Close-Up: Should UK shops follow Belgian lead?

It may not be practical for UK agencies to go on 'strike' over bad pitch practice.

News of a pitch for Belgium's National Lottery won't usually get much coverage in Campaign.

But when the organisation called a review last year, it triggered a chain of events that has resulted in all of the top agencies in Belgium taking the unprecedented step of going on "virtual strike".

"The Lottery first invited ten agencies to pitch, which it then cut down to four, and asked them to pitch again," Luc De Leersnyder, the chief executive of the ACC, the Belgian industry body, explains.

"This type of process seemed to be becoming the norm, and we just thought it was getting ridiculous."

In protest, agencies including JWT and Ogilvy's Belgian operations closed their websites for a week, except for displaying one paragraph each of an open letter outlining their concerns, which runs from one agency's homepage to the next.

The frustrations surrounding the pitching process are not unfamiliar to UK shops.

"At one stage last year we had a number of long, drawn-out pitches that we were forced to put an insane amount of time and money into," one agency head says. "And the people who paid for it were our existing clients, as you inevitably take your eye off them."

Without doubt, the problem has become even more noticeable since entering the recession.

Mark Robinson, the chairman of the IPA's New-Business Group, says: "The recession has caused a lot of clients to review, which often results in clients staying with the incumbent, but on a better deal. Now more than ever, agencies need to know that what they're getting into is worth the time and money."

The IPA is trying to take positive steps to help rectify the problem. It is working with ISBA to determine just how much money is being wasted in review processes, and has also introduced new initiatives that clients can follow to run a successful pitch, such as "the two-week pitch", where the whole review process only lasts a fortnight.

"Pitching hasn't moved with the times, so we really need to introduce new guidelines," Robinson comments. "Clients radically underestimate the time and effort of running a pitch, so they don't set out with a clear enough process from the beginning."

Calling for an all-agency protest to highlight the problem in the UK is easier said than done though.

With the sheer number of agencies operating within the same boundaries, it would be almost impossible to confidently organise a strike in the same way that the agencies in Belgium have.

As Paul Phillips, the managing director of the AAR, points out: "While agencies can talk about doing a protest all day, they simply wouldn't trust each other enough to go through with it over here. Someone would break the agreement and clean up."

However, with agencies becoming less and less able to afford to enter long and drawn-out pitches, it is up to the industry to act.

A full-scale and high-profile protest may be out of the question, but clients need to be made to recognise just how important it is to only call a review when they have a clear idea of the structure of the process taking place, and be more vigorously encouraged to embrace the industry-backed charters and initiatives being introduced.

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INDUSTRY BODY HEAD - Hamish Pringle, director-general, IPA

"The Belgian 'virtual strike' brings this perennial thorn in the agency side sharply back into the headlines, and it's timely given the economic recession we're still battling to escape.

"Not only is asking too many agencies to take part in a review wasteful of their time and money, it's also a hidden drain on client resources too.

"This poor behaviour is too often down to quite junior marketing and procurement people ego-tripping with one of their shareholders' most valuable assets - their brands that depend on good long-term stewardship."

BELGIAN AGENCY HEAD - Koen Van Impe, chief executive, Ogilvy Belgium

"When the ACC put forward this initiative, we were very happy to sign it. It's a matter of drawing attention to our business partners to tell them 'it's fine if you want to pitch your agency, but do it in a way that follows the charter'. Most of it is just logical, but logic doesn't always come into play in pitches!

"In a recession, advertisers are beginning to pitch again, so we needed to do this now before the problem spiralled out of control. After all, it's the existing clients that ultimately lose out, and they should be our number-one priority."

CLIENT - Patrick Allen, marketing director, The Co-operative Group

"When we set out to conduct our review last year, we made sure that we had a very clear idea of what we wanted to do.

"We conducted vigorous research and held a number of informal meetings before officially approaching agencies to pitch; it wasn't just a case of picking random names out of Campaign.

"There's got to be a relationship and clear communication throughout the process. This initial investment will pay up later down the line. It's something clients need to realise before embarking on a process like this."

UK AGENCY HEAD - Melissa Robertson, managing director, MCBD

"Agencies put their heart and soul into pitching, and it does get frustrating when clients then shortlist a large number of shops, because it's as if they don't actually know what they really want.

"I have seen cases where clients overstep the mark and I admire as a principle what the Belgian agencies are doing.

"But, logistically, I can't see it ever happening over here. We have already got very good channels such as the IPA, AAR and Oystercatchers that can protect the agencies. It's up to us as agencies as a collective now to conduct ourselves in the right manner when pitching and not fall out of file."