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Agencies New Business Pitching

A message to CMOs: calling a pitch won’t solve your brand’s problems


By Mick Mahoney | Creative partner

March 13, 2023 | 8 min read

If your brand has problems, a pitch is the equivalent of throwing a cup of water on a forest fire, argues Harbour’s Mick Mahoney.

A pitch being mowed

/ Unsplash

If the numerous pitches in progress are a gauge, there appear to be a few dissatisfied marketers out there at the moment. The reality is that they are all under pressure from their CEOs and CFOs to make their budgets go further and/or show greater returns. Not unreasonable given the macroeconomic situation and the fight to survive that the retail sector in particular is experiencing. So, the calls for a pitch ring out. Because that is the orthodoxy. Big ad agencies will give away valuable thinking for free during an extended courting process and then offer to cut fees to the detriment of being able to service that account to win the pr headline. Everyone gets what they want.

Except they don’t. Pitches don’t solve the problem for one very simple reason.

Over a third of marketing budgets are going up in flames on rebriefs and misdirected work, according to recent research by Better Brief. It equates to $170bn getting torched globally every year. Or $3.25bn a week, whichever you find more motivating. And it’s a fire that rages unabated. A pitch is the equivalent of throwing a cup of water on a forest fire.

The smoldering elephant in the room here is that the answer can’t be found in marketing alone. It has to be tackled long before you get to marketing. This means that the ad agency is rarely, if ever, the right tool for the job. I can hear their outraged protestations at this fact. My curt rebuff is “so why haven’t you fixed it yet, then?”

The answer to the issue is ridiculously simple. In fact, it’s been hiding in plain sight all along. But then as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once pronounced: “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.” The ‘obvious fact’ has to be in the right hands, too. Very experienced hands, without an agenda, or anything to sell, who can credibly face off the CEO and board. Because that is where you need to begin.

The answer to the problem is consistency. See, I said it was obvious. But it’s not the sort of consistency that dictates all your ads look alike, although that can help. No, it’s a consistency that runs throughout your organization, through all of its thinking, behaviors, product, services and brand touchpoints in every conceivable form.

According to Forbes Magazine, “Consistency is the key successful brands. And consistency goes beyond the product itself. The brand promise must be clear with every interaction each stakeholder experiences. That means every part of the organization has a role to play in branding from research and development to finance to talent development.”

To succeed, the entire organization needs to embrace an undeniable expression of what you do, and why that matters to your customers. But as ever with significant change, this has to be embraced at the top.

“Projects, where senior management are aligned on goals and rationale, are 77% more likely to be successful,” states Boston Consulting Group. The number one reason for organizational project failures of any sort is a lack of alignment at the executive level. But sadly, it’s true that the senior management teams of commercial organizations, or their PE backers, rarely appreciate the importance of thinking of themselves as a holistic brand experience. It’s all considered a bit fluffy. It’s anything but. It’s the single biggest opportunity they have to create business momentum, generate revenue, and cut waste.

The world is a remarkably complex place now, and like the universe that it bobs around in, it’s expanding its complexity daily. Consumers now meet brands in myriad different ways. Ways that exist outside of the purview of marketing. Consistency across all of these meeting places is critical. An inconsistent brand experience is the quickest way for consumers to report dissatisfaction, despite how brilliant any one aspect of their relationship with you might be. And consumers view these experiences collectively.

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“By using a variety of channels and triggering more and more interactions with companies as brands seek to meet discrete needs, customers create clusters of interactions that make their individual interactions less important than their cumulative experience.” These are the three Cs of customer satisfaction, according to McKinsey Consulting. Getting it right across the whole customer journey is proven to increase revenue by up to 15%.

So, you’ve got everyone to agree that you need consistency across the organization. Senior management has had an epiphany and is committed to focusing every aspect of the business around a core thought, excited at the prospect of improved revenues. Colleagues are thrilled to finally have clarity of purpose.

All you need now is to create and sustain a ‘North Star’: an ‘undeniable expression of what you do, and why that matters to your customers’ consistently across your organization, behaviors, and communications. And get every one of your stakeholders to agree to it. And, if you get this far, then and only then are you ready to start to consider how this undeniable expression might play out for your marketing. Now you’re ready to call a pitch. Well, I said it was simple. I didn’t say it was easy.

If you are in a leadership role, then it’s likely I’ve just confirmed something you’ve long suspected. But hopefully, I’ve made a case that can be used to bring about change in your business. And it comes from someone with a great deal of experience in making it happen. Including the BT North Star that is currently at the heart of the BT Business pitch brief. Fortunately, there are some clients willing to challenge the convention. As Simeon Bird, CMO of BT explains: “The North Star was what we needed before we put pen to paper on anything. Before we could brief anyone internally or externally, we needed the one true direction from which everything could flow and follow.”

Good luck to everyone else out there running pitches. Just don’t expect them to solve the real issue.

Mick Mahoney is creative partner at Harbour.

Agencies New Business Pitching

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