Pitching is a screws up way to pick an agency. For starters, it’s an artificial and random process that does not, and, never has resembled the real-life interaction between client and agency. The pitch process, which has been a feature of the advertising industry for far too long, is way past its ‘sell-by’ date.
The pitch, as it is practiced now, by pitch consultants, is a colossal waste of time. Simply because it is so very rare that the pitch work is ever produced. 99.9% of the time the work never sees the light of day. This is because, these pitches are not real. In a pitch the work is generally speculative, and, based mostly or solely on guesswork, and seldom, supported by meaningful, proprietary data or authentic insight. I’ve never understood why pitch consultants adopt this as the default model of agency selection.
The trouble with pitches is, that, working in isolation doesn’t reflect just how agencies and clients do their best work. Brilliant, game-changing and effective work is born from collaboration, intuition and trust. Brilliant work is produced when client and agency are committed to each other. But the harsh reality is that the whole concept of the pitch is contrived on keeping the client and agencies apart, and, as a result, the pitch becomes a superficial beauty contest.
Stretched over many months, and staffed with high ranking agency people, those pitches are prohibitively expensive. Every survey in the past 10 years that I saw has shown that, the cost of pitching can represent up to 30-40% of the overall costs of running an agency. This is basically untenable in the current economic climate.
But the costs are more than just financial. There is a human cost to pitches. The toll on mental health is enormous due to the added pressure of handling a pitch that is squeezed into an already stretched team, and is, draining to the employee. This most certainly plays a major role in the talent exodus from advertising agencies.
And then, there is the careless waste of energy to be considered. Four agencies might pitch one client, but only one agency can win the prize. A successful agency may win one out of ten or twenty pitches. A rare win can be invigorating despite the unreasonable cost, but, on average, much more frequent and numerous losses are debilitating and demoralizing disproportionately.
It’s time to ditch the pitch. The new agency selection approach needs to be shorter, cheaper, and better. A no-pitch selection process that runs as little as 3 to 4 weeks instead of the traditional search “norm” of four to six months (or longer).
Months-long agency-of-record searches are passé. I would suggest that, instead of issuing an RFI/RFP that reminds of The Encyclopedia Britannica, simply pick the agencies that create work that you like; Find out which creative people worked on those campaigns; Make sure that they are assigned to your business; And review the agency retention practice closely.
Have informal conversations and ask the agencies to share case studies on how it dealt with similar brands. Don’t ask agencies for speculative work; Instead, have candid, intimate conversations with the agency team and avoid flashy presentations. Explore if they have clear strategic smarts, evidence of up-to-date capabilities, a strong opinion on the brand, product and category, and a clear reputation for effectiveness with longstanding clients.
But the most important point of your agency decision comes down to a combination of fit/chemistry. Having managed hundreds of pitches, I believe that you can’t underestimate this point. That means looking under the hood and understanding what the agencies are like when the labels “client” and “agency” are removed. You need to get out of the conference room and see them as people and understand what drives them. How ambitious are they? Are they restless, passionate, obsesses with success? Can they cope with criticism, with pressure?
The key to really get a handle of mutual chemistry, of simpatico, is to spend time socializing together. That’s when everybody opens up. Sharing a cold beer or some meals with the agencies will tell you more than presentation. Or go to a ballgame. It’s important to find out if these are the people you want to see daily for years.
In contrast, the traditional pitch is like an impersonal spreadsheets and a series of formal presentations. At the end of that, for all the time you spent, it doesn’t really inform how you are going to work together.
You should meet with the direct team that would work on your business. However, it’s essential that you meet with the very senior agency leadership as well. They are the ones who create and maintain the culture. They are establish the standard of excellence, and the recruiting of top talent. You want to know what’s on their mind as far as the agency’s future and what steps are they taking to ensure that the agency maintains peak performance.
The scrutiny of the agencies should be along these lines of fit and chemistry, not ‘Here is our commercial.’ (Often created by an expensive transient freelancer, a hired gun for the duration of the pitch, which is now the norm when agencies pitch). And, furthermore, you’re not asking the agencies to spend $500,000 or a million of their own money to prove something to you that you can learn another way—such as examining the real-life work they have done for other clients
Marketers seek a streamlined process, putting less emphasis on spec work, and more on how the pitch team thinks and solves problems. There’s more emphasis on awarding project work to agencies, for in-practice test. And, if they pass, it can evolve into an AOR relationship.
Ironically, for all the promises agencies make in a pitch, which is usually that, their prospective client will be the priority, the actual reality is that they are not prioritizing existing clients when working on a demanding pitch. That too is a big reason to ditch the pitch. As a client you should know how many pitches they are pursuing. If you want the very best thinking, and work that delivers against the promises made when they came in the door, find if they cap the number of clients pitched.