Winning is, unfortunately, and often falsely, pretty much the only thing that matters in advertising these days. If you win, clients find you irresistible, and you win more. If you win and your work is good, people think it’s actually, disproportionally, spectacular. If you lose and your work is as good, people think it’s ungrounded. If you win and your strategies are ordinary, people think you’re amazingly brilliant. If you lose, people think your strategies, no matter how smart, are arbitrary.
Winning a pitch is, sadly perhaps, the final arbiter of an agency’s reputation today.
Pitching itself can drain an agency’s resources. Stretched over many months, and staffed with high-ranking agency people, those pitches are prohibitively expensive, running into the hundreds of thousands and millions. The total cost of pitching can represent up to 30% 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 endless hours into the night and weekends, the stress, the toll on mental health is enormous. This most certainly plays a major role in the talent exodus from the advertising business.
A successful agency may win one out of ten or twenty pitches it participates in. A win can be invigorating despite the unreasonable cost, but the more frequent and numerous losses are debilitating and demoralizing.
There is a good reason for the low conversion rate. A survey conducted a few years ago showed that, in almost 9 out of 10 times the advertiser has a favorite in the pitch, even before the pitch even started. A whopping 71% of marketers admit that “sometimes” they know before the pitch which agency is their favorite to win, and 13% flat out admit their mind is already made up before they meet with agencies. Only 16% report that they don’t know which agency will win until the process has concluded.
When it comes to pitching, agencies are Pavlovian. They don’t separate the wheat from the chaff, and pitch way too much. Worse, they often mistake their own convictions in place of that of the client’s who must hire them. Agencies that think through their delusions, and spot how and why they will be disqualified, can improve from a 10% conversion rate, into one with a better than 50% conversion rate.
The Mad Men-style pitch as it is still practiced by clients and consultants, is dumb. This is an artificial and randomized process that does not resemble the real-life way client and agency collaborative work. Deciding on a winner based on the work is meaningless, because 99% of the time the winning work won’t even see the light of day.
No wonder that most client-agency partnerships now fail in 2-3 years, eventually damaging careers and brands.
It’s time to ditch the pitch. The new approach to selecting an agency needs to be shorter, cheaper, and better. A no-pitch process that that lasts as little as 3 to 4 weeks instead of the four to six months.
We have informal conversations with just a few agencies and ask them to share case studies on how it dealt with similar brands or problem. No speculative creative work; Instead, we have candid, intimate conversations with the agency team without flashy presentations. We 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 hiring an agency comes down to a combination of fit and chemistry. I believe, from experience, that you can’t underestimate this particular point.
Find out how ambitious are they; Are they restless, passionate, obsessed with success? Get to know each agency personally by spending time socializing together. A dinner, a ball game, a fishing trip. It will give you an opportunity to mingle, and meet the agency team as people, not just as business partners.
Chemistry sessions are incredibly revealing and informative. Everything you need to know about an agency you’ll get from a chemistry session. You’ll see how they think, their approach to data, how they develop strategies, their proprietary methods, how they got to an idea, how that idea came to life in the marketplace, and ultimately how they measure it.
And ditch those lengthy RFP questionnaires with 100 questions that don’t tell you anything about the culture of an agency. Nobody reads those long responses anyway. Instead of issuing an RFI/RFP that reminds one of The Encyclopedia Britannica, simply explore 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.
And that’s it.