Alex Cleveland, October 29, 2019

I feel like there is always a debate raging in the industry about whether anyone should pitch, whether it’s fair and whether it would be better for agencies at large to just say, “we’re not doing it anymore”.

I take the argument that other industries don’t work this way, like you don’t get to try 5 coffees from 5 different shops before you decide which one to buy. I get it. But we are living in the world of creative services where every output is entirely original, so I don’t reject pitching out of hand.

In fact I like pitching. I really do. It’s scary, it always feels like you’re at the sharp end when you’re pitching. I still remember my first ever pitch like it was yesterday. The junior member of a team of 3, we headed into London and I was terrified. We had worked days and nights for a week, locked in a room in the agency, empty sandwich boxes and detritus everywhere. For me it is so much of what makes agency life so exciting. I’m never more invested in a creative process than when it’s a pitch, the highs and lows are never more extreme. I remember us getting through our presentation, and I very clearly remember having a pint in the nearest pub we could find afterwards. Nothing had ever tasted so good.

We lost that pitch. It mattered a great deal to me at the time, and not at all to me now. Such is the ticking time bomb of intensity that is a pitch process.

So in short, I don’t believe we need to stop pitching. I believe it is an essential part of agency life, a massive step in the development process and a path that can lead to the kind of moments you remember your entire career.

That’s not to say the process can’t be improved. I sometimes wonder if clients know how to best use the pitch process to get the best out of their agencies, whilst also treating respondents with an appropriate level of respect.

A recent opportunity came our way that we were very keen to be involved in. We spent a week putting together a strategic proposal, including undertaking our own primary research and creating initial concepts. We lost the pitch, and found out afterwards there was FIFTEEN agencies responding, and we had come 6th.

So, that’s 14 agencies, with probably 3-4 people in each spending the best part of a week creating work that will never be paid for and that will never see the light of day. For an independent business our size, that level of resource going unpaid for is significant. I don’t think for one second that the potential client ever considered that, they simply used an outdated process to waste loads of people’s time and generate loads of free ideas.

The client didn’t inform us beforehand of the number of agencies involved, or their process for selecting who would go through to the second round. (Yes it was a phased pitch as well. So round 2 awaits the top 5 agencies from round 1.

The point of a pitch process is NOT to get the agency to create the work that will ultimately be produced.

That is the single biggest fallacy in the business. The point of a pitch process is to identify the agency you want to work with, then you appoint them, and you work together with them to produce fantastic work.

Take the example above. Surely you could whittle down 15 agencies a bit from looking at their websites? To see which ones best align with your mindset? I mean has any effort at all been made to minimise the wasted time and talent? The end result does not benefit the client whatever happens. I can’t believe that we are the only one of the 15 that have now taken the view that we will not pitch for that organisation again, despite them indicating in feedback they would invite us to. It can’t be the intention of Marketing Directors to totally alienate agencies that could potentially be invaluable to them in the future. It’s just that no one thinks about the ramifications.

There are a few simple rules I believe we should implement to make the whole system fairer.

  1. No more than 3 agencies in any pitch
  2. No blind submissions, only face to face
  3. No “round 2”
  4. Total upfront transparency on budget and selection process
  5. Don’t use the actual project brief

Now I realise that particularly the last point might raise a few eyebrows. But I really honestly do not believe that the best interests of the work are served by attempting to address it at the pitch stage. 99% of the time the work ends up looking nothing like what was pitched anyway. So we might as well use the pitch process to achieve the real point of the exercise – namely to find and identify the right agency partner for you. If that’s the objective, pitching is a fantastic exercise, one to be treated with the utmost respect by all parties. But for that to happen, we have to remember why we do it in the first place.