching.

Make the pitch process more sensible

There’s nothing wrong with a client wanting to change agencies or inviting competitive proposals.

What’s wrong is the huge resources, drain on talent, literally scores of staff expected to do unpaid overtime and hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs that go into a pitch. Few clients would appreciate what is actually involved in preparing the “perfect pitch.” There have been some well-intentioned attempts to pay pitch fees of $30 - 40k bandied out there, but honestly, they wouldn’t cover 10% of the true cost. How about having a more sensible pitch process?

A number of years ago, an agency I worked for was invited to pitch a major pharmaceutical client. They didn’t want to meet a pitch team or the agency management. They asked that each agency send the team that would actually work on their account. They specifically asked to only meet with an account manager, copywriter, art director and media planner. They requested they only present a couple of case studies the team had worked on together. Then ask questions about the case studies and how we worked with the clients. After they awarded the account, then they briefed us on the work.

The client still got a competitive review, but the process was more organic, a better way to screen the expertise of who they would actually work with and chemistry, while being respectful of agency time and resources.

Clients can help

This is not meant to be a rant at clients. As I said earlier, who can blame a client for wanting what’s best for them?

When I was at Mindshare North America, Unilever required us to re-pitch its media account every three years. These pitches were drawn-out affairs over a nine-month process that would put the agency through the wringer. Then after securing the account, 18 months later that process would start over. The truth is that the client would lose great people off the account, as staff felt the pressure. We would unbeknown to the client cut a deal with team members to commit to moving them off the account to another client role after the account was secured. That’s if they didn’t resign first.

If you’re a client reading this, here’s a little secret. Only the best talent in the agency is asked to pitch on an account.

If I was a client, a good client that paid my agency well, I would insist as part of my contract that my team not be allowed to work on a pitch for new accounts. Why should you put up with your team members diverting their time and focus on your account, while you’ll paying them? And if your agency won that account, guess who would work on it. Stop good talent working on pitches, it makes the process of pitching less fruitful for other potential clients.

Create a movement #StopPitchMadness

Agencies are quite good at creating social campaigns, so why not treat our industry as a client?

If the industry thinks that we want to do something about the harm that excessive pitching is having on our industry and the health and wellness of our talent then let’s do what we do best. Promote the issue.

Let’s coordinate an industry communications effort targeting clients.

Push industry associations such as the 4A’s or the IPA to promote a more sensible, best practice pitching process.

I’d love to see an app that agency staff scored clients based on what it was like to work with them, in the same way, that guests rate an apartment on Airbnb. Tendency to pitch could be a category, and while we’re there how about adding, provide reasonable deadlines, openness to new creative ideas and quality of briefings.

Can we convince our trade media to get behind the industry, even call out bad behaviour, rather than be so eager to sensationalise pitches?

I know these ideas might seem fanciful. Perhaps a tad idealistic.

But there are benefits for everyone - our talent, clients, the work and agency bottom lines.

Surely, that worth taking up the cause?

Antony Young spent twenty years running media and digital agencies in New York, London and Asia before returning back to New Zealand. He is co-founder of The Digital Café, an independent agency that executes social-centric marketing plans. He lives and operates a blueberry farm with his wife in regional New Zealand.