Time to ditch the pitch.


You have an uneasy feeling that the client has already decided on re-appointing its incumbent agency but allowing yourself to be put on the ‘pitch’ list is a temptation you can’t resist.  Being asked is flattering.  The potential difference it could make to your business is significant.  It’s a no brainer.  Of course you’ll pitch.

It’s disappointing that the client won’t disclose how many agencies are on the pitch list, or who they are.  The brief appears a little unfocussed and seems to make a lot of references to the great work which has already been done.  If the current agency’s doing so well, why the pitch? 

The pitch process permits questions (the answers to which would be shared with competitors) but no meetings are allowed.  There will be no opportunity to look the client in the eyes and suss out their real intent, establish a little chemistry or get a feel for what they’re looking for.

It’s taking you and your team a lot longer to put the presentation together and you’ve already invested a lot of the agency’s resource.   Too bad about the disruption to day-to-day business.  That affects the clients you’ve already won who are paying you to do what you do. 

So, exhausted but inspired, you turn up for the pitch, strut your creative and strategic stuff, charm the clients with your charismatic presentation and leave feeling optimistic.  Or perhaps you realise half way through that you hadn’t prepared as meticulously as you now wished, difficult questions asked by junior client staff were left poorly answered and you are pondering the significance of the senior client leaving the room early.  Either way, it’s done.  And you wait.

If you get the phone call announcing your success, the pitch was a reflection of your business prowess.  You’re good at what you do and even better at convincing others that you can do it for them.  Break out the champagne.  You deserve it and can now afford it. 

It’s just a fact of life that the majority of pitchers get the other call, or more likely the other email, explaining how one of your competitors had ‘more closely matched’ the client’s needs.  But the client was both grateful for and impressed with the work you had done, and the interest you had taken in the possibility of working for them.  Terrific, that makes all the effort worthwhile.

For the winning agency, the huge amount of time invested in the pitch remains just that.  An investment.  It can be considerable, although rarely costed.  A value of £20,000 of staff time and out-of-pocket expenses is not an unusual pitch cost.  It will often be less and often be more.  But morale is good, and the profitability of working with your new client (less the cost of the champagne) will start to pay back the investment and deliver a positive return at some point in the new relationship.  But not always, especially if you’re pitching for a position on a roster.

For the losing agencies, morale is not brilliant and mitigated only by your ability to imagine poor client judgement rather than shortfalls in your own performance as the reason for failure.  There is zero return on your investment, so the £20K or whatever it is you’ve just spent is gone.  Wasted.  But you haven’t spent any money on champagne, so that’s good.

Whether you were bad or the client was bad, whether it was a fair fight or whether the odds were stacked against you is not the issue for us here.  Although, these are certainly subjects which Creative Times will return to at another time.  The point for now is that the picture we’ve painted is a reflection of a process which the industry has come to regard as the norm.  I controversially suggest that it may be time to reconsider.

Even the most successful agencies won’t win every pitch, so the best case scenario is that your business plan has to absorb the costs of the odd zero-return pitch added to the ones where you’ve come out on top.  The more you lose, the longer it takes to get into profit.  For less successful agencies, let’s say winning one in three, the time it takes to hit a level of overall profitable return is immense.  If your ratio is worse than this (you know who you are), the maths doesn’t need a computer to figure out.  Your business plan is blown.  Big time.

If the client in this little scenario is a public sector organisation, the collateral damage is magnified.  By default, there are many more agencies adding a nil-return pitch to their business plan calculations.  On an individual agency level, the damage is even greater because government (and often European) procurement rules mean that investment has been considerably higher in the ‘tender trap’ of big budget seduction.  You’ve simply taken a lot longer to lose the pitch.  On a frustration level, the feeling that the right suppliers are not always appointed in such situations is a nagging irritation which compounds the problem. 

Procurement processes tend towards a formulaic assessment of pre-boxed criteria.  It’s exactly what is NOT required to make an objective judgement about an agency’s creative match to public sector need.   Big surprise, it doesn’t always work.   Again, we’ll leave this for another time.

Many agencies have already made a strategic decision to decline pitches altogether or impose strict rules about the circumstances in which they will ‘invest’.  For others, the vast majority, that’s a luxury they think they can ill afford.  But they include the creative businesses who suffer most from the process, expending time they haven’t got with occasionally little chance of success.

My controversial suggestion is that all clients should start to think seriously about requesting predominantly credentials-based pitches.   This will allow agencies to demonstrate their ability to answer the brief by using work they’ve already done for others with a little added tailored thinking to persuade the client that their experience and expertise ‘match’ the project needs.  The days of producing mountains of free work, most of which will obviously be wasted, should be numbered.

There will always be a need for some speculative work, and rightly so, for younger smaller agencies to conquer their larger rivals through raw creative talent.  That’s the only way small agencies will get to grow.  But too many pitches are set up as more of an academic exercise than a genuine search for creative answers.  Even winning work may never be used.

The public sector, in particular, should acknowledge that it’s responsible for a massive amount of wasted private sector energy.  Lost time and resource, never to be recovered.   Isn’t this the opposite of how government is meant to help industry?

By our actions and words, the industry itself should lobby and persuade if we want it all to change.  So let’s get started.


Ray Hanks