How agency optimism can get in the way of a successful pitch

Don’t get me wrong, I’m an unashamed optimist. I’m even optimistic enough to believe that optimism has a bright future.

I fundamentally believe in people, and in their ability to do amazing things. You can’t consult or facilitate for very long unless you think like this.

And obviously, working alongside marketing and communications people I’m not exactly Robinson Crusoe in this way of looking at things. Most of us are at least a bit like it. It’s what makes our industry what it is.

However, even I have my limits.

Because the way I see it, on the one hand there’s ambition, creativity and entrepreneurship expressed as optimism. And on the other hand, there’s blind faith, desperation and greed masquerading as optimism. The first is to be respected and encouraged. And the other – well…

Round pegs in square holes

A recent example. We ran a pitch process agency for a successful upmarket brand earlier this year – the kind of brand that most agency people would love to have not just on their client list but also in their home. The client brief was, as usual, very specific and tight, and required a forensic approach from us to put together an acceptable shortlist. So far, so good. But then the trade press got hold of the story, and the floodgates opened.

Suddenly it seemed everyone in town was on the phone railing and weeping that they hadn’t been considered for this prize account that was variously ‘just perfect for our agency’, or ‘right up our street’ or ‘the kind of account we’d kill for’ or any other predictable combination of hungry superlatives.

No matter that the client brief called for a top thirty agency with proven creative resources, and that many of the agencies calling were two or three-person shops. No problem! ‘We can staff up’ we were told.

No matter that the client brief called for specific category experience and a proven track record for the agency across very specific media. No worries! ‘We’re all really passionate people here. We can make it work!’ we were assured.

Except we weren’t assured, of course. Because we weren’t convinced of the need to persuade the client – who was in a hurry and under extreme commercial pressure – to turn away from half a dozen prime candidate agencies at the top of their game and instead to include two or three tiny, unproven, currently unsuitable agencies, who had promised to go on a hiring spree when they won the account and learn their craft on the client’s dime.

The Knight or the Knave?

Recently there have been a number of account management people who have been a little too full of their own self importance. Especially when it comes to pitches. And more specifically their ability to be the key ingredient in the pitch to land the account and make the agency CEO into a King.

But you see, this Knight was actually a Knave as he was championing himself around the various agencies on the pitch list. (Another good reason not to release the pitch list to the trade press or even the contenders.) He was adamant that he and his close relationship with not only the marketing team, but also the company CEO, would guarantee success for the agency that secured his services. A bidding war commenced and his price went up.

The problem was that so confident were the agency CEOs that of the five invited agencies, four proudly and confidently announced the they were about the secure the services of this account management charlatan. Of course, on hearing the marketing director warn them that one person alone would not secure this business, but a team, his stocks plummeted.

Too little too late

Or another example. We were helping an FMCG brand to align the capabilities of its marketing team and agency roster to its new retail strategy – the kind of tough challenge many FMCG advertisers face at the moment. The recommendation included, amongst other things, adding a specialist shopper agency to the roster.

A day after this recommendation was shared with the client, two of the incumbent agencies called to say that – coincidentally – they were ‘just about to hire someone to do that kind of thing’ and that the client would be ‘mad to go to another agency when we have all that and more here’. When asked who it was they were hiring, they couldn’t say. When asked what, exactly, ‘that kind of thing’ was, they mumbled something about point of sale and promotions.  You can guess where the conversation went after that.

So much more client respect gets given to the agencies who are honest enough to say ‘that’s not a job for us’. Or to the agencies that collaborate openly with the rest of the roster, recognizing the expertise around the table without trying to steal everybody else’s lunch. There are plenty of these kinds of agencies around. They tend to get hired a lot.

It’s that kind of optimism every client wants in an agency partner. And isn’t that what we were all after in the first place?

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “How agency optimism can get in the way of a successful pitch

  1. Hi Nathan, great post. It reminds me of a review we held a few years ago now for a major national brand. We had undertaken the market search and had six agencies, all major players, as the client requirement would be that the agency would provide between 40 and 50 people to work on the account (it was huge). The story of the pitch leaked to the trade press and in the space of five days I was fielding calls from agencies wanted to get on the pitch. My favourite was from a small agency of three people in regional NSW. The owner of the agency wondered why they were not considered as they had done work for this client on a local basis. When I told him he would need to staff up to 40 or 50 people (16 times the size they were now) and open on office in Sydney to service the business, he replied matter-of-factly "I can do that!".

  2. Loved reading your post Nathan, even though I’ve had nothing to do with advertising agencies since the turn of the century.

    Interesting look at optimism. It hits the nail on the head of the worst prejudices (and unfortunately experiences) one has had of the advertising and marketing industry.

    Isn’t it a joke in itself that anyone could view promising what you can’t give as a form of optimism?! But I agree with you that it happens.

    And yes, the difference between (excuse my French) BS optimism and true optimism is that the real optimism creates circumstances in which real success can and will appear.

    OF COURSE that includes managing expectations and building relationships of respect and trust. And of course it includes anticipating possible problems in order to be able to handle them more effectively.

    There is a saying in Holland … “There’s nothing as durable as honesty”
    Fun to meet you like this!
    Yours, Julia

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