Inside OMD: To pitch or not to pitch?

Aimee Buchanan, MD OMD Sydney
By Aimee Buchanan, MD OMD Sydney | 30 April 2015
Aimee Buchanan

Pitching is a massive part of what we do as agencies. The thrill of the chase, getting under the skin of a new category, and putting your agency out there is all a part of the magic; and why so many of us love working in agencies. But there is another side to pitching and one that has never been more pertinent; that is the blood, sweat and tears that agencies put into wooing a new client.

Clients go to pitch because they are not happy with the service, the people on their account, the output that they are getting, or more frustratingly to test the market on their value equation (AKA can they get more for less). Their existing agencies (and all the rest on the panel) throw everything at how to demonstrate they are the right partner for the job. This often involves hundreds of hours from the client themselves, their existing agency partner, and the contending agencies.

The question I continue to ask myself is how often do clients give their existing agency a chance to prove that they are right before the hit the pitch button? Would we all be better off if more clients sat down and gave their existing agency the brief of what they were looking for and a chance to deliver, before going to market? It would allow clients to know if their agency was up for the challenge, and if they could reinvent themselves for their changing requirements, and it would allow the agency to focus on building the right solution for their client. Smart consultancies understand this and drive exceptional value and knowledge conservation for their clients.

Over the past four years, we have been fortunate that a few of our clients have given us the opportunity to reinvent. Rather than go out to a ‘beauty pageant’ of glitter and often false promises, they had the courtesy to come to us and tell us our current offering needed work to take them in the future direction that their business was going. They wanted to know that as a business we had the goods, the capability and commitment to reinvent our proposition for them. We were able to do this and have seen these relationships grow from strength to strength. If these clients had gone to pitch, ‘to see what else was out there’, we would have wasted a lot of time on theatre that was instead spent directly on adding value to their business.

Clients often brief us on wanting a partnership in these pitch tenders. A partnership means having the courage and honesty to tell your agency what you want and giving them the chance to show they have what it takes. Before you shop around - give your current agency a chance to prove that they have what it takes. This could save you a lot of time, and your agency will appreciate your honesty and more than likely be very keen to deliver. They will be focused on what matters (the work that drives the business forward) and you will have saved many other agencies a lot of pain and suffering. Moreover, your refined team will be more emotionally vested than ever in paying back the faith you have shown in them.

The work that goes into these pitches has been written about (and complained about) a lot. It involves hundreds of hours across multiple stages and many months. It sees agency folk regularly burning the midnight oil. The incumbent needs to balance out keeping the ship sailing, while they reinvent themselves for what their client needs and wants.

Going to pitch should be the last resort, not the starting point. All too often it appears that the pitch road is the easy road, which is taken without the honest and open conversations had. The illusion of an easy path is soon exposed however, once the client weighs up the disruption of a pitch, the potential of loss of talent and knowledge, and the work involved in an agency transition.
The flipside is that us agencies are often too keen to jump on the pitching bandwagon, and can’t say no to the temptation. A few years ago we had fallen into the sticky trap of pitching for everything. We had lost a big client the year before and we were focused on filling the gap that it had left.

Our response was to go after everything. We pitched 57 times that year, and as result we had lost our focus on the agency, our culture and our people. Our people were tired and we were all wearing thin. The thrill of the chase had lost its allure. We took some time out as an executive team to work through what was next for the agency, and we held focus groups on the issues and what we needed to do. One memorable staff member described us as Labradors. While I am very fond of the golden hound, the description the followed wasn’t about us being kind, endearing, loyal or boundlessly friendly. It was that we would eat anything. A painful comparison!

We took stock of the business, turned our focus inwards to our people and existing clients and starting being more selective about what we pitched for. This has meant some tough calls, for example walking away from a great beer brand because it would have broken our people, and jeopardised the quality of work we could have delivered across the business. Explaining why we didn’t put our hands up for one of the biggest pitches in 2013 took some guts to explain to our global overseers, but it was the right choice. These choices meant we could focus on rebuilding our culture, on deepening our relationships with our existing clients and focusing on a few pitches that we thought were good fits for us; clients that would stretch us into new directions, which were good cultural fits, and that appeared to be looking for a real partner.

Having always worked in agency, I think I had become immune and blind to the incredible amount work that goes into these pitches. Last year, working through three or four major pitches, I was reminded of this by one of my staff, who had always worked client side and had joined us quite recently. They had sat through many tenders from a client perspective, but this was her first experience working on it from the other side and she was astounded. At the end of a long few weeks, she turned to me and said “If I had known how much work went into them!! As a client you know that the agency works hard, but you rock up on the day and it goes smoothly over a couple of hours.” This hit a chord with me, it reinforced that we do throw so much energy into these moments and only a glimpse ever gets seen.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a plea for clients never to pitch. Without it we would struggle to grow. As I said upfront pitching is one the great parts of working in an agency, and some clients get it right. We had the great pleasure of working on two well-oiled pitches last year, that stretched us and grew us an agency. We will put out hands up again and again for these types of opportunities - as win or lose they make us better, better as an agency and better for our existing clients. This is more a request from a committed agency person to first give your agency honest feedback, a good crack at working through what you need, and a chance to prove that they are or are not the right partner for you. Not for sentimental reasons or inertia, but for the best outcome for your business.

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