IPA president Julian Douglas: pitching must change and the time to act is now

Introduced during Mental Health Awareness week, the IPA and Isba's Pitch Positive Pledge is designed to call time on bad pitching practices. IPA president Julian Douglas, one of the pledge's architects, tells us how it will work in practice and why it's required to support strained staff.

I love a good pitch. A good pitch creates the opportunity to grow your business. To win a new project or client, to open up a new sector or expand to a new territory. A good pitch provides the chance to showcase your capabilities, to go head to head with the competition and win. A good pitch allows individuals to flourish. To meet new people, learn new things and accelerate their careers. It’s exciting. What’s not to like?

Sadly, quite a lot.

In short, there are a lot of unnecessary pitches taking place. And even amongst those that are necessary, there is a lot of unnecessary work taking place. This represents wastage that we should look to reduce.

Pitches have become more frequent, more complex and costly to both the advertiser and the agency. Those costs extend beyond money, as we consider the impact on individuals and the environment. Pitching has become the default option, even for smaller projects that previously would not have required a pitch.

Today, many companies have ESG commitments including wastage reduction and promoting wellbeing and diversity in their supply chain. The pitch process as it stands represents a challenge to these commitments. Due to its competitive nature, there is inherent wastage in the process. It demands a significant investment in time and money for agencies and clients alike. The pandemic added complications such as working remotely and increased isolation, and we are seeing an increase in burnout, mental health challenges and a talent exodus in our industry.

Pitching can and should be brilliant. The current process isn’t broken necessarily, but good pitch behaviors are at best variable and demonstrated inconsistently. The need for change is real and the time to act is now.

Pitch as you mean to go on

It is in everyone’s interest to build more sustainable relationships. The way a relationship starts sets the tone for how it continues, so let’s be sure to start in the best way possible.

We want to reset the pitching mindset, set a new benchmark of best practice and promote sustainable relationships. Sustainable for people, planet and profit. To make this change, we are asking advertisers, agencies and intermediaries to Pledge to the new Pitch Positive.

The pledge is very simple, with three commitments:

1. Before the pitch – be positive a pitch is required

2. During the pitch – run a positive pitch

3. After the pitch – provide a positive resolution

1. Be positive a pitch is required

There are good reasons to pitch. The commitment here is for the advertiser to basically say “Yes, we are positive a pitch is necessary and will provide a written statement clearly setting out why.”

My belief is that by advertisers asking themselves whether a pitch is really necessary, fewer of them will actually take place. Perhaps a series of chemistry meetings with a discussion around a strategic question might be a quicker, more efficient and no less effective way to select the right team. It would certainly save a lot of time and reduce the carbon footprint of the process.

2. Run a positive pitch

This is about behavior rather than process and is the responsibility of both the agency and the advertiser. For the agency, it is a commitment to consider the interest of the client and the well-being of its people throughout the process. Having a written pitch rationale from the advertiser will make it simpler for agencies to make an informed decision on whether to accept an invitation to pitch.

For the advertiser, the commitment is to consider the implications of the requirements they ask the agency to fulfil during the pitch. For example, remembering that people are involved in all parties will inform when a pitch takes place and for how long.

3. Provide a positive resolution

This may surprise many advertisers, but ask any agency veteran and they will be able to share tales of pitches that somehow petered out or ended extremely abruptly. Where after months of work either no decision was made at all or when an email does land with a win or lose, but no feedback is given.

So the commitment here is for the advertiser to communicate the outcome directly to the agencies and provide feedback on performance. For the agency, it is to respect the decisions and to give feedback on how well the client handled the pitch and adhered to this pledge.

By committing to these three small changes you can affect positive change.

Positive future

Finally, on behalf of Andrew Lowdon at Isba and myself, I would like to extend our deepest gratitude to everyone who has helped to create this pledge and to all of the companies that have signed up.

This journey began last summer when Ingenuity’s Duncan Wood brought Andrew and I together but it would not have been completed without all the support we received along the way. In the beginning, there were the ‘off the record’ conversations; invaluable, pitch-shaping advice given freely and in anonymity.

Advice without which we would not have reached our first landmark, the RENEW Conference in January 2022. From here the support and input only grew and became more public: the focus groups, the one-to-one meetings and the broader discussion sessions.

Finally resulting in a new, ground-breaking initiative, the Pitch Positive Pledge. So to all those agencies, advertisers and intermediaries that have taken the time to input and review, to ensure that future pitches do indeed change for the better - for both agencies and advertisers - we offer our sincere thanks.

Julian Douglas is president of the IPA and international chief executive and vice chairman of VCCP Group. Read more from his regular column