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question of the week

Pitch It Up: Is there a better way to win new business?

Stressful, time-consuming, competitive and costly - is there a more effective way to impress brands that does not involve so many negatives?

By conor nichols

Pitching is arguably one of the most fundamental aspects of the advertising industry. Agencies can demonstrate their creative strengths, compete against the very best and win life-changing business. Brands can be deeply inspired and come across ideas that can kick start their journey towards transformation and growth. But increasingly over the years, the act of pitching and all its positives have come at a cost.

It is both time-consuming and expensive for agencies, not to mention the toll it has taken on mental well-being. In April this year, the Great Pitch Poll found that one in five people working for agencies (22 per cent) felt their mental health was not being considered. Over half of media agency staff-members (54 per cent) also admitted that pitching was ‘increasingly affecting staff mental health’, according to a study from MediaSense. 

Schemes have been launched in response. The Pitch Positive Pledge - launched during Mental Health Awareness Week in 2022 - asks brands and agencies to demonstrate steps they are taking towards the transformation of pitching, making it intentional, accountable and more effective.

The future of pitching is clearly changing. And that's no bad thing, because its pressures can be crippling. Which is one reason why last year Mother introduced its Pitch it Forward scheme - which commits first year profits to investing in young people if brands agree to skip the pitch. The idea has already helped Mother land the Jägermeister and M&S Clothing accounts.

So is there a future for pitching that is a better fit for the modern agency culture and that gives clients a better chance of finding the right partner? We spoke to industry experts and pitching intermediaries to find out.

Holly Ripper, managing director, BBH

I am all for truncating the pitch process - there is a systemic imbalance of incentives that has led to a bloating of the whole experience. The thing is, all the will in the world melts away when you come up against the client's process.

The goal for any pitch is to start to form a mutually beneficial partnership. So whatever proposal of change, it needs to be approached from a client benefit and an agency benefit. Otherwise it’s just more of the industry talking to the industry and the process won’t ever really change - beyond some lively headlines.

Currently - it’s fair to say the client holds most of the cards. What would the benefit be for them, to change the status quo? And could a collective agreement be reached on the biggest tension points? For example;

  • Time. Long drawn out processes benefit no one, and no one can deny this. Seeing three (minimum) agencies through tissues, chemistry and pitch sessions is hugely time consuming. The most rewarding pitching experience I was involved in recently, finished after chemistry and the main reason they chose this route, was due to a respect for the time we all had to offer - their side and ours.

  • Good comms vs bad comms. A lack of communication or lacking of a communication loop that is either gratuitously effusive (as clients feel guilty about putting the agency through the ordeal of a pitch) or not clear, directional feedback. The tenant of any good relationship is good communication. If the point of a pitch is to find out whether you're compatible to work together - how are you going to do that if the communication is not clear, or based on platitudes?

  • Partnership. How can you expect an agency to come up with an answer to your brand, without being your partner and getting under the skin of the business and what makes it what it is? The best solutions are made in partnership. We get to the best ideas with our clients together. And that’s the reason why we have an average seven year tenure vs the industry average of two.

The way it stands, clients get four answers to a brief that haven’t been built in collaboration with the people who live and breathe the brand. Why take four 5/10 ideas to your CEO, when you could craft one 9/10 idea in partnership with your agency?

It is hard to differentiate ourselves. It’s hard to Zag. It’s near impossible to Zag in isolation of partnership with the brand. We wouldn’t work like that with an existing client - why would we work like that with a new one?

Julian Douglas, CEO and vice-chairman, VCCP International

Pitching in advertising can be a double-edged sword. On the good side, it’s a golden ticket for advertisers to find business-transforming ideas and the lifeblood for agencies looking to land new business. It’s all about beating your competition, demonstrating what you can do and for the whole team getting that win can be a game-changer.

But here’s the catch - we’ve got ourselves in a doom loop of pitching for everything, even the small projects that really don’t need it. And that is leading to a whole lot of wasted effort and resources. Not to mention, it’s more expensive, and not just in pounds and pence, but in the toll it’s taking on the team and the environment.

The truth is, no one’s got the time to spare - neither client nor agency - and the constant push, especially with hybrid and remote work, is cranking up the pressure, leading to negative outcomes. It’s no surprise we’re seeing some of the best people in the business calling it quits.

So, it’s clear that things need to change. Historical attempts to recalibrate pitching practices fell short, but today's heightened consciousness around these issues and a collective determination offer new hope. Today most companies are aligned with ESG goals, seeking to minimise waste and promote diversity and well-being. With this in mind, pitching the way we always have done just doesn’t fit.

Enter the Pitch Positive Pledge. Launched on Mental Health Awareness Week 2022, it is an industry-wide commitment to actually live up to the words we all say in our corporate purpose statements and ESG reports. It’s making pitching work for us, not against us. We are aiming for a healthier approach that respects the people involved, cuts down on waste, keeps costs reasonable, and still delivers outstanding work. It's about getting back to pitches that are worthwhile and positive – for everyone involved. If you haven’t signed up yet, click on the link below. And if you have, then remember your promise the next time you pitch.

