The Campaign Essay: A Pitch Paradigm

campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 06 August 2004 08:00AM

Richard Morris argues that agencies waste too many man hours, ideas and cash taking part in pitches. It is time for the industry to offer a more realistic way for clients to come up with a winner?

While no-one loves a good pitch more than I do, I can't help but wonder if the whole thing hasn't got hopelessly out of hand.

Research published by the AAR indicated that agencies claim to spend up to £15,000 on a pitch and do an average of ten a year. If we accept those figures (ie. pretend that we don't all go barmy twice a year and spend six-figure sums trying to recreate the set of EastEnders in a meeting room), that means the top 50 agencies spend about £7.5 million a year pitching. That's before any element of salary time is taken into account (and let's face it, we don't put the low-cost talent on pitch teams, do we?). And nearly all this work is binned.

Agencies happily spend four-figure sums preparing for chemistry meetings, knowing that the majority won't get through to the next stage. Clients then shortlist four agencies (if we're lucky), and there's only ever going to be one winner, so 75 per cent of that thinking is wasted. Even the work that wins pitches is usually binned (56 per cent of it, according to the AAR). It strikes me that a lot of cold, hard cash is disappearing right down the toilet.

But, of course, the money we spend on pitching isn't really the issue.

The very act of pitching itself largely devalues the currency by which we live and die as an industry - ideas.

We all know that thoughts that can move people, that can change the way they think and act, that can change the value perceptions of a product or service, that can make consumers advocates and even champions of a brand, these are things that are not to be dismissed lightly; they should be revered, honed, crafted and nurtured, they should be loved, polished, admired and protected. And in a pitch, we come up with a ton of them and then we give them all away for free.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not blaming the clients for any of this. If you're a marketing director of any company, then you've only got to vaguely ponder in the privacy of your bathtub whether your current agency is all it used to be, and the dark masters of the new-business fraternity will read your mind and be all over you like a rash. Once you've got to the shortlist stage, teams of the best thinkers in the business will pore through your data, interrogate your consumers, swarm over your sales teams and beg to be allowed to spend a day sitting next to the extruding machine watching how the pork pies get filled. A few weeks later, they present you with their thinking. You've only to express even the slightest doubt, the merest hint of uncertainty, and in an instant the work is revised, revisited, redone. You're surrounded by brilliant solutions to problems your current agency has failed to solve for years: your hardest task is deciding not who is wrong but which answer is most right?

Frankly, if I were a client, I'd be more than happy to go along with this system. And what's more, I wouldn't be in any hurry to put my hand in my pocket to pay for it either. As Andrew Marsden of Britvic said not so long ago to the IPA: "I'll pay my agencies to pitch to me when Sainsbury's pays for my trade presentations." Fair enough.

No, the problem in pitching lies with our good selves. In the longest recession known to advertising-kind and in an era when new agencies are starting up at a rate of about 14 a week, excessive competition seems to have gone to all our heads. No matter if it's a multi-squillion-pound global prospect or just Biggins of Beckenham, we'll all do whatever it takes to win the business. Well, I think we should all take a deep breath ... and stop.

Now, let's get one thing clear straight off. This is not the desperate plea of some bunch of Billy No Marks who couldn't win a pitch if it hit them in the face. No, we here at DDB have a perfectly healthy pitch-winning record. It just seems to me that there must be a more sensible way of doing things.

People tell me that pitches are necessary so that clients can perceive the differences between agencies, see what it's like working with them, get to know the prospective account team, look at "what's on offer" and, of course, get a cracking new creative idea. But do pitches deliver any of this? Does seeing lots of flash offices (plus ours in Paddington) once a week for a month really give prospects a flavour of what working with the new agency will be like? Does seeing which agency is most adept at getting the receptionist to dress up as a gorilla really help you choose a new business partner? Do clients really think that how an agency acts for the five weeks of a pitch is really what they'll be like for the next ten years? Er ... no, of course they don't.

