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Why everyone loses a creative pitch. Even clients.

Creative pitch losers

Barrie Seppings is the Director of Strategy at Gameplan, a Brand Strategy consultancy that helps get everyone on the same page, literally. He has over 25 years experience as a Writer, Creative Director and Strategist in agencies and production companies in Australia and South-East Asia.

Nothing demonstrates the power imbalance in marketing more clearly than the persistence of the unpaid speculative creative pitch. Name another industry where a professional service provider is regularly expected to deliver, in a limited timeframe and with restricted access to critical information, a near-complete version of their services for sale, against a host of cut-throat competitors, as a no-obligation sample. 

For free.

While the risks for agencies are obvious, the actual costs are not widely acknowledged. In preparation for a full-day brand education course we delivered recently on behalf of Property Council Australia, we ran some research into the Agency experience of the pitch. The results shed new light on the real impact of a process that feels like a leftover from a previous century, and prompted some fresh thinking about how it could be redesigned for better results.

Creative pitches are a numbers game for Agencies.

In a survey of over 30 creative and design Agency leads, we learned the average pitch today has 4 contestants, costs around $5000 in external expenditure and takes 6 different people around 80 hours to produce. Pitching very large advertising accounts consumes significantly more of all those resources – up to 10x in some cases.

An average Agency on a recovery margin of 10% will need to make $50,000 in billings in the same time-frame to break even on the external costs of just one pitch. In a four-way pitch environment, that win will also have to pay for three losses, statistically speaking. There’s your upward pressure on agency remuneration.

Some respondents also spoke of the psychological toll of near-constant high-stakes pitching, with burnout and staff turnover the visible result. The now ubiquitous glossy printed ‘pitch book’ has simply added to the pressure, as the ‘dead trees’ production process requires all the content (presumably the valuable bit of the book), be locked in days in advance. This effectively steals up to a third of the allocated pitch time from the thinkers and creators (again, presumably the bit of the agency a marketer most wants to evaluate). Sorry, agencies, that one’s on you.

This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.

While the costs of pitching fall disproportionately on Agencies, some of the data points to potential shortcomings for marketers as well. The long-term economics of unpaid creative pitches ensure a proportion of the creative work (and usually many other aspects as well), in any Agency response will have to come from low-cost sources.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you The Bottom Drawer. The problem is exacerbated when marketers favour Agencies with deep and recent experience in their particular industry or market (the property sector is particularly prone to this.) When an Agency specialises in one or two key industries, their reservoir of discarded, unsold or cancelled creative campaigns becomes quite deep. The economic imperative to re-use these resources is obvious.

For a process that’s supposed to uncover the best sources of original creative thinking, the creative pitch appears to be designed to produce the opposite. 

The beatings will continue until morale improves.

While it’s no surprise to hear that pitching is tough on Agencies, the full extent of the costs to these (generally small to mid-sized) businesses makes for bleak reading, as did some of the commentary around poor marketer behaviour: lack of communication (a third of respondents said they had never been informed of the result of their last pitch), shifting briefs, fake pitches (designed to give the incumbent agency a wake up call), vastly overstated budgets and the real shocker: stealing ideas.

It’s easy to moan about a problem, much harder to solve it. Yet, these are Agencies styling themselves as creative problem solvers. As part of our research, we asked them for workable solutions.

Could we try it this way?

Money was clearly top of mind, with many Agency leaders asking for a small standardised pitch fee to cover costs, but also to get marketers to put some skin in the game and think carefully about who (and how many) Agencies should be competing. If the economics of the pitch process appear to be driving the wrong outcomes, surely a change in remuneration is a good place to look for improvement?

The word chemistry came up repeatedly, with some Agency leaders asking for it to be the sole criteria for evaluation. By asking for the focus to be placed on relationships ahead of the visual presentation, Agencies are admitting the ‘catwalk show’ of spec creative is an entirely unrealistic representation of their products and services – a business partner version of Love Island.

Instead of allowing marketers to experience the actual product (the people, their thinking), creative pitches become a series of heavily retouched images in an overly-stylised brochure, made by people who are very, very good at making brochures. Creative pitches simply allow marketers to be marketed to by other marketers. 

For a bunch of hyper-competitive capitalists, Agency leads talked a lot about fairness and the need for a level playing field. In practical terms, some requested a set amount of time, head hours or budget allocations, particularly among smaller shops eager to compete ‘apples to apples’ with multinationals. In theory, the idea of applying some scientific rigour through various ‘controls’ should yield clearer, more meaningful results.

From a marketer’s point of view, a handicap system should reduce the ‘hollywood effect’, allowing a clearer assessment of an agency’s real potential to help solve marketing problems.

A problem shared is often a problem doubled.

With mounting evidence that unpaid spec creative pitches are not only damaging to Agencies, but also not particularly useful at helping marketers reach the right decisions, why do marketers and Agencies still use them? Because we’ve always done it this way? Because we can? 

To quote Richard Ayoade’s Travel Man: “We’re here. But should we have come?”

Fortunately, there appears to be a willingness on both sides of the process to think about how pitches can be redesigned to better serve their intended purpose: matching marketers with Agency partners.

When we took our research findings into the education session with marketers, the insights sparked a re-assessment of the pitch process. The class started with the basic criteria a marketer uses to judge the suitability of an agency partner: have they done it before, is the work any good, what are they like to work with and how much do they cost?

