Brain-Rape in the Boardroom 2 – Agency Pitches and Creative IP

Part 2 – The Advertiser

Recently, I wrote an article about ‘brain-rape’. It was sparked by some posts we read about advertisers stealing the pitch ideas from losing agencies.

Part 1 of this article focused on the agency perspective and talked to if, why and how agencies should assert themselves regarding the IP they produce (in the form of ideas) in pitches.

The article generated a fair bit of attention. Which I like to think is due to my incisive writing style, rather than the use of the admittedly show-stopping term ‘brain rape’ in the title.

Either way – conversations were started. And we thought it only right to follow-up with a Part 2 – this time, considering the viewpoint of the advertiser, or potential client, in a pitch.

Are advertisers out to profiteer from pitches?

There is so much speculation, including from the Linked In post that sparked these articles, about advertisers setting out to nefariously profit from pitches. Running pitches just to build up a free ideas bank, or cut costs, or various other reasons.

I’d like to say up-front, that our overwhelming experience is that this isn’t the case. The organisations we work with, and there are lots of them, generally have good intent; respond with integrity; have genuine reasons to go to market, and to be frank, would neither have the time or inclination to go to market just for ideas, on account of the ‘effort in’ involved in a pitch far outweighing the potential ‘benefit out’.

Before anyone screams at me for my naivete – of course, TrinityP3 doesn’t run every pitch. In fact, a conservative estimate is that of all pitches that happen, approximately 20-30% would be run by consultants. Some of whom, let’s say, will have different standards to others.

And it stands to reason that the organisations attracted to and willing to pay a consultant to maintain process rigour are less likely to be devious by nature.

Learned behaviours have a lot to answer for

Despite the logic that the more ethical clients will naturally gravitate to consultants to run their agency pitch, I do maintain that in most cases, advertisers doing things like ‘stealing ideas’ or similar, in pitches, is likely not down to intentional, pre-determined chicanery.

As I say – the sheer effort of pitching just doesn’t equate with the idea of advertisers setting out to deceive. There are other reasons;

  1. No guardrails protecting agency IP. I tackled this in Part 1 from the agency’s perspective. From the client’s perspective – well, if nothing has been signed, what’s the problem with taking an idea presented in a pitch? The agency never stated that it couldn’t be used.
  2. Lack of thought or understanding. Sometimes, the advertiser just isn’t thinking hard enough about what taking an idea from a losing agency means to that agency, to the winning agency, or the potential damage to reputation in the market that may result from an ever-more restless agency industry.
  3. Preconceived and often experience-driven notions about how agencies are willing to be treated, both in pitches and in general. It amazes me how many marketing teams are entrenched in a master-servant mentality that allows for all sorts of behaviours with agencies that wouldn’t be tolerated with other suppliers – scope creep, unreasonable demands, cost-cutting without rationale, taking too much credit for agency ideas, etc. They’re not always acting maliciously, they’re just in a world where agencies go above and beyond, free of charge, as a matter of course (maybe agencies have made their own bed a bit? Well, that’s a whole other candle for a whole other cake).

Good pitch advice can lead to good intent

Beyond managing the process of a pitch, we spend a lot of behind-scenes time in the pitches we run conducting advisory discussions in all sorts of areas regarding the nuances of pitching, realistic expectations, agency dynamics, pitch ethics.

On the topic of agency IP, it’s not just about stealing the idea of a losing agency and what’s reasonable, it’s about potential knock-on effects for the advertiser.

  • Expecting the agency to produce a fully fleshed out campaign within the confines of a pitch process is unrealistic. You’re looking for quality of thought, process, interpersonal chemistry, innovation, and application; not a silver bullet, which is the exception in a pitch, not the rule.
  • Pitch ideas, it follows, will always need more iteration once the pitch has concluded. And agency people know this, and they expect it. Stick with the right agency and iterate their idea, building on the work to date, rather than super-impose someone else’s work – it’s simply not a good way to start a relationship.
  • It is reasonable for an agency to require some protection for its IP in a pitch. But even if the agency is providing ideas or IP free of charge or for a nominal fee – respect this.
  • Don’t be an arsehole – treat agencies fairly because it’s right, but because you never know where people end up. Reputational damage can be real.

Openness, honesty, respect

Faced with this kind of advice, our clients will mostly do the right thing. But occasionally, it does happen that they want Agency A to work with Agency B’s idea.

When this happened recently (our client wasn’t trying to steal anything, they simply told us that this was their position and asked us how to deal with it), our advice was simple and correlates to Part 1 of this article; be open about it and offer to pay the losing agency a reasonable sum, calibrated to the value (not the cost) of the idea. Which, the client did.

Another thing we can run into, and again this happened recently, is where two agencies come up with pretty much the same idea in the same pitch. It happens more often than you may think, and in a way, it stands to reason – the same directional brief, a level playing field, not much time, not as much iteration as in the real world.

In these cases, the advertiser is well advised to be open with a losing agency about it and always retain all pitch documentation to validate, should the agency make a complaint.

Consultant or no consultant, advertisers should play their part

A reputable consultant will advise clients and agencies in the ways I’ve described above. But 70%+ of pitches are run without consultants, and some pitches may be run by consultants lacking integrity.

As I’ve said in Part 1 of this article, it falls to the agency to stand firm on protecting its pitch IP from being abused. But the advertiser can do so much just by taking an ethical stance and showing their own integrity in the way they run a pitch.

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