How to stop the bitching about pitching

Whenever there is a piece of business awarded after a pitch, there are always a number of people who grumble about the unfairness of the process. But it reminds me of the bumper sticker “Only people who are born support abortion”. Likewise, it is never the winners of the pitch who complain about the process.

Last year, quite a few high profile business pitches created industry outrage to the point the AFA is reviewing guidelines for the agency selection process. (Several years ago the Australian Graphic Design Association (AGDA) had their members sign a No-Pitch agreement, but this has not stopped pitches amongst graphic designers). But is the current process broken?

The benefits of the pitch

The comment that “other professionals like lawyers, business consultants and accountants don’t pitch” is just plain wrong. Many professionals pitch or tender for business and often invest substantial amounts of time or money in the process, but what they rarely do is give away intellectual property in the process.

Rather than comparing advertising to accounting and law, lets use a similar “creative” profession – architecture. Many times architects prepare designs for presentation before appointment. Sometimes, they even enter competitions to win business.

While in the ideal world the pitch process is about finding the right idea from the right agency, the reality is different, with few pitch winning ideas seeing the light of day without major revisions.

Instead, the pitch is really a dating game. Going through the process of credentials, strategy and creative presentations, means that the client has the opportunity to get to “know” the various suitors to find out who is the best match. After all, this process leads to a commitment that can last longer than many marriages. Think of the pitching process as a series of the television program “The Bachelor” (or Bachelorette) for business.

Pitch problems

But does this mean the current pitch method is the best? The number of legitimate complaints about many pitches proves clearly it is not.

1. It is time consuming

Most clients usually underestimate the amount of time required to run the pitch. With the process undertaken while the client is still executing their advertising program and the incumbent and the potential other agency suitors are also doing work for their clients, this means that the process can become protracted in managing the demands on the client and agencies alike. All of these hours are head hours taken away from productive, income-generating activity. When we discuss this with many clients, they are shocked at their cost.

It makes the fees charged by pitch consultants seem like chicken feed.

2. It is costly

Time is money and never more so than in a pitch process. Many agencies have been known to invest tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars in a pitch, often on the production of theatrics. Agencies have commissioned speculative research, produced television commercials and sent staff around the world reviewing the category. If the agency is successful, they may spend literally years trying to recoup the investment. If not, it comes straight out of their bottom line.

So why do they do it? Because you’ve got to be in it to win it.

3. It is unfair

Everyone has a story about a pitch being pre-determined, or one agency having the inside running because they know a key client decision maker. With most other tendering processes, there is a responsibility to act with due diligence and integrity.

With the financial stakes so high for the agencies, it is not just unfair, but it is negligent to run a pitching process if the decision is already pre-determined or if you just want to check out what else is available, there are better ways to do this than running a full pitch.

4. It’s potentially dangerous

To get any sort of meaningful result from a strategic and creative pitch means a client has to expose the potential suitors to details about their business and their brands. It is next to impossible for an agency to develop a meaningful strategy, let alone creative solutions, without an intimate understanding of the client’s business.

Even with confidentiality agreements, this information could be exposed to your competitors during the pitch process, or even be used by unsuccessful agencies in presenting their credentials following the process.

But the main cause of security risk is the large number of external suppliers that come and go through the various agencies during the pitch, such as print reps, always looking for some valuable information to trade.

The successful pitch

In our experience, a creative agency pitch can be a very productive process for clients (and agencies) by following the following golden rules:

1. Don’t put your business out to pitch if you don’t really have to – it will end up costing you a fortune in lost time and potentially unnecessarily expose your business to your competitors.

2. Write yourself a brief on what you want from an agency and what you don’t want and refer to it throughout the process to make sure you get the result you need.

3. Use the process of credentials presentations, strategy presentations and ultimately creative presentations as separate stages to get to know the agencies and refine your selection.

4. Only even use the creative pitch as a way of separating two agencies (ie. Never invite more than two agencies to pitch creative because if you can’t decide before then, you never will make the right choice after.)

5. In a strategy pitch, give the agencies a very defined problem you want solved. (Something that keeps you awake at night) The more defined the problem, the less confidential information you have to share with agency and the more focused their responses.

6. Be willing to create opportunities to spend time with all of the agencies. This is the chance to get to know one another. If you don’t like spending time together now, how will it be when you get into bed together?

7. If you do have a creative pitch stage (because you just can’t decide between the last two) define for the agency how you want the concepts presented. (eg. Storyboards, roughs, anamatics). Ideally it should be how you would expect them presented day to day.

8. Don’t ask the agency to assign their copyright to you unless you are willing to pay for it. After all, if they don’t value their intellectual property, why should you.

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About Darren Woolley

Darren is considered a thought leader on all aspects of marketing management. A Problem Solver, Negotiator, Founder & Global CEO of TrinityP3 - Marketing Management Consultants, founding member of the Marketing FIRST Forum and Author. He is also a Past-Chair of the Australian Marketing Institute, Ex-Medical Scientist and Ex-Creative Director. And in his spare time he sleeps. Darren's Bio Here Email: darren@trinityp3.com
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