Now’s the time to save the advertising industry

Nicole Gardner
By Nicole Gardner | 4 May 2020

Nicole Gardner is executive director – account management at Edge.

2020 is set to be a tough year for most creative and media agencies unless you are one of the fortunate few who have been bolstered by increased activity from government, financial institutions, tech clients or supermarket chains. Like the coronavirus itself, the impact has been a ‘leveller’ with agencies large and small, network and independent, all being equally exposed. Overnight drops in activity have slashed revenue, resulting in pay cuts and stand downs across the board.

In the thick of it, it may seem premature to start planning agency life post pandemic. But across all sectors of society, the conversations are turning to how this experience has given us the opportunity to reshape how we work, travel, connect and live in the future.

So maybe now is the perfect time for the advertising industry to address some fundamental issues such as the pitch process, resource cost to collaborate with multiple partners and the value of a big idea. Perhaps this is the pandemic we had to have in order to truly disrupt how our industry works?

The advertising business model has long been challenged. The cost of resources required to deliver effective, integrated campaigns generally exceeds the fees clients are prepared to pay. Burnout across the industry is rife and the added pressure pitching puts on resources, both human and financial, is huge.

Procurement demand for ‘transparency’ on salaries, overheads and profit has minimised margins. When agencies do make money, it’s largely the outcome of long-term relationships where the agency team understands the business, the brand and the marketing team. There’s a strong relationship built on trust, honesty and mutual respect that leads to efficiency and creativity.

But advertisers are more promiscuous than ever before, with more project-based relationships. This means more pitching, more often, at a huge expense to the bottom line. Even where there are rostered agencies whose performance is proven, there’s a trend to pit one against another to secure the next project at the best price.

So why don’t we use this moment in time to redefine some of the challenges starting with pitch protocol?

Collectively, agencies could agree to deliver credentials, chemistry sessions and proposal outlines. In return, clients could pledge to be upfront in terms of the size of the prize, disclose the number of agencies pitching and test a new agency partner with smaller, real briefs where the work is executed and paid for within normal conditions.

Perhaps there are also more inventive ways to ensure the ‘fit’ feels right between agency and client, such as time spent in each other’s offices? Or if demonstrating strategic prowess and creativity is a must, one day hot houses or hackathons could be the better alternatives.

If Australians can all agree to social distancing, staying at home and foregoing any type of travel for the health of the nation, is it too much to expect the Australian advertising industry to band together and forge a code of conduct for pitching? Don’t we all want a more economically viable way to win business?

There will always be a need for new business pitches. But so many other industries have found ways to do this without actually doing all of the work, unpaid. Now’s the time to learn from them and forge a better way.

With so much discussion around the opportunities this crisis will give us to reshape our society, we owe it to ourselves to challenge the pre-pandemic status quo. Maybe, just maybe, it could be the turning point that safeguards the future of our industry.

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