The Problems Of Pitching And How Mother Is Shaking Things Up

The agency’s streamlined pitch format is benefitting clients and younger generations - not just its staff, says Chris Gallery, partner at Mother

By conor nichols

Winning new business obviously benefits agency growth ambitions and brands seeking business-transforming ideas. But we all know that pitching comes at a high cost - impacting the mental health of agency people (and often the client's marketing team too) and swallowing up time and money.

Strides have been taken to streamline the process, improve behaviour and ultimately make it healthier. The Pitch Positive Pledge asks brands and agencies to demonstrate the positive steps they are taking towards the transformation of pitching. Intermediaries are now offering alternative match-making services that avoid fully blown pitches.

It's been 18 months now since Mother decided to launch its own alternative to the traditional, sapping process. Mother's Pitch it Forward not only steers away from full-size pitches but is also designed to drive investment in the next generation of creative talent. If a client appoints Mother on a retained basis after a chemistry meeting, all profit at the end of the first year is donated to a not-for-profit partner that inspires and helps young talent find a path into the industry.

So far the scheme has won Mother both Jägermeister and M&S Clothing, the latter of which culminated in a Christmas campaign last year.

So how is Mother’s Pitch it Forward changing the account review process for the better? We sat down with Mother partner Chris Gallery to find out.

The problem with pitching

Gallery believes that the pitching problem is one of the biggest “knotty” challenges in the industry and that it has proliferated massively. “Gradually, over the last decade, we've moved from retainer model client relationships to more project based models of working with clients. Alongside this, instead of there being four or five pitches a year that are signal pitches for an agency, there's probably 15 pitches a year. Some agencies can do up to 30 or 40. Pitches are also at different stages all the time and the pitch process itself has more and more meetings involved beyond chemistry meetings and pitch tissues. As a result, pitching feels less special and exciting. It's actually overwhelming and can feel like a constant conveyor or a treadmill that doesn’t turn off.”

Pitches used to be an event for Gallery when he first started out in the industry but he feels that over the years the process has changed dramatically. “They weren’t always on. When I first entered advertising as a junior person, pitches were quite exciting because they provided access to new opportunities to work with senior leadership and try to do something amazing. There was a sense of pride involved. It was like wearing the team colours. It was a big thing that the whole agency was excited about and being part of it was important. At that time, there were probably four big pitches a year and three or four small pitches. I’d put pitches on my CV but these days people would look at that same CV and say: ‘Well, it's not that important because there's a pitch every day.’

Over the years, Gallery feels that the advertising industry has had its revolutions around workplace behaviour but believes that it needs to look beyond and be more practical and tangible about what leads to stress, anxiety and feeling overworked. “We need to make advertising an attractive career that future generations will want to work in. It ties in with our ‘make our children proud’ positioning - If pitching isn’t something that energises people and makes them proud anymore, how do we change that? I guarantee future generations won’t want to work on pitches at the weekend.”

In terms of wastage, Gallery also recognises a “criminal” contradiction in that creatively driven companies are developing work for pitches that nevers see the light of day. “The thing that we are in this for doesn’t happen essentially.”

“There’s also a feeling that it doesn't matter if you take a stance on not pitching because someone else will always pitch. There is a big difference between being in a network where you're very driven on numbers and you’re told that you have to pitch, versus being an independent agency where you have choices - but it means it's not an even playing field.”

Clearly, a line has to be drawn. “The industry has established best pitch practices like the Pitch Positive Pledge," Gallery acknowledges. "But while it's good that people are having the conversation and trying to put some principles forward, it doesn't change a lot because these initiatives are UK-based and may not apply to global pitches. Only a small percentage of clients will be signed up for the Pitch Positive Pledge and not all of them use intermediaries, so it can feel a bit like the Wild West. A lot of the time we have to have our own standards regardless of what others do.”

