Why Agencies and Clients Should be Re-defining the Pitch Process
Pitching; everyone moans about it, but nobody ever really has a viable solution. The problem most agency’s face on a day-to-day basis is the lack of time and internal resource available to make pitching for new clients a successful endeavour. Typically when a brief comes to tender, we’ll have six weeks to come up with a pitch, for free, with limited research and a stack of immovable deadlines. Realistically, pitches never get the time and clarity of thinking they deserve. So what is the solution to this?
Many approach the problem fiscally; pay us for pitching so we can dedicate more time and people to it. However money isn’t the be-all and end-all to better business and with ever tightening budgets, why would clients start paying full price for agency time now? Some may say we’ve made our bed so we best get used to lying in it.
But isn’t our industry becoming ever more about partnerships – not only between agency and client but at all stages of the creative communication process from start to finish? If that’s the case then agencies and clients have not yet adapted to begin our working relationships in a way that supports such. We still seem to be pitching in the same way we did 50 years ago, when television commercials ruled the airwaves and mobile phones didn’t exist. An almost dystopian view of the world today.
Any business knows time is of the essence. We need to fail and learn fast, to move quickly and break things. How on earth then are agencies meant to comprehensively understand a brand and a business under the current pitch system?
Without a clear understanding of a brand (or mandate to truly test our theories in front of consumers), how are we meant to communicate effectively? I wouldn’t expect anyone after just six weeks of me having briefed them to come into Naked and tell me what my business is. I may think ‘OK… well that’s interesting’ but I would never think they could understand the nuance and complexity of my business or brand. How could they?
When agencies approach a business for pitch, of course we can do a dip-stick test as to what consumers are saying about their business. We can look at data, at the semantic web, but I would never be able to understand or know the fine detail of the issues and problems. Ultimately my view isn’t going to be as fully rounded as theirs, as I can only understand it from an outside perspective.
But what if brands were able to invest in time; perhaps, allowing agency creatives to come into the business for a week, understand the processes first hand and sit down with the top brass to get the real insights and issues you can’t see from evaluating data?
Pitching is supposed to be showing your agency’s smarts and how you work, but surely this is utterly artificial under such uniform test conditions. What we really need is to be doing is getting in a room with clients and their thorniest of problems. We need to be getting notepads out to sketch, innovate and test things, getting under the skin of why things are the way they are today - to start to understand what they really could be tomorrow, or the next day, or the next year. We’re never going to be a trusted advisor to our clients if we start the process appearing satisfied with only a fragment of information, or a spare 10 minutes of potential new client’s time, knowing we have six weeks to prove how many boxes we can tick. It simply doesn’t put strategic, creative thinking on an equal playing field. It forces us to all to try and act the same - which, of course, we’re not.
Do lawyers solve cases before the clients are on board, or do accountants balance books to show what they can do before they’re on the clock? No. Architects, maybe… But in advertising, we evangelise how important communications is to business, yet we approach it in the completely wrong way when building new relationships. We don’t get paid for the pitch process, we do let our IP go for free, and if we win the business we often offer discounts to maintain it. Feels odd to me.
At Naked, when we show clients our initial idea in an early pitch stage it’s ‘not for sale’. Some clients are baffled by this but you simply can’t create the ultimate convention challenging work in one attempt. This early pitch work is really just what we can create with a taster of their knowledge. It’s an expression of what something could look like if we were to work together but how can it be completely right if we don’t know all the facts?
Honesty is key. It’s what senior stakeholders want and why they pay for our services. If you’re honest at this stage then the client team can give you better feedback from the outset about what they do and don’t like. I want our clients to feel they can be critical in these initial sessions so that we can work out what they really want and need.
In an industry which is no longer allowed to make mistakes, failure should be celebrated. Why? Because we learn something from it and we endeavour not to make the same mistake twice. We should all be applying this in pitches. It’s not dissimilar to the difference between learning to pass your driving test and learning to drive. They’re completely different. The work done to win a pitch is never completed in the same way that subsequent work is once your client is on board.
If clients genuinely want a better business partnership with their agency they should be re-evaluating the way they begin business relationships. As discussed, it’s not about making money from pitches. Financial support would help but at the end of the day it’s about starting a collaboration and getting things off on the right foot. If you want to get a really good result from an agency then use them in a way they are best used.
I hope that in two years Naked won’t be pitching anymore. I want to be collaborating and understanding on a deeper level from the outset. I don’t think you get good work out of pitching. We need to be progressive about it. However, as much as we can change as an agency, we need our clients (and industry’s) approach to change with ours.
Nick is Head of New Business & Marketing, Europe at Naked and a member of the IPA New Business & Marketing Group