Advertising's antidote to the pitch

Paige Murphy
By Paige Murphy | 20 August 2019

To many pitching is the “lifeblood” of the advertising industry. To others it is adland’s “heroin”.

Mat Baxter’s “ditch the pitch” call has rallied support from many but others in the industry don’t see it as a realistic approach.

While few agencies are able to really give pitching the total flick, many are turning to alternative criteria to assist them with assessing whether or not they should pitch on certain accounts.

The traditional pitch format can be likened to speed dating – a client will never get to truly know an agency in that short period of time, and vice versa.

DDB Sydney managing director Priya Patel is one of a number of industry leaders who sees agency-client chemistry as the key to a successful partnership.

“Good human relationships are still the foundations of great agency/client partnerships and if you don’t start there, it will likely be an uphill slog,” Patel says.

With an oversupply of agencies for clients to choose from, Patel says there is plenty of “good information” a client can base their decision on, sans the extensive, multi-agency pitch.

“Clients can tell a lot about an agency from their work, the tenure and quality of their clients, and also from chatting to those clients directly,” she says.

“Crucially, spending time with the human beings that would partner with them on their business, and liking them, still seems to me a better formula for long-term success than the slightly artificial set of presentations that form the pitch process.”

Thinkerbell co-founder and chief thinker Adam Ferrier says he will say no to pitching when the client’s values don’t align with the agency or if the numbers don’t add up.

“There is no single term that will kill a deal it’s more of, to quote Dennis Denuto, ‘it's the vibe of the thing',” Ferrier says.

“If there are a number of factors that don't feel right - then we won’t pitch. Rarely is it ever one thing.”

Ferrier shares an experience where the pitch process has been positive though.

It all drilled down to seeing if the chemistry was right, not what work the agency could deliver.

“They’ve seen our work and know our business,” he says.

“We’re just hanging out together to see if we’d like working together or not. It's a completely deconstructed process and it seems to be working.”

For Harry Corsham, partner at Melbourne agency Town Square, the relationship goes two ways. Both parties need to be able to deliver and understand each other’s roles.

“It’s ok to say no when a client asks you to solve a long-term brand communications challenge in less time than it would take them to get a tradie to come round,” Corsham says.

“It’s ok to say no when the values of the client or the brand are values that the agency cannot support. If the agency team is not able to commit to the brand, the relationship is a non-starter and it’s better to recognise this up front.

“When a client asks for terms that demonstrate a complete lack of appreciation for the value of the work we do, you know the relationship is doomed.”

He reaffirms good work stems from good relationships. Something that the pitch process needs to consider as a priority.


Town Square partner Harry Corsham

AFFINITY co-founder and chief strategy officer Angela Smith has found working with clients on a smaller project has enabled the indie full-service agency to forge long-term relationships.

“We’re finding more of our clients are trialling us with a paid, discrete project before appointing us as their long-term strategic partner, avoiding the time, expense and uncertainty of a pitch altogether,” Smith says.

“The kind of marketers and businesses taking this approach seem to understand it’s about the measurable value a new agency partner can add, not about what they might save or what crazy ‘out of the box’ ideas you can magic up in three weeks.”

She says this approach has improved team morale and means more time spent invested in actually making magic happen for clients.

This has been a similar experience for fellow indie agency Taboo who “ditched the pitch” in favour of “quality over quantity” two years ago.

General manager Matilda Hobba calls out the “artificial” environment of a pitch for not being beneficial to an open, honest or trusting relationship.

Instead, she says the lack of collaboration ends up becoming “an expensive game of pin the tail on the donkey” where no party wins.

“We’re happy to present our credentials as part of a pitch process – but we don’t offer creative recommendations until we’re in a position to provide a genuine, informed solution,” Hobba explains.

“We treat any new business meeting as we would a date – and judge the compatibility of the relationship from both the client and agency perspective.”

Fighting FOMO
As Patel mentioned, there is an oversupply of agencies vying for comparative few clients.

Even if other agencies stand up to ditch the pitch, there will always be someone out there willing to pitch no matter the terms.

“Agencies are pressured for more wins, more clients and ultimately, more profit; so, FOMO – fear of missed opportunities – is a real issue for a marketplace already crowded and desperate for success,” VERSA managing director Jonny Clow says.

Clow believes “less can be more” when it comes to the optimum number of clients for an agency.

Siting some research out of the US, he says that the number should be between eight and 12 with three to five of those generating 50-60% of the revenue.

“Agencies need to look at their top 15 clients and see where the gaps are and choose wisely on which pitches they fully commit to invest in,” he says.

priya-patel-colour-headshot.pngDDB Sydney managing director Priya Patel

Spinach general manager and media director Ben Willee holds a similar less is more mindset, but he didn’t always.

“My whole career before coming to Spinach was with multinationals who invariably had the view ‘see dollar, chase dollar’,” Willee admits.

“In my first six months at Spinach we turned down more business than in the six years prior in my previous role. At the time I found this ‘business owners’ approach’ a challenging mindset.”