Not only is the process a problem for agencies but Gallery affirms that the industry has to think about pitching from a client’s perspective also. “Too much of the pitch chatter is about why it's not good for agencies. Forever people have said things like: ‘Well, why can't we be like architects and show clients our book of work, make a proposal of how we would do projects, cost it up and let them choose based on one meeting?’ In a dream world that would be great.”

“Pitching is beneficial for clients because they get to meet the best people and see how they work, but it’s also unfair to agencies and their existing clients because they should have the best talent available for people that are already paying them. Often for clients, not only do they get to see loads of ideas and agencies but they also get advice on solving really hard problems that they haven’t solved yet themselves. Clients get to have really smart people provide solutions. What's not to love about that - for free? We can’t take that away - why should clients not be entitled to that?”

“Another problem with pitching is that agencies are also draining clients’ time too. Agencies are putting a lot into them but clients are also visiting a lot of agencies giving up a huge amount of man hours.”

The Pitch it Forward proposition

Mother’s initiative ensures better solutions for clients as well as for agencies. “Pitch it Forward is best for clients that don’t have time for these processes but also realise that they can't just give agencies the business, they need to see some demonstration of how you think and work.”

“The design of Pitch it Forward is to give people a meeting, or maybe a meeting and a half, of thinking about their problems. We don’t want to eradicate agency people thinking about client problems. If you like our thoughts we’d love to stop there and say: ‘Let's work together’. We’ll all save three months worth of time that also includes clients having to work with five or so agencies to solve a problem.”

The agency often introduces the scheme in introductory meetings before pitching, allowing clients time after to see if they wish to take the Pitch it Forward route. “We get good interest but there have also been a couple of times we've proposed it and clients have come back and said: ‘Actually, we think probably you're not the right type of partner for us.’ But that's good because it’s saved us six weeks of the pitch process. Not all clients like the idea of one meeting with an idea of what we might do.”

As for the ‘forward’ part of the initiative, the profit made in the first year of a retainer on a project is donated towards a good cause. “The donation would essentially be the equivalent for us in the man hours we put into a pitch. There’s a trade off because, yes, we are giving away the revenue that we would have from the business, but we're losing that anyway by doing a full pitch process. For clients, they get to have a team that is dedicated to getting them to a solution faster and instead of spending time on a pitch they can dedicate time to figuring out how that energy can go to good use and good goals.”

A partner that Mother is excited by is the Institute of Imagination in London which delivers creative learning experiences. Gallery feels that now is the perfect time to support an organisation like this with funding being taken away from the arts and creativity in the UK. “It's important this is where our energy goes.”

"Pitching isn't the only way of bringing new projects and accounts into the business. By investing more time in a relationship like Uber we’ve been able to grow. The account was once just Uber Eats and now it is Uber Rides, Uber One, Uber Trains and Uber Green."

Chris Gallery, partner at Mother

Proof in the pudding

Gallery admits that there is a certain type of mindset that requires clients to opt for Pitch it Forward. Early last year, M&S Clothing needed a campaign for Christmas and realised that a full pitch process would eat into its production timeline. “We thought about a solution for them and once they confirmed they liked our thinking we built a proposal. It worked great.”

While Mother proposed Pitch it Forward to M&S Clothing, Jägermeister approached the scheme slightly differently by holding chemistry meetings with agencies with a view to finding a partner from just those initial meetings. “We then told them about our Pitch it Forward process and they confirmed that it was the right fit for them. They met us and a few other people but our meeting was great and it confirmed in their minds that we’d be great partners. They will also be donating to a cause that provides creative opportunities.”

Overall, Gallery feels that the agency has really strong relationships with the clients that have used the initiative. “They have great chemistry with us as an agency and they really trust the team. It’s a good learning curve for us also because the fact that they want to work with us in this way signals they are a good fit for the type of people we want to work with anyway. It's a good barometer of the level of trust that they will have in an agency partner and the level of partnership that they’ll have in something with us.”