So what would I suggest? Well, in a perfect world, we'd all revert to credentials and let our past performance be an indicator of what we're likely to deliver for prospects in the future. The role of pitch consultants would be enhanced as clients relied on their intimate knowledge of who's hot and who's not. New-business directors would actually do the job they're paid to do - get on shortlists and make sure prospects know what's going on in their agency. And agencies that are good at advertising - as opposed to those that appear mainly to be really good at pitches - would reign supreme.

But that's not going to happen. We're all too deeply suspicious of each other, and the competitive streak has now been far too deeply ingrained, for us ever to stop pitching altogether. Plus, let's face it, deep down, we all like it. Oh, and I don't trust any of you to stop. I'm sure the feeling's mutual.

No, I think pitching is here to stay but maybe it's time to be a bit more sensible about it. Couldn't we all agree to put some limits on it?

Here are a few suggestions.

Lets limit what we can spend on a pitch - say, no more than £5,000 each.

We'd save a forest-load of polyboard, we wouldn't give away thousands of pounds-worth of research for free, we'd save time on all that fancy artwork, the ideas would have to speak for themselves (as opposed to letting the finish speak for them), and there'd be no more draping 48-sheet posters across the front of the agency with an amusing pun on the proposed endline.

Doesn't sound too painful, does it?

Alternatively, why not limit how long we all spend on any particular pitch; let's do it really intensively in a week rather than thrash around for a month. With less time to fanny about, we're bound to spend less physically. If management did nothing else for a week, clients would actually get a lot more of their time, and just think of the saving on salary costs.

Let's limit the number of stages on pitches. I recently did a pitch which we were told originally would be strategic only. It ended up using no fewer than four rounds of creative thinking, after which the client announced that they felt that there was no clear creative winner, so they were going with the agency that had been most consistently strategic throughout. (The icing on the cake is that the winning agency is still writing creative work now. Oh, how we've all laughed.) Why can't we all learn to just say no? Shouldn't we all agree to offer one strategic solution, one creative solution, and then ask prospects to use their professional skills and judgment to choose a winner?

And why do we do pitches based on delivering advertising solutions at all? Pitches are meant to be all about choosing the teams of people you'd like to work with; presumably when clients get to this stage they are reasonably confident that the agencies shortlisted can write a half-decent ad. Why don't we all think of slightly more creative/interesting/fun ways in which clients could actually spend some time with us, get to know the teams and see what we're really like? And no, this doesn't mean I want to recreate the set of the Krypton Factor and get Johnny Hornby on the Death Slide (hang on a minute though ...). I just think we should be more creative about how we get clients to know us all and feel comfortable about choosing between us.

And what would the net result of adopting any of these ideas be? Well, apart from saving a lot of dosh, the most talented individuals in agencies would presumably find they had rather more time on their hands to spend with existing clients and, surely as a result, the overall standard of advertising would improve. Clients would be happier, business would be more secure, we'd all feel more confident.

The only people whose life would be harder would be ... new-business directors like me, who'd suddenly have to try to prise perfectly content clients from the bosom of their agencies. Hmm. Happy clients, better advertising, unhappy new-business directors. Maybe it's a Utopian pipe dream, but you have to admit, it has a certain charm.

*** [BX] What a waste

'Agencies happily spend four-figure sums preparing for chemistry meetings, knowing that the majority won't get through to the next stage ... there's only ever going to be one winner, so 75 per cent of that thinking is wasted' A question of currency

'The very act of pitching largely devalues the currency by which we live and die - ideas' [BX] Competitive streak

'No matter if it's a multi-squillion-pound global prospect or just Biggins of Beckenham, we'll all do whatever it takes to win the business'

It's all about the people, really

'Why don't we think of slightly more creative/interesting/fun ways in which clients could actually spend some time with us, get to know the teams and see what we're really like?'

Richard Morris, the business development director at DDB London.

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This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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