Should marketers take more responsibility for the welfare of pitching agencies?

Post-pandemic life may be even more stressful for agency staff as new-business activity picks up in 2021. Should the marketers that run pitches have a duty of care to them?

Clockwise from top left: Douglas, Lyall, Arnold, Ali, pitching over video conference
Clockwise from top left: Douglas, Lyall, Arnold, Ali, pitching over video conference

“I draw my energy from others – I love the vibe, the energy and meeting new people and presenting great work,” Tracey Barber, Havas Creative Group’s global chief marketing officer, remarked in a Campaign piece reflecting on how pitching remotely was having an impact last year.

That article, part of our review of 2020, was understandably focused on how lockdown life would affect the high-stakes and high-pressure arena of advertising and media agencies pitching for new business.

Barber expresses the positive side of pitching – the thrill of working in teams in a high-stakes environment, the challenge of problem-solving and grappling with ideas for brands, and the unmatched delight of winning an account and delivering the news to your grateful colleagues back at the office. 

But these are still far from normal times. Last month, Campaign remarked how this spring is likely to bring a flurry of new-business activity on stream as many brands look to review agency relationships and have contracts signed before 2022. 

Many advertisers did not want to pitch during a pandemic because they wanted face-to-face meetings, prompting many brands to hold back 2020 pitches. Other companies have used the pandemic as an opportunity to take stock of their business, so Covid-19 has actually prompted a further wave of pitch activity. 

Whatever the reason, many agency new-business chasers are privately very worried about how to deal with the volume of pitching this year, particularly with many staff still set to work from home for the next few weeks. 

The Great Pitch Company, whose recent survey betrays significant concerns among agency staff about workload and virtual pitching, highlighted that the most effective agencies improved their resourcing and planning to avoid weekend working, for example.

But don’t the marketers that run these pitches have a role to play, too? Pitch consultants and network agency bosses have known for some time that pitch volumes are likely to be “bonkers” this year, as one executive recently described it. Why pitch now when prospective agencies are already overloaded?

Julian Douglas

IPA president and vice-chairman, VCCP

Absolutely yes. Just as consumers now are asking what human and environmental compromises are made to allow a T-shirt to cost only £1 and a chicken to cost £3, so marketers might ask what allows agencies to pitch for free.

As the industry becomes increasingly project based, there are far more pitches taking place than necessary. Pitches for smaller prizes. Pitches to win a place on a roster, to then pitch again. Pitches where success grants access to the end-of-level battle with procurement. 

It’s not enough to just say: “Well agencies have a choice, they don’t need to pitch.” This is an irresponsible position to take. To survive, to pay their staff and keep the lights on, the vast majority do. In a pitch or starve situation, most agencies will take their chances and pitch.

Marketers have every right to call a pitch, but they must acknowledge and take responsibility for the wastage inherent in that pitch process. Enlightened marketers will consider the human impact of the pitches they call – and take steps to reduce the frequency, length and scale of them.

Jo Lyall

UK chief executive, Brainlabs

Advertisers could certainly be mindful of the added pressure of pitching when most of the workforce has been working remotely in a pandemic, and consider ways to tighten up the process to alleviate the burden on agencies.

But agencies can and should take ownership of their employees' welfare. For example, we recently turned down a pitch because the process was so long and involved with a long list of agencies, it would have drained key resource taking attention away from existing clients. We should normalise making decisions for the good of our teams and know when to prioritise wellbeing over short-term wins.

That said, pitches are an essential part of our industry and a great opportunity for everyone to learn and develop new ideas; sometimes the best innovations come from pitch ideas. During remote times, pitching is more about quality of work than impressing clients with theatricality, which saves time and energy – maybe this is something we should keep post pandemic.

Reuben Arnold

Vice-president, marketing, product and digital customer experience (EMEA), Starbucks

Like most responsible businesses, agencies are increasingly recognising the importance of mental wellbeing among their teams. However, while many will have taken tangible steps internally to create the right environment, real change can come only if clients play their part. 

This means being realistic about our expectations and recognising the impact that our demands may ultimately have on people. We have perhaps grown a little too used to our agencies’ ultimate flexibility and willingness to service our every need without challenge – often involving timescales that we would not impose on our own teams.  Nowhere has this been more apparent than the traditionally stressful pitch process. 

If we truly want our agencies to be extensions of our brand, the mental fitness of the extended team is as much our responsibility as it is the agency’s. 

Mu Ali

Chief growth officer, Wavemaker UK

It’s a collective responsibility, not just on marketers. Pitching is a collaborative effort between marketers, intermediaries, procurement departments and agencies. We all have to be reflective of the time we are coming out of, the pressures that people have on them and the way, primarily, marketers want to get the best agency working for them. There are several ways to do that. The pandemic has shown there are different ways of doing a pitch, such as the Post Office’s interviews with [media] agencies every week to get more depth from an agency, rather than a one-off chemistry meeting then running a pitch.

Mindfulness is also important, such as giving agencies deadlines on Fridays instead of Mondays – agencies will use all the time available to them, so try to discourage that by setting the marker down at the end of the week. Let’s be cognisant of bank holidays, too – family-oriented brands such as Disney and Sainsbury’s, for example, are good at doing that.


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