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Agencies Pitch IPA

Changing the pitching process won’t fix agency life

By Frances Dennis, CCO

August 12, 2022 | 8 min read

Advertiser pitching processes have been under harsh scrutiny lately for their lopsided toll on agency staff. But Brandwidth’s Frances Dennis argues the industry shouldn’t dismantle the system wholesale.


Is the Positive Pitch Pledge really the best way to change the pitching process? / Unsplash

With 70+ companies signed up to the Positive Pitch Pledge, part of the IPA and Isba’s cross-industry plan to make industry pitching more intentional, accountable and effective, efforts to transform the industry pitching process are gathering momentum. But when it comes to the premise on which this initiative is founded – and whether its outcome will be all positive – questions remain.

True, pitches have become more frequent, more complex and costlier – to agencies and clients alike. Yes, it is an approach that affects people, profit and the planet by generating additional work. And it is undeniably a good thing to have brands such as Boots, Nationwide, Nestlé and Samsung committing to hold pitches only if “absolutely necessary,” promising to give proper feedback to all agencies taking part and seeking to minimize the impact on all employees involved.

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Yet I can’t help thinking: does all this really tackle the fundamental problem with pitching – that it often fails in what it sets out to do, which is identify the best agency for the job? And, even more concerning, is it perpetuating the positioning of client against agency – which, if it does, risks causing an even greater problem?

We need to take a step back. Pitching is not all bad. Sometimes clients already know which agency they want to work with at the start of the process – which they go through with anyway just to tick the due diligence box. But at other times, they may set out knowing who they want to work with and then end up changing their mind. Pitching can – and does – create space for the wildcard.

Furthermore, the pitching process can be a powerful and exhilarating tool for showcasing capabilities, generating new ideas and laying firm foundations for a solid and mutually beneficial future partnership. Selling our services is part of our job, and periods of intensity are something most, if not all of us, readily signed up for.

Commentators have recently damned pitching for contributing to the industry’s long hours culture and the draining effect it is having on employees’ wellbeing and mental health, as well as branding it a poor tool for evaluating an agency’s suitability for a job.

The latter is an undeniable issue.

But then there is also the impact of procurement conversations and the inevitable haggling over rates, a stage that can damage the budding relationship between pitching agency and prospective client earlier in the process.

At worst, this creates a scenario in which competitive pitching diminishes the value agencies bring by reducing it to a brutal calculation about time and materials, which does nothing for our sector’s credibility.

Can the criticism of stress and emotional strain arising from pitching be really levied at the process’s door? If answering a pitch means extreme and damaging levels of work for those involved, that is a problem with the agency – not the pitch process.

There does seem to be some awareness of this nuance in the following statement from the Pledge: “We focus on the wellbeing of those involved in the pitch but remember the slack is being picked up by colleagues.”

I find it deeply frustrating that mercenary agency processes that prioritize profits above all else may see this as a way of deflecting accountability for the overwork required by their people.

Pitching is a part of what we do, therefore agencies must hold themselves accountable for building time and capacity to respond accordingly. It’s a matter of top-down business strategy – not simply arranging for someone to pick up the slack.

Perhaps my biggest concern arising from this narrative, though, is that it risks causing a different – maybe even greater – problem.

I’m talking about the risk of widening the divide between client and agency at a time when clients have become more receptive to the idea of better-organized pitches, pre-pitch collaboration and being sensitive to agency needs.

It feels very fueled by a ‘them v us’ dialogue, characterized by the overworked, misunderstood and undervalued agency being put upon by the demanding and unrelenting client.

To be clear, I do welcome efforts to make pitching a more positive process for all those involved (despite how this position sounds).

I’m grateful for any move to ensure it does not become the default option with all the associated costs. I am confident all agencies will welcome clients giving “meaningful feedback,” And were the Pledge to be amended at some point to ban the phrase “we just went in another direction,” I would also welcome that, too.

Pitching and selling – the showing of what we are capable of to win and keep winning the new business on which our futures depend – is part of our daily job description. So it’s great to see the pitching process on the table for closer examination, and anything that can be done to improve it should be welcomed.

But let’s make sure this conversation tackles the real issues.

Getting real about the pitching process is the only way to get pitching to what it should be – helping clients find the agencies that are the best fit for their brands and business problems and making sure that disruptors, irrespective of their size, get a chance to compete on an equal playing field and against anyone, including the largest and or most established players.

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Frances Dennis is chief commercial officer of Brandwidth.

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