Clients have a problem with the pitching process: they don’t trust the
ad agencies. Andrew Melsom finds out why
Conscientious viewers of Blind Date will remember that Deidre, the
psychology student from Newcastle, never got off with Antonio, the Third
Division footballer from Dagenham. But why? They looked so good
Perhaps it’s to do with how they met. Superficially, they exchanged one-
liners in a controlled environment where high-pitched performances of no
substance are compulsory. Blind to the realities, a choice is made -
invariably the wrong one.
This is not to say that blind instinct isn’t one of the great tools of
decision-making. When I was presenting creative work during a pitch for
instant food some years ago, I was stopped in my tracks by the client
chairman. ‘I know when I’ve seen a good idea,’ he said. ‘I can feel the
muscles in my bum tighten, and they’re tightening right now.’ Happily,
he remained in a state of constricted bliss, and we went on to win the
One managing director, who spends around pounds 30 million a year with
agencies, argues that to the client, the pitch is only a means to an
end; to the agency, the pitch is an end in itself. He believes this
calls into question the quality of advice being given in a pitch.
Agencies need to get the business of winning out of the way before they
can continue with the more serious day-to-day running of the account.
More often than not, these two environments have nothing to do with each
Although clients look forward to the creative presentation part of the
pitch, it can be very uncomfortable for them. One says: ‘We want to sell
gear, they want to produce something pretty. In many pitches, I become
the reluctant arbiter of work. I try to use polite and rational argument
to state the bloody obvious. Once, I found myself asking why having our
name and logo in the ad could spoil it.’
Sometimes pitches are held in curious circumstances, and agencies have
found themselves hired on healthy retainers, but with no fixed brief.
One ludicrous and recent example was when the new marketing director
arrived and, away from the comfortable and familiar relationships of the
previous company, hired an advertising agency, a media independent, a
corporate identity company and two further specialist agencies. Once the
dust had settled, it became a widely held view that all that was needed
was a direct marketing agency, the one discipline that had been
Agencies can be suspicious of clients who do not appear to have a real
budget, or a real brief. These clients show all the symptoms of
loneliness and seek counselling from agencies by calling a pitch as a
vehicle to collate arguments from a ridiculous number of agencies in
favour of an advertising strategy. One top-20 agency rejected an
invitation to pitch from a financial services company because, I was
told, ‘We don’t mind pitching, but only if there’s a one-in-four
Is there a better way? Most agencies would prefer to win business by
slithering quietly through the client’s back door, acquiring their
confidence and, ideally, with no other agencies involved to complicate
the process. Perhaps the best answer is a sort of double slither,
whereby the client takes on a greater pivotal role. With total
custodianship of brand, brief and budget, they seek information on which
(two) agencies are the right type, have the right disciplines, the right
people, the right amount of capacity for the right reasons at the right
time. Unavoidably, this means the client must work closely with the
selected agencies for a brief period, rendering the pitch of little
We all know the pitch will not die, nor will the clients’ appetites for
the performance. As one client said: ‘I just liked seeing Frank Lowe
pitch.’ Bearing this in mind, here are a few things that clients find
odd about the pitching process.
For instance, the agency presents an idea, says it has several directors
interested and suggests that the costs will be correspondingly modest.
It later becomes apparent that costs are twice the agency’s estimate. Or
there is the agency that shows creative work which gets everyone
excited, but turns out to be illegal. It would be quite simple to check
with the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre before the pitch, but it
might mean that the idea would have been rejected, so very few do.
We have the account director who says that he lives/drives/eats the
product, and then proceeds to demonstrate that he knows nothing about
it, or the incessant telephoning before a pitch to ask: ‘Can you just
confirm to me that you have a branch in Brixton.’ This is designed to
ingratiate the agency to the client and has the opposite effect.
Moving on to the pitch itself, there is the creative director who keeps
holding the ads facing the wrong way and the logo which starts off a
certain size in the pitch, but then somehow shrinks to half that size in
the finished work.
Clients hate it when there are the clusters of people who don’t speak at
the pitch. Worse than that, when the account person speaks for only 90
seconds, to say that he or she will be taking on full responsibility for
the running of the account. The client has never seen them before.
Comments are made such as ‘...the ad is a branding vehicle in itself’.
The creative propensity to avoid mentioning the brand, if at all
possible, remains true.
Other annoying tendencies include the media department of an agency that
declares UDI from its parent to get a single meeting with a client who
really wants a media independent; the long planning diatribe confirming
that the client’s original brief was absolutely right; the ad agency
dressed up as a management consultancy; the direct marketing agency that
pretends it is an ad agency; the sales promotion agency that says it is
a direct marketing agency; the PR agency that says it is not expecting
to write any press releases.
And there’s more: the big share-option deal matures days after the
account has been won, resulting in the account team scattering to start
up elsewhere; the creative director tells you that he has a brilliant
idea which he’s had lying around for ages - since it was rejected by
another client; the agency spends a long time explaining a creative idea
that should not need an explanation if it is to be effective; the agency
is vague about its rates and suggests a neat, round figure as a monthly
fee, without saying why.
Not forgetting the agency that proudly shows its reel, and only half of
the work was done by anyone still working there. One last thing - nine
out of ten clients still prefer creative people to wear socks.
Andrew Melsom is the managing director of Agency Insight, which helps
clients select agencies