Julian Douglas on the Pitch Positive Pledge: ‘I’d be happy if we had fewer pitches and can take this abroad’

The IPA president opens up about what he would have liked to include in the Pitch Positive Pledge, whether it has teeth and his ambitions to take it overseas.

Julian Douglas: 'This is about better outcomes for people, reducing wastage and getting better commercial results'
Julian Douglas: 'This is about better outcomes for people, reducing wastage and getting better commercial results'

The IPA and ISBA launched the Pitch Positive Pledge in an effort to improve the outcomes of pitches and staff mental wellbeing, while reducing costs and wastage.

More than 70 companies – mostly agencies – have already signed up to the highly anticipated pledge, which provides a set of commitments to improve behaviours in the before, during and after of pitching.

A key architect of the project is IPA president and VCCP group international chief executive and vice chair Julian Douglas.

In launching the pledge yesterday (11 May), Douglas was confident this project would succeed because it focuses on behaviours rather than process, is a collaboration across the industry and underpinned by a burning desire to improve the mental wellbeing of those involved.

On the eve of the launch, Douglas caught up with Campaign to lay out his broader vision for the pledge, which parts he felt were most important and those he wished had been included that did not make the final cut.

He also shared his hopes about what the pledge can achieve and whether it can provide a British-designed blueprint that then can be adopted around the world.

fCampaign: In developing the Pitch Positive Pledge, you had agencies, advertisers, procurement, intermediaries – groups with different agendas – trying to find common ground. In the past this has perhaps diluted efforts. Was there much compromise required and are you happy with the final result?

Douglas: It’s a fair challenge. I think at the top level, the three commitments of the pitch pledge are bang on for where I want them to be. One of the biggest decisions was whether we would go for a pledge or more of a kite mark. One of the lessons we’ve seen from other industry initiatives in the wake of Black Lives Matter and ESG is that making clear an intention of a behaviour that you aspire and live up to is more likely to bring about meaningful change than a rule that you try to get around. So that's why we've gone for a pledge.

Which parts of the pledge in particular do you believe are the most important and will make the biggest positive impact?

For me, personally, there are three. The first one is getting advertisers to seriously consider whether they actually need to pitch in the first place, that's the most important of all of them. Having been agency-side for the past 20 years, I’ve seen so many pitches that don't need to happen. If those discussions are had, I believe there will be fewer pitches and this will be good for the industry. 

The second part is running a positive process, there's a lot you can unpack out of that, but improving and living up to that intention will make a difference. And the third one, and this may stun a lot of advertisers, so many pitches are never resolved, they peter out. Those are three, although there were more specific parts we had suggested that had come out. 

So what parts specifically didn’t make the final cut that you would have liked to have seen included?

The things I would like more detail around – the first is clarity around the size of budget, which is a recommendation we have. I know some advertisers aren't comfortable with that, but all agencies would say, “give us a sense of the scale of a project”, which seems a pretty reasonable thing to do, but people don’t do that.

We say you should write a clear brief and part of that brief is a sense of the magnitude of the budget. That did create a sticking point for some advertisers and it will be quite interesting, once we've launched, to find those advertisers who won't sign it.

The length of an RFI, because we suggest in our hypothesis that RFIs have grown over time, like a list that people add to each year. But a request for information that's so long is totally useless for informing the decision and takes lots of hours for an agency to fill. That's had pushback from some advertisers.

Are there any other contentious ideas that were discussed?

Speculative creative work is a big one. We had workshops and really good discussions between advertisers and agencies and intermediaries at different stages, about whether an advertiser should ask for creative work from multiple agencies, given that is where you burn so much time. And if an advertiser decides that they need to see creative work to make a decision, should they pay for it? That was a discussion point that we've ended up not putting in, even though speculative creative is where you get a lot of wastage.