The class quickly identified a range of information sources to assess against these criteria (case studies, credentials, show reels, references, staff bios, fee schedules, sample budgets and so on), and found a common thread: obtaining this data was an email, not a meeting. The consensus was that this is preliminary work, this is how you get to a shortlist. Yet so many pitch processes allocate the bulk of the presentation time covering this information.

The other consistency among these measures – and chief among marketers’ concerns –  was the difficulty in measuring over time. How would a marketer know if an Agency could deliver on these characteristics, consistently? As a class, we also kept coming back to the idea of a pitch as a live test, a way of interrogating an agency’s native ability to respond, dynamically, in close to real-time, instead of through a pre-built and rehearsed performance.

Hmmm, that looks tasty.

A common request among property marketers was for their Agencies to deeply understand not only the industry or the product, but the customer. For the most geographically-sensitive of all products (it’s hard for Amazon to ship apartments), local audience insights are critical.

To test for this skill, one participant created a pitch that took a step to the left. “I’d ask them to propose a restaurant they’d open in the neighbourhood.” For this marketer, the agency’s choice would reveal how much they understand about the physical market and the people who live there, as well as the opportunities and the practical challenges of selling on that street. “They can come up with the name, if they want, too. That will show me some of their creativity.”

Siri, why am I late to my client meeting?

One marketer was self-aware enough to realise that, over the long term, they just wanted their agency to listen and to pay attention to the details. They’d already been setting mini-briefs for this exact skill. “Once in a while, I would request a meeting at one of our retail outlets, rather than at our HQ.”

The marketer deliberately chose an outlet that was one of two in the same suburb. And it wasn’t the larger, more famous, more obvious outlet. “I never hid the details. The address was always in the meeting invitation. The agency usually called me from the wrong outlet, asking if I was late.” The incident would then become a catalyst for a sit-down with Agency management and a discussion about priorities and focus.

The story is reminiscent of Van Halen’s backstage rider: a large bowl of M&Ms, with all the brown ones removed. Van Halen banned this one colour not because they were dickheads (Maybe they were. I don’t know Van Halen well enough to pass judgement), but because they were perfectionists.

They wanted every aspect of the venue and sound system to be just so. If the venue management overlooked the ‘no brown M&Ms rule’, the band figured they’d probably overlooked something else, something much more important. The brown M&Ms became a very simple, repeatable quality control test for what were, essentially, production partners in a sizable global entertainment business.

Weird science.

creative pitches chemistry

We then changed the parameters of the exercise and asked the marketers to design a pitch test for chemistry (remember, this was very high on Agencies’ wish list). One participant suggested an escape room. “It sounds cheesy, but think about it for a second: it’s a structured, time-limited, group challenge that rewards teamwork and lateral thinking.”

The task prioritises the need for clear communication under pressure, as well as listening to suggestions and coming to group decisions. It also offers a relatively level playing field – it’s hard for an Agency to claim a natural advantage because they’ve been in the ‘escape room industry’ for years. Crucially, it’s easy to organise and relatively cheap to run. To the criticism that an afternoon spent in an escape room with a potential client or Agency sounds like the seventh circle of hell, the marketer responded: “I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to find a business partner for a difficult task.”

Baby, you can drive my car.

The test drive is one idea that both marketers and agencies seem keen to get behind, although it does require a greater investment of time on the marketer’s behalf – briefings, meetings, points of contact and documentation all multiply significantly with each new Agency partner you engage.

As a simulation of the relationship under real-world conditions, and using live ammunition (albeit on smaller projects with commensurate budgets, risk and impact), the project test drive did seem to satisfy a lot of marketers’ need for an authentic view of Agency behaviour and performance. This project basis might become the new normal for agency relationships, as marketers seek to retain more control over their brand’s output.

Our post-class survey revealed marketers were planning to invest in internal creative resources rather than hiring an external agency by a factor of almost 2 to 1. Significantly, many marketers attributed this shift to the increasing reliance on technology platforms, especially for digital distribution. Agencies that take 4 business days, a signed estimate, three meetings and a grand and a half to resize a digital asset for a new social media channel are finding themselves no longer invited to participate in the long tail of creative production.

What you get is what you give.

Possibly the most significant realisation in the class was that nothing influences pitch responses more than the design of the pitch process itself. You want a creative Agency of problem solvers? Construct a creative problem to solve. You want them to demonstrate attention to detail? Give them a complicated set of directions – and misdirections – to be followed.

Want ‘out of the box’ thinking? Design a completely unexpected, possibly even irrelevant, experience and observe the response. Want to know if you can stand being with these people for hours on end in stressful situations? Take a commercial flight together.

The key is knowing what you actually want (and value) from an agency.

Change is hard. And necessary. But mostly hard.

The reality: it’s going to take some deep thinking to drag the creative pitch into the 21st century. When faced with decisions that can have multi-million dollar implications and career-limiting potential, spec creative pitches are regarded by marketers as the most effective tool currently available to help them evaluate their options. Until a new model comes along that significantly reduces the inherent risk of that decision-making, agencies will continue to be asked to pitch creative.

Perhaps it’s time for agencies and marketers to harness some of their shared creativity and work on that redesign project together.

TrinityP3’s comprehensive Search & Selection process provides extensive market knowledge, tightly defined process and detailed evaluation and assessment. Learn more here

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Barrie Seppings is the Director of Strategy at Gameplan, a Brand Strategy consultancy that helps get everyone on the same page, literally. He has over 25 years experience as a Writer, Creative Director and Strategist in agencies and production companies in Australia and South-East Asia.

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