Close-Up: Live issue - Why pitching will remain a necessary evil

Pitching was the subject of an IPA debate, but those who took part are no closer to finding an alternative.

Bitching about pitching is the advertising industry's oldest national pastime. The arguments about the pros and cons of the agency beauty contest have been well rehearsed and aired ever since Maurice Saatchi wrote his first new-business prospect's name and number on his Rolodex.

And if last week's "Question Time" debate, hosted by the IPA New-Business Group, is any indication, consensus on how the process can be made to work to everybody's satisfaction is as elusive as ever.

Indeed, had a similar debate been held five or ten years ago, it's doubtful if its course would have been that much different. All parties have ridden around this block far too many times to find much that's unfamiliar.

Just about the only thing on which everybody was agreed was that if pitching isn't the best way of picking an agency (one speaker even described it as a fundamentally flawed process), nobody has found an acceptable alternative.

After that, all parties are united only in ridiculing the folly of agencies building sets that match the style, splendour and extravagance of the Taj Mahal in the reception area to impress a would-be client.

On other issues, the chasms seem as wide as ever. "For clients, it's all about the creative work," Kerry Glazer, the AAR's chief executive, said. "For agencies, it's all about relationships and chemistry. There seems to be a disconnection between the two."

Laurence Green, the Fallon founding partner, offered an even blunter opinion. He said: "There's an industry crisis. Bad clients are abusing the pitch system and weak agencies are colluding in it."

How widespread such abuse has become is anybody's guess. Few within adland dispute that an oversupplied market has left clients holding the aces, and that most of the angst about the time-consuming, expensive and wasteful nature of pitches comes from agencies.

Significantly, there was hardly a single client warming the seats at the M&C Saatchi offices to listen to the arguments. Clients, it seems, don't attach the same importance to bonding as their agencies. "Chemistry is over-rated," Dominic Chambers, Vodafone UK's head of brand and marketing communications, said. "Friendships get in the way."

Anecdotal evidence suggests serious problems over pitches are more acute for smaller agencies rather than for their bigger counterparts, which have the confidence to walk away from contests they don't fancy, and which work mainly for clients with well-established and organised pitch processes.

"Because new business is in such short supply, the situation is getting worse," Helen Weisinger, Fallon's new-business director, acknowledges. "The industry has to have the confidence not to say yes to everything that moves."

But having listened to Chambers and Marc Sands, Guardian News and Media's marketing director, speak, the boss of a modest-sized integrated specialist shop was left trying to square what was being said with his own experiences.

"I felt as if I was Stockport Cou-nty gatecrashing a meeting of the Premier League," he sighed. "Because so much of our work is project-based, we're constantly pitching. Sorting out the genuine prospects from the time-wasters can be a nightmare."

What sets his alarm bells ringing? "Sometimes it's when you can't get the pitch information you need. Sometimes it's the ridiculous red tape. I recently asked a prospect a simple question about an upcoming pitch. He told me if he answered it, he would be duty-bound to tell all the other competing agencies."

What has become increasingly apparent is that the joint guidelines laid down by the IPA and ISBA on pitch protocol and the length of agency shortlists are only having a limited impact. "If there were hard-and-fast rules about pitching, they would always be broken," Jed Glanvill, MindShare's chief executive, claimed. "It's not necessarily bad, but it's inevitable."

Sands raised eyebrows by suggesting agencies, rather than clients, must shoulder an amount of blame for matters getting out of hand. "It's up to agencies to say if a pitchlist is too long," he told the audience. "If you don't want to take part, don't. Give us a good reason why and we'll respect you for it."

Moreover, Sands detected further evidence of agencies' servility and timidity when it comes to payment for pitches. "If agencies asked, clients would contribute," he declared. "But they don't ask."

Robert Senior, a founding partner at Fallon, and one of the "Question Time" panellists, suggested that this was symptomatic of the master/servant relationship between client and agency.

"I'm bored with hearing about how busy clients are," he said. "So are we. The notion that holding a pitch is a largely irrelevant part of what a client does just isn't true."

Certainly, there is concern among agencies that the amount of paperwork being demanded of them before they even get to first base in a pitch is becoming a turn-off for energetic young agency staffers considering a move into new business.

The new-business director of one leading UK agency claims that a brochure is no longer sufficient to satisfy an initial inquiry from a prospect. She currently spends a large part of her week compiling 30-page documents for consultants and procurement specialists. These will normally contain details of the agency's hourly rates, details of its experience, in particular market sectors, and examples of relevant creative work. And all of this before the agency even gets to do a credentials presentation.

"I barely have time to take a prospect to lunch or talk to intermediaries and I'm having to do work that I've not been trained for," she claims. "Do I ever think about chucking it in? All the time. Will I be doing this job in five years' time? Almost certainly not."

Whether or not this is all part of a process that has spun out of control is a moot point. Stuart Pocock, one of the industry's leading consultants, is wary about pitches being called "just for the hell of it".

"One of the first questions we ask of any client who comes to us is if they really want to go to pitch," he told the session. "They need to be sure they've done everything possible to revitalise the relationship with their incumbent agency."

If the answer is "yes", is it right to invite the incumbent to repitch? Should the incumbent even bother to defend the business when AAR research suggests they have just a 30 per cent chance of keeping it?

Sands and Chambers said they had always invited incumbents to have another crack at the brief, but the Vodafone marketing chief did admit he could see why they might be underwhelmed at the prospect: "Incumbents should be allowed to repitch, but they may not want to."

Yet, for all their shortcomings, pitches still have appeal. "If you're a well-resourced agency, it's exciting to work with a prospect and see if you can make things different for them," Glanvill declared.

Sands agrees. A well-run pitch can be a "fantastic galvanising force," he argued. "The process doesn't need to be regulated. People just need to behave properly."

- Leader, page 18.

PITCHING PROS AND CONS

'It's up to agencies to say if a pitchlist is too long. If you don't want to take part, don't' - Marc Sands, marketing director, Guardian News and Media

'The notion that holding a pitch is a largely irrelevant part of what a client does just isn't true' - Robert Senior, founding partner, Fallon

'For clients, it's all about the creative work. For agencies, it's all about relationships and chemistry. There seems to be a disconnection between the two' - Kerry Glazer, chief executive, AAR

'Chemistry is over-rated. Friendships get in the way' - Dominic Chambers, head of brand and marketing communications, Vodafone UK

'Clients need to be sure they've done everything possible to revitalise the relationship with the incumbent agency' - Stuart Pocock, consultant

'If there were hard-and- fast rules about pitching, they would always be broken' - Jed Glanvill, chief executive, MindShare.

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