In 2022, Mother achieved a pitch conversion rate of 90 per cent. For Gallery, new business pitches are still a vital part of the business but of course retaining clients is just as essential, and keeping a pipeline full of new relationships is not always directly correlative to pitches. “Last year M&S Clothing was probably our biggest win and Jaegermiester is a global account - and they’ve both come from pitch processes that aren’t full length. Also, with Uber, the account was once just Uber Eats and now it is Uber Rides, Uber One, Uber Trains and Uber Green. Pitching isn't the only way of bringing new projects and accounts into the business. By investing more time in a relationship like Uber we’ve been able to grow. You can definitely argue that agencies should be investing more time on existing clients as opposed to pitches.”

“Next year, we'll pitch less and we'll keep pushing our balance more towards development, interesting opportunities and finding other sources for the business that aren't just pure pitching.”

Mental health

Over the years Mother has had initiatives that have tackled the problem of pitch-induced stress and exhaustion. A ‘pitch holiday’ saw the agency refuse to take calls for new business in the month of August. “Everyone got a boost because there was less pressure and it was a chance to re-energise.” Another idea saw Mother put only six or seven people towards a “massive” pitch. “A decade ago it would have been 40 people. Some of the best things happen from small groups of people anyway.”

The creative company also has a “huge” policy with regards to not working weekends. “We want our pitching behaviour to be like our existing client working relationships - we’ll do our job, we'll do really well, but let's not force anyone to do something out of hours. There's always going to be a bit of a late night before with someone finishing up for a deadline but we’re not going to say: ‘Everybody's in on the weekend.’”

All things considered, Gallery stressed that as well as looking after mental wellbeing, it's important for Mother to ensure people feel excited and energised to win a pitch. “What you put in is what you get out. If your team isn't energised by doing a pitch, you're not going to win. Hopefully we’ve moved on from 'how is pitching affecting people's mental health?' to 'is this a positive process that people want to be part of?' For example, when we finish pitches we get people to tell us about their experience and then as leaders in the company we look at bad experiences and try to ensure they don’t happen again. Our ambition is for our people to put their hands up and want to pitch, not for people to be dreading it.”

“As the world gets continually faster, people's needs will be more squeezed and teams will be built to be more efficient. The time to take on a fully immersed pitch process will not exist."

Chris Gallery, partner at Mother

The future of pitching

Gallery believes that there will always be huge scale pitches because there will always be a need for formal processes for huge and/or global accounts. That said, he also feels that the industry will see a big move towards shorter demonstrations of thinking and chemistry pitch processes. “I am seeing it from the US side of our business more. Certainly in the last year, there's been more opportunities emerging that have had clients wanting to have a meeting or a series of meetings, but not a formal pitch process.

“As the world gets continually faster, people's needs will be more squeezed and teams will be built to be more efficient. The time to take on a fully immersed pitch process will not exist. In most of the things we use in life we found ways of streamlining and finding more efficient ways of doing them. Pitching is finding that. There’s definitely a movement right now around the world towards healthier new business behaviour.”

“Clients will benefit from being more selective about how many agencies they want to give a Don Draper moment.”

Pitch it Forward may be deemed as “Mother’s thing” but Gallery affirms that he would “love it” if a client adopted the scheme and altered it. “Imagine a client said: ‘We are going to do Pitch it Forward but there are going to be three agencies involved and all of you are going to do one meeting.’ I don't mind the competition and people having a choice - what I really want to do is stop wasting everyone's time. I’d happily say to people I know at other agencies: ‘We’re all on this pitch. Are you all willing to propose this Pitch it Forward model to clients and collectively agree that there’s a limit to the amount of meetings we do?’ There’s not a lot of barriers to people saying yes to this.”

“We're not right for everybody. The higher ambition is not just about winning but about pitching in a better way. I’m very much responsible and super aware that when we take on a pitch I have to be able to stand up on the stage and say: ‘This is a good thing for us to do. It will not disrupt how we manage the workload over the next few months in this agency.'"


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