Laura Vipond, chief growth officer, Ogilvy UK

Like most new business people, I am a proud optimist. To do the job, we need to be able to spot the opportunity, find the sparks in an idea, and see a better way of doing things. This is how the Positive Pitch Pledge was born: a belief that there is a kinder, more sustainable way of winning business. There is clearly power in a collective front. This year it’s been heartening to see so many clients consciously avoid getting agencies to pitch during the summer and Christmas periods (so far!). So, chapeau to Mother for their Pitch It Forward scheme, and to any agency trialling new approaches. Convincing clients to tear up their process and try a different one is tough – but shorter pitches are definitely the way forward. We have a pitch-in-a-day format at Ogilvy, which has proven to be not just more fun for both the clients and agency-folk involved, but a far quicker – and less costly - way to pitch.

Yet as we head into what’s likely to be another tricky year, winning business is only going to get more competitive. Declining marketing budgets, an oversaturated agency marketplace and fewer pitches to go around (if 2023 is anything to go by, according to AAR H1 data). The battle to showcase creativity will go on, so it’s on us all as new business people to push back on poor pitch practices, work with clients to trial ones, and find the joy in what I believe is the best part of our industry.

Richard Robinson, managing director, Xeim Engage and Oystercatchers

Planning for 2024 has concluded for many brands and agencies alike. Targets for growth have been locked & loaded with high expectations on both sides for the percentage that will come from new business acquisition as opposed to existing business renewal and incremental growth.

Underlying retention is the mark of every great agency, the ability to renew, retain and reinvigorate brands on repeat, year in year out – just ask Joint on Amazon, Leo Burnett on McDonald’s or VCCP on O2. But, just as some accounts will renew in 2024 others will seek to change. We see new business directors already geared up for the year ahead, mastering the art of amplifying their agency’s unique value, foreseeing a brand’s silent whispers for help, and preparing to effortlessly spark conversation at just the right moment.

As long as Budgets exist, the demand for agencies to win new business will persist. Simultaneously, brands, in their quest for market differentiation, will continue to face the need to choose the most suitable agency based on factors beyond price alone. The challenge for pitching in 2024 lies in all parties making astute strategic choices for which pitches to pursue, and which pitch processes to engage in.

Rebecca Nunneley, lead consultant, AAR

At AAR we encourage clients to use the terminology 'agency selection' – there are many ways to select an agency partner and only some of these involve some form of a pitch process.

If we’re going to make real change, the most important question brands and intermediaries need to ask themselves is: “given the set of circumstances, is a pitch the only option?” For example, a pitch is not going to solve an inefficient ways of working or a broken commercial model. 

More often than not, brands aren’t aware there are other options, and once you interrogate their brief further, clients are pleased and often relieved to avoid a pitch.  

Instead, this allows you to focus on fixing, rather than replacing and ensuring the relationship is set up for mutual success. We have helped clients and agencies avoid several pitches over the last year through:  

  • AAR’s Relationship RE-SET: this allows us to design a framework roadmap for a RE-SET, where there is a mutual acceptance of what needs to change and a shared ambition to get there. We support brands and agencies through a 6-month programme to RE-SET the relationship and get it back on track 

  • Commercial reviews: commercial benchmarking across hourly rates, cost-efficiency of production or assessing duplication of scope

And in those circumstances where a pitch is the only option, it is vital that whatever the ask of agencies is, it is commensurate with the size of the prize.  

In the last 12-18 months at AAR, we have been busy trialing new ways of doing this: 

  • Agency safaris: for clients to meet with different types of agencies who would all answer their brief in slightly different ways 

  • Workshops: where agencies bring to life how they would approach the challenge and use their own strategic framework to start to co-create a solution together with the client team 

  • Agency-led: each agency is allocated a the same number of hours that they can spend with the client team across a two-week period, and the agencies can use that time however they wish in order to demonstrate how they like to work with clients and why they are the right partner 

  • Rapid Response: a pitch in a day where agencies are invited to spend the day at a clients’ office working on a live brief, giving both teams a chance to see what it would be like to work together 

Tina Fegent, global marketing procurement consultant, Tina Fegent Ltd

In Procurement terminology a pitch or as all our other counterparts who manage the direct and indirect items for an organisation called it a tender, is defined is a formal, structured procedure for generating competing offers from different potential suppliers (agencies) where the organisation (client) looking to obtain an award of business activity in a service contract.

An organisation (client) will always want to ensure that any supplier (agency) selection process is run in a way that treats all the suppliers (agencies) in a fair and equal way. They may have certain data that they need to collect and check (financial & legal), they may have policies that they are interested in (modern slavery, sustainability, diversity and inclusion) as well as knowing more about your agency, the people, clients and the way that you work. That is what a well run procurement process can cover and I don’t feel that the medium to large organisations will look to change their supplier selection process for marketing (which isn’t usually the biggest spend) but I do know that my marketing procurement clients, colleagues and friends do try their hardest to make their standard processes fit for marketing.

I think that Pitch Positive Pledge and the work that the ANA and 4A’s has done in the States have highlighted to clients (marketing and procurement) the effect that a pitch process can take on those involved. I think there is a greater awareness of making the process better, more flexible, more respectful and more timely. But I just don’t think activity like ditch the pitch will ever happen. It is about education – educate those involved or about to be involved that there are options. The pitch process must fit the brief and the budget. If there is a brief for say a new design project and the budget is £50k-£100k, then a process should be adapted to suit that. The IPA and ISBA had an excellent website a few years ago called The Good Pitch Guide that had a long list of different options (like the recent Specsavers MGOMD closed pitch process which I have been a fan of for many years) through to a chemistry meetings only or using workshops. I say let’s educate, share the stories like Specsavers and M&S Clothing but please make sure that marketing procurement is fully involved as together we can make the process better for all.


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