Another contentious one is around rosters. We’ve got a line in about responsible rosters. In recent years, as pitching has happened more and more, you pitch to get on a big roster. But once you're on the roster – and you've already had the rates drop in procurement to get on the roster – you then have to pitch every project on the roster.

I want to encourage responsible rosters. If you're a big advertiser, such as a Unilever, P&G or PepsiCo and you're running a lot of brands and projects, you've already checked out an agency’s RFI and their credentials if they have made your roster. Now, if you have a new product to launch or a new project, by all means have some chemistry meetings with three of your rostered agencies or set them a strategic question, but it's irresponsible to hold full-scale pitches with agencies you've already worked with to get on your roster.

There are concerns that it is all well and good signing up to the pledge, but it could quickly come unstuck if those who signed up decide to ignore their commitments in the pursuit of short-term commercial gain. After all, this is an extremely competitive industry. How do you make sure that those who only pay lip service to the pledge don’t end up destroying what you are trying to achieve for everyone else?

The one main part of the pledge where you can run aground is running a positive pitch. And from the agency side of that it’s making sure you don't run your people into the ground and you don't over-promise on what you can deliver, and you consider the people involved in the running of the pitch. 

Now what happens with rogue agencies or if a client sets out with good intentions but then drifts? I think this will be a useful tool to guide difficult conversations, especially in an industry where it can be difficult to challenge your client, biting the hand that feeds you.

I'm hoping when those incidents inevitably happen, this can be something where, if you've got an advertiser who has signed it or an agency has signed it, you can hold each other to account and say, "hold on, we are breaking our own principles here”. The same applies to an advertiser who hasn’t signed up and is behaving badly.

I suspect the aim, more broadly, is less about naming and shaming poor practices, and more about highlighting the good. You mentioned earlier about the importance of raising the bar, would you care to elaborate on what you envisage that looking like?

What I hope to happen over time, is I want a series of positive testimonials of clients, agencies and intermediaries, telling short little stories – 45 seconds, 90 seconds – of good behaviours that live up to each one of those pledge commitments.

I don't see the pledge as trying to fix pitching. I prefer it to promote really positive behaviour and learning from other people's best practices on how to pitch positively. 

The Pitch Positive Pledge is a UK initiative but, as you are aware, there are many regional or global pitches that won’t be signed up to this, some of which may exhibit the sorts of behaviours you are trying to stamp out. What are your plans for taking this initiative beyond these shores?

We haven't even spoken to the WFA because we need to make sure it works. The UK advertising and marketing industry is world leading, so if we redefine best practices around agency selection here, I think it will spread. We certainly know from other initiatives there is huge demand for what we do in APAC.

That may be the case, but what about the US – it’s a huge and important market that is probably more restrictive and process driven in the way it operates. How would you take these ideas that redefine across the Atlantic?

This is about better outcomes for people, reducing wastage and getting better commercial results. So I think the principles are universal. I guess we've started in this market first, but I'd be delighted if we can take our learnings and get to a version 1.2 this year, and then take it to a broader audience.

A lot of the brands who have signed up are global organisations that have only signed up on a UK basis. But what underpins this whole initiative is a universal truth that exists everywhere.

On that note, and lastly, what are your next steps once the Pitch Positive Pledge launches?

The evolution for me will be continuing to monitor feedback, both from agencies and from advertisers. Sharing those positive stories, I think will be absolutely crucial. We'll do a review at probably the start of Q4 to see the impact that it has had.

It will be interesting to see at a macro level if there are fewer pitches and I would love to see fewer pitches on rosters. The intermediary community has got a massive role to play in this as well. They really kicked it around and got it to a good robust place, so they can get to a really positive pitch process. 

We're basically doing six months to try and get as much bang and learn as much as we possibly can, and then take it from there.

Campaign’s three-part special report on pitching

Part 1: Is pitching broken? Why it needs reform

Part 2: Is pitching broken? The pitch cost calculator

Part 3: Is pitching broken? How to fix it