Referencing American academic Michael Porter, Willee states “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do”.

While he calls out pitches for being costly and time consuming, he also believes it’s easy for agencies to get caught up in the moment, convincing themselves this is the right account for them.

“So, before we pitch at Spinach, we have a healthy, pragmatic debate about the pros and cons,” he says.

“We confront our strength and weaknesses and there are many questions we ask ourselves.”

These questions can include: are we well suited to each other? Is the brief well thought through and does it make sense? What are the financial and contractual terms?

But Willee says the most important questions to answer is: what is the real reason for the pitch?

“If it’s a statutory review mandated by procurement and the client has a healthy relationship with the incumbent, that’s a big red flag,” he says.

“Other potential red flags are how many agencies have they ‘been through’ over the years, and how big, and what type of players, are making up the list. Turning down pitches can be more often than not plain and simple smart business.”

The rise in complex pitches with too many players, little chance of succeeding and hefty man hours are common experiences in adland at the moment.

Many agencies are calling for transparency from clients to know what the odds are about succeeding but don’t always much luck.

Wunderman Thompson Melbourne manging partner Michael Godwin believes clients owe it to agencies who are involved in the pitch to at least be transparent about the numbers.

“I don’t have any issue with a client constructing a robust and time-consuming process, within reason, but if they’re going to expect an agency to agree to participate, they need to be transparent in regard to the number of agencies shortlisted (ie. the odds of success) and the revenue they should expect to earn for the term of the contract (ie. the size of the prize),” Godwin says.

“Before asking an agency to invest in an onerous pitch process, the prospect is I believe obliged to ensure the agency is fully informed regarding the likelihood of success and the potential return on their investment.”

For Godwin, there are a number of terms that will kill a deal such refusing to pay for team members within the agency’s time and one-year contacts where there is not enough time to generate a reasonable return.

Indie agency Hardhat owner and director of strategy Dan Monheit says his team had been pursuing a prospective client for the last 12 months but ended up walking away from a pitch upon finding out how many other agencies were involved.

“On a Thursday morning the long-awaited email finally came through, inviting us to participate in a process to partner with the brand on its largest comms initiative to date,” Monheit says.

“Cue excited high fives. Our excitement quickly turned to dread, when we read that a dozen other agencies had been BCC’d into the very same email. A dozen!

“While I appreciate the client being upfront about it, the opportunity just no longer stacked up. At best we’d have been a one in six chance, and the deal just wasn’t big enough to justify the effort we thought we’d need to put in to win it.”

Monheit believes the growing competition is partially a result from the increase in cross-disciplinary comms and new players like consultancies but also reflects on how things are on the client’s end.

“Today, we regularly find ourselves up against traditional creative agencies, PR firms, consultancies, content specialists and pure play digital shops - sometimes all at the same time,” Monheit says.

“Without a doubt, some of this is a result of how much we’ve changed as an agency, but I think it also hints at how murky and confusing things have become for clients.”

Money, money, money
At the end of the day, the financials – unless, of course it is pro-bono work – are huge driver for determining whether the match will work.

More often than not, it gets to the end of the date and there is that awkward pause to see who it is that will foot the bill.

With a growing number of briefs out on the table, The Works managing partner Tom Harber says he has noticed the average value for the work heading in the opposite direction.

Project work has been on the rise for some time but Harber says often the pitches for this work require just as much time and effort as one for a retainer would.

“Alarmingly, after some analysis over the past three financial years, we found the number of pitches increased by almost 100% year-on-year which was largely driven by project-based pitches,” Harber says.

“Yet the brief and requirements remain the same.”

The Works has walked from a few pitches recently and almost always for the same reason.

“It’s when the value of the engagement simply doesn’t match up with the effort required to pitch and they have typically been one-off engagements versus long-term partnerships,” Harber says.

At the end of the day, he believes it is the commercial negotiations that will kill the deal between agency and client.


The Works managing partner Tom Harber

Payment terms are a deal breaker for most with many agency leaders saying they’re prepared to pull out when terms reach 90 days or more.

Some clients, like Optus, are now paying those who they invite to pitch following backlash for inviting too many players to the game and taking up substantial amounts of their time.

Patel believes remuneration is one way to make the process better but at the end of the day relationships trump unrealistic pitch conditions for clients seeking long-term partnerships.

“Remunerating agencies fairly to pitch might yield better results and stop unnecessary churn. I am an advocate for agency/clients to really try and fix their relationship before defaulting to a pitch,” she says.

“I believe paying a decent amount upfront is a fairer way for clients to claim any agency IP. There is nothing worse for agencies than losing a pitch and having the ideas used anyway - which unfortunately does happen!”

Clow agrees with Patel. He believes remuneration leads to fairer process for both parties and results in a stronger output.

“I’ve asked before and most [clients] will accept if you present the argument correctly,” he says.

“Rather than pitch six agencies - pick three to four you believe can exceed your expectations and pay them for their dedication to the pitch process.”

Ferrier’s tip?

“Try not to pitch. Try to find ways to work together instead.”

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