An evolution, not a revolution needed to salvage pitching
The traditional pitching process isn’t suited to the demands of the modern agency business. But the industry shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, David Muldoon of strategic media advisory firm MediaLink argues.
What can be done to mend the pitching process? / Unsplash
I know how exhilarating it can be to refresh a brand’s strategic approach to marketing and partnerships. But I also know the toll it can take on a person, a family, and a team. I spent more than 20 years brand-side running agency pitches before jumping into a consultant’s role to do the same.
Working late nights and weekends, limiting time with family and friends, and navigating stress and deadlines. It is an unfortunate tale that is as old as our industry and is still playing out across the industry today.
Despite attempts to improve the pitching process, either through the Pitch Positive Pledge or calls to upend the entire industry model, the issue endures. A recent report found that 86% of media C-suites felt the pitching process was excessively time and cost-exhaustive. Even more alarmingly, 54% said that pitching had a bigger and bigger impact on the mental health of their workers, and 64% felt the practice had a corrosive effect on agency working culture.
The pitch process should be, and often is, illuminating. It’s when agencies deliver some of their best and most innovative work, and it is an opportunity to build new relationships and break down barriers.
So, how do the players in the industry – agencies, brands and consultants alike – start to ease the pitching friction?
A last resort
Even the best-run pitch process can be a significant undertaking for both agency and brand teams. So I believe partnerships should go through a few stages before moving to the pitch.
Escalate the breakdown to senior stakeholders in the business on both sides: It will ensure the agency and client get to the heart of the issue and give it the proper focus to be resolved, especially if the pain point is straightforward, for example, around talent access.
Engage in a form of ’agency therapy’ with the help of a consultant to address more significant challenges: It can take the form of a Joint Business Plan that optimizes the partnership to focus on improving capabilities, tools, performance, process, or communication.
Look at the contract to drive efficiencies and effectiveness within the existing relationship: It allows the contract to be a living document that aligns with business needs, provides a transparent framework, and outlines what success looks like.
Identifying that there is an issue in the first place is a big step for both parties, especially on the agency side, as account leads are often (and understandably) protective, recognizing that this could be reflective of their performance. MediaLink often gets brought in to support agencies and clients to try to make the relationship work for both sides and plays a critical role in avoiding a pitch entirely.
The context from the very start can inform agencies’ responses. It is universally understood that a procurement-led pitch is often heavily focused on the financial outcome. In contrast, a marketing-led pitch will most likely come down to the strength of strategic thinking. Armed with that knowledge, agencies can allocate the right resources and time to provide the desired solutions.
’Casting’ the right pitch talent is at the heart of an efficient and successful process, so it’s surprising how many agencies get this wrong. Savvy agencies know that chemistry and performance are the foundation of a winning pitch team. Presenting a tight and consistent core team, bolstered by specialist talent when needed, is always better.
Pitching is understandably focused on the outcome, but smart agencies also pay attention to the journey. Pitches allow all parties to test innovative ideas, pricing models, or team structures and deliver precious insights. They’re a chance to learn what works and carry it into future pitches. Knowledge and experience sharing are fundamental to the pitching process becoming more efficient.
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The evolution we need
When the pitching process becomes necessary, consultants play a role in creating an even playing field and being the voice of consistency, fairness, and transparency for both sides.
Before deciding to pitch, brands need to have their house so they can be the best partner and ensure any new relationship is a long-term success. It starts with a clear operating model, outlining what is managed internally and outsourced, a comprehensive scope of work and 360 Quarterly Business Reviews.
The pitch project requires alignment from the brand stakeholders on the timescales and objectives before the process begins. The scope of work should be consistent throughout the journey with no change in brief or moving the goalposts halfway through the process.
Brands need to heed the calendar whenever possible and put themselves in the agency’s shoes. Scheduling a pitch meeting two days after a holiday guarantees the agency won’t have any time off. Clear communication and feedback with the agencies also mean they will be able to better coordinate their time and efforts to evolve their approach.
Finally, and this is a personal belief, a consultant’s job is to educate brands on promoting a positive culture shift so agencies have the psychological safety to challenge the status quo. Pitches allow agencies to inspire clients, which is one of their superpowers, but they should also be free to push back when unrealistic expectations are set.
Great partnerships require great respect and communication to be baked into the core. So if we are to turn the tide in the pitching process’s impact on our industry, we need to adopt a more modern way of working and thinking that starts with empathy for all parties and open lines of honest communication. Pitch by pitch, we can reach a harmonious rhythm for ourselves and our partners.
David Muldoon is vice-president of strategic advisory, at MediaLink