Editorial: In the pitching lottery, the client still holds sway

Britain's ad industry has lately been accused of spending too much time talking to itself and not enough time communicating with the world outside.

Last week's debate on pitching, which was hosted by the IPA New-Business Group, turned out to be yet another depressing example of that. Yet again, agencies vented their frustration at a system many regard as subject to systematic abuse by clients.

Yet again, the industry found itself either preaching to the converted or sounding off to a client community that is either completely deaf to it, or just chooses not to listen.

The attendance list told its own story. Clients were conspicuous by their absence. Those that were there to speak - Marc Sands, Guardian News and Media's marketing director, and Dominic Chambers, Vodafone UK's head of brand and marketing communications - need no lessons in integrity when it comes to holding a pitch. Both offer provocative views about the pitch process, but are still sensitive to the problems that they can create for agencies. But for every Sands and Chambers, there are dozens of senior marketers behaving in far more cynical fashion towards agencies.

Doubtless what others interpret as cynicism, they would regard as merely a reaction to the commercial world as it is. While the ad market remains massively over-supplied, agencies will always find it hard to keep their integrity intact and protect the value of what they do.

Meanwhile, in the poker game that the pitch process often becomes, it is the client who holds the best cards, while agencies are forced to show their hands far earlier than they might wish, so it's hardly surprising agency grumbles will not be answered. Why don't clients contribute to pitch costs? Some will. Most won't. Why should they when any united action by agencies to force the issue has never succeeded?

Should clients be more honest with incumbent agencies and not let them defend business in a review? Clients usually say it's up to the incumbent to make the judgment. It's a brave and confident agency that walks away.

The IPA spends much time citing cases of great advertising linked to commercial success. Maybe it also needs to be researching examples of well-run pitches that have evolved into fruitful relationships between agencies and clients.