Want to Pitch?

What a weird business we’re in. On the one hand we talk a lot about the need for consistency in relationships, about the need to truly understand the client’s business, about the importance of our work being acknowledged and respected in the advertiser’s Boardroom. And on the other we celebrate pitches as if we were involved in a sporting event (we even delight in publishing new business league tables).

I’ve felt for years that there are far too many pitches.

There are times, for sure when a pitch is inevitable. When the agency has failed to deliver on its set goals. When despite a mass of internal team shuffling the agency has simply run out of ideas. When the client has been given good reason not to trust how the agency is behaving. When the business has outstanding issues that have entirely changed the requirement the client has from its agency relationship.

There are other times when there is absolutely no need to pitch. First among those is: ‘We are sure we can get it cheaper elsewhere.’ Yes, you can. And the overwhelming odds are that you’ll pay for it eventually.

Second is: ‘We fancy a change’. So talk to the agency about a change of team.

Third is: ‘We insist on a regular review with all our suppliers’. What, including management consultancies? Corporate lawyers? Accountants? It’s a terrible thing but advertising partners are far too often bracketed alongside cleaners, security suppliers and taxi firms as interchangeable commodities.

Fourth is: ‘My brother-in-law runs an agency and I promised him a stab at the business’ (yes it happens, although I grant you the words used when I came across this were a little more dressed up).

Let’s be clear there are many excellent procurement heads (and consultants) who do indeed understand the difference between price and value; but there are an awful lot who don’t.

I’m certainly not alone in having dissuaded more than one client from pitching his business.

There was the time when, in our first meeting, when I asked why the client wanted to go to all the time and trouble of a pitch the best he could do was to describe the incumbent agency as ‘rubbish’.

This was simply untrue (they had many satisfied clients, a mantel-piece groaning with awards, and a strong reputation within the industry). The team on the business might not be optimal, but that’s a different thing, with a different desired outcome.

Second, I had to wonder how come the client had changed agencies so many times? They were literally running out of agencies without a competitor who might be prepared to go through all that rigmarole.

Third because it was pretty clear at that first meeting (and was subsequently confirmed) that the problem with the quality of the work being delivered lay with the client and some truly awful internal processes, not the agency.

Sadly far too many agencies feel unable to raise these issues honestly and openly with their client – until it’s too late and they’re in a pitch, which, with these sorts of issues hanging over them they have literally zero chance of winning (and that’s another thing – why invite an incumbent to pitch if you’ve already decided they won’t win?).

It’s very rare in my experience for any advertiser to work out the cost to the business of all those meetings, all that time spent bringing the new agency up to speed, all the legal fees, let alone the hidden costs of not spending the time on the day job.

My one-time client Kellogg’s always used to hand every new brand manager a booklet, outlining the believes and behaviours expected of an employee. The first sentence, if I remember was something like: ‘It is not your job to change the advertising agency; it is your job to get the most from the agency.’

Yes, pitches are fun; it’s flattering to be welcomed by all those people wanting your business. But are they really worth it to the long-term health of the business?

Agencies too always say they live for pitches. They do their best work under the adrenaline-fueled pressure – it’s the one time when they truly bring all disciplines together in an integrated common quest.

Well-run pitches are an outstanding experience for everyone concerned, but not all pitches are well run. Not all pitches are fair. Not all pitches are necessary. Not all pitches produce a true winner.

There’s a cycle. Pitch the business. Win the business. Get over the initial excitement of winning the business. Work out that you can’t make money on the business. Reduce the servicing on the business. Miss your targets on the business. Pitch the business.

We should celebrate long lasting relationships more, and pitches less.

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