The Power Of “No”

Agencies should be having a fine old time of it. Yet some client behaviour has emboldened agencies to consider whether to participate in pitches

By Ian Darby

The bounce back from Covid lows has reached new highs, reflected in the IPA Bellwether third quarter 2021 report that showed total UK marketing budgets had increased by 12.8 per cent, the strongest rate since the second quarter of 2017.

However market growth on this scale comes with its issues. As Tina Fegent, the experienced marketing procurement consultant, explains, in terms of new business opportunities it’s firmly a “seller’s market” at the moment, “with so much activity out there and limited capacity at agencies". Some agencies, under pressure to deliver against ambitious business development targets, while also satisfying rising demand from their existing roster of advertisers, are confidentially indicating that they’re fatigued, saturated with constant demands to pitch.

There seems a solution here. Just say “no”. But is this a realistic option for agencies when met with requests to pitch or fresh demands from their own clients? James Murphy, the founder and chief executive of New Commercial Arts, believes that it has strong possibilities: “Occasionally saying ‘no’, in the right situation, is not only a positive thing but can actually be bracing and affirming.”

Richard Robinson, the managing director of Xeim Engage, which includes the Econsultancy and Oystercatchers businesses, argues that saying “no” can be seen as a more creative and positive response from agencies than constantly agreeing to perform in the latest pitch: “The easy, lazy, boring answer is ‘yes’; the more exciting, revolutionary, disruptive word to use is ‘no’. I love it, especially in a pitch, when an agency says ‘no’.”

But what are the warning signs for agencies, the triggers for definitely saying “no”? According to Sarah Golding, the chief executive and partner at The & Partnership, there are some clear red lines that should never be crossed. These include re-pitching for “an incumbent that had treated the agency or our people badly” and “briefs with ludicrous delivery timings. Often we’ll be anticipating a brief for a while and then when it lands we have 48 hours to respond. This isn’t acceptable and it isn’t respectful of our time or people.” Clients writing speculative “kitchen sink” pitch briefs in order to “get all the answers to all their marketing challenges” is also a warning sign. “It’s not good practice and it doesn’t lead to an effective pitch process where clients can truly assess the merit of each candidate agency partner,” argues Sarah Golding.

Red lines

Andrew Peake, the chief executive of VCCP London, says that red lines for his agency include “conflicted clients, ethical reasons and people available in the agency”. Beyond this, he adds, “the most important question you can ask yourself is 'do you think you're going to be able to make a difference to the client's business?'. There could be all sorts of reasons why this may not be the case, but I think it's important that if you go for a pitch you really believe your agency has the capabilities, culture and ways of working that can help a business achieve what it's aiming to do.”

Examples of agencies saying “no” may be rare but they do exist. Sarah Golding says The & Partnership did so to a big retail client “when they came to us after running a pitch only a year or so previously. We had thrown everything at the initial pitch but the communication and process in the end was hugely disrespectful and ultimately it was a massive waste of time.” The agency has also refused an opportunity from another retailer due to its payment terms, which, says Golding, were “unfair to our existing clients who would be essentially subsidising this new client’s work".

Capacity issues

Tina Fegent says that in a recent pitch “the agency attended the briefing and then said no. They felt that the client was being too prescriptive in their brief, which with hindsight they were.” Fegent adds that budget can be another factor, agencies turning up their noses at smaller budget opportunities. But right now, she says: “It’s capacity, capacity. Agencies don’t have the spare staff to pitch post-Covid as they are bedding in new clients with a reduced headcount.”

VCCP’s Andrew Peake says that this situation actually makes saying “no” to certain pitches easier for agencies than in pre-Covid days: “Agencies have limited resources which are even more limited now; they are struggling to get the talent they need to meet all their demands."

And, according to Paul Phillips, managing director at the AAR, some agencies currently have the equivalent of “no pitch” signs above their doors due to these capacity issues: “We’re well into November, the conversations we have now with clients looking to pitch essentially go along the lines of ‘delighted to help you, we look forward to seeing you in January.’ You’re not going to get anything decent out of agencies before then. At the AAR we might be able to do some preparatory desk research but you’re not going to get the best out of people.”

Looking at the longer-term relationship, Robinson argues some best practice could be put in place between clients and agencies to empower the use of saying “no” in the form of mini manifestos or contracts. The lazy answer from agencies, he says, is “it’s all about the client, they won’t let me say ‘no’. But what if you invested in this, sat with the client, wrote an emotional contract so that we’re all on the same side?”

Supportive environments

Despite the angst, agencies are seeing some positive trends. For James Murphy one major reason to say “no” has been largely removed due to the impact of the #MeToo movement in terms of a stronger focus on work place values, wellbeing, and more supportive environments: “I think some abusive behaviours by senior people at agencies, or by clients, that would have forced us into saying ‘no’ in the past, or would have forced us to fire someone or a fire client, that kind of behaviour has dwindled a lot. You’re less likely to get forced into an absolute ‘no’ decision on that side of things.”

On more business-related and practical terms, VCCP’s Andrew Peake believes that it’s not always a case of saying “no” when the agency isn’t happy with the pitch process and that “a conversation with the client about our concerns normally sees them resolved and in most cases it doesn't have an impact on the final outcome". Peake also argues that pulling out of a pitch won’t necessarily drive industry standards higher: “We are in a competitive industry, there will always be agencies prepared to pitch.”

The & Partnership’s Sarah Golding, however, is a proponent of greater collective action from agencies in harnessing the power of “no": “The real opportunity to change things for the better and ward against unreasonable pitch terms is to act in a more collegiate way with other agencies and to take a stand together. It’s hard because we’re so often in a competitive environment but if one agency accepts unsatisfactory terms then it’s tough for other agencies to say ‘no’. The more we unite against poor behaviours the better.”


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