03 July 2010

FOUR POINTS: Heck No, We Won't Pitch!


Hilton Barbour

I am a sucker for a good manifesto. Who isn't? It worked for Lenin at the Finland Station, and it convinced a ragtag bunch of smelly Frenchmen to storm the Bastille. You could say the right manifesto, at the right time, can change history.

A friend shared this particular manifesto with me recently. I didn't automatically reach for my pitchfolk, but it did give me cause to reflect.

Blair Enns has been running his Win Without Pitching consultancy for almost a decade -- and making a tidy pile by all accounts -- so he's definitely on to something. Blair believes, and I agree, that pitching is often more harmful than good. That building a specialization, a zeal for continuous learning and a pragmatic, grown-up attitude to remuneration will set certain agencies apart.

So why is it that the entire idea of pitching is the one subject that rankles most? Recently the entire Belgian advertising industry banded together to enact a week-long boycott against client pitching practices, which they condemned as reckless and fickle. I must admit I was impressed by the unity they showed, but haven't seen evidence that the exercise did any more than get some added press for the agencies involved.

Like it or not, pitches are part of the fabric of the advertising industry. Or are they?


Clients say it's to get fresh thinking and insight on their strategy. That's valid. Sometimes it's a smokescreen to get 'free' thinking or to give the incumbent a kick up the posterior. That's BS. Some cover a portion of agency pitch time (good) while others don't (cheap). Some are genuinely looking for agencies that they want to build a healthy, respectful peer-to-peer relationship with, and will act accordingly. That's Nirvana and, like the five-leafed clover, they have been known to exist in nature.


Agencies will throw themselves into them, or not. I've walked away from pitches where you just knew a tsunami of pain lay in wait. But there have been other pitches more akin to BP's Deep Horizon -- capitalized all our resources, created sleepless nights and unbearable tension, and only succeeded in spreading toxic excrement everywhere.

So why, for the love of God and small children, does this charade continue?

The recession? Sure. Deperate times call for desperate measures. Every client needs to squeeze every last ounce of efficiency and fresh thinking out of their agencies, or find one willing to do the job for less that the incumbent. Every agency, especially those in global networks with scary bunches of shareholders, needs to show how they are going to get that elusive 15% annualized growth. I get it. I don't applaud it, but I get it.

Why is it that both agencies and clients can't move to a framework where common sense and business acuman prevail:

1. Do your research. Which are the agencies doing strong work that results in quantifiable results? Which are acknowledged masters in your sector? Start there.

2. Chemistry. Meet these guys, find out if you really like them. Our work can be bloody stressful, so wouldn't you rather be surrounded by people you get on with?

3. Stop the beauty pageant. Asking for strategy and creative from 15 agencies? You're having a laugh. That's merely a sign of laziness, or worse, arrogance on the client's side. You'll waste less of your own and your agencies' time if you pick just 4 who meet the criteria above.

4. Be quick in making a decision. Elephants have shorter gestation periods than some pitches. Repitching erodes goodwill (and the will to live) and starts everyone off with a pissy attitude. Stop it. Make your choices, make them quickly and then let the losers get back to more profitable things.

For agencies, the advice is probably similar: Grow a pair. You know if you're getting messed around. Your agency reputation, staff morale and personal integrity have to be worth more than any pitch. And if you think you're going to change how you're treated after you win the business, you're too naive to have the job you do.

POINT: Kuala Lumpur

Joy Abdullah

The malaise of pitching afflicts the advbertising industry all over. KL is no different. In fact, given the industry size, there is a paucity of large-spencing clients which makes it a buyers' market: the clients call in all agencies, accredited or not. Some of the big agencies (nowadays) refuse to pitch without the pitching fee. To which clients pay the 3 or 4 top level agencies, call in other smaller ones, and have, at any point in time, a total of 8-10 agencies pitching for business that's worth approximately US$300,000 (in annualised billings)!

Pitching is expected and done in order to keep the agencies' lifeblood (revenue) flowing. Even on established contracts, clients call in others to pitch for sub-brands and in some cases for different communication channels.

So the million-dollar question is, can a service business succeed without pitching?


New business can be generated provided the creative services industry is willing to change. For change comes about if one believes it can be done and goes out to better oneself. Change to group together as an industry and have, for starters, one standard financial term.

Let's look at the business model differently. Take a leaf out of the books of the big management consulting firms and we'd note that most of the twelve proclamations in Blair Enns' manifesto are what make up their business models. They command respect and are sought after by the corporate and public sector for their specialized services.

So specialize, develpop conversations with prospects and current clients, present and discuss simplistically (be basic), listen to cliewnts' needs, have self-value and ask for the appropriate financial remuneration upfront. All of these will enable a company to develop a strong pull for its services.

At the end of the day it goes back to the fundamental ethics of benefitting the other person in order to benefit oneself i.e. when you help someone benefit, he/she develops trust in you and trust is a MUST in ensuring sustainable and profitable business.

POINT: Texas

Ben Gaddis

Mr Enns' manifesto is inspirational, aggressive and in my mind, a bit aspirational. As agency folks we know pitching is not ideal but in most cases a necessary evil. In my humble opinion, our aversion to pitching has less to do wih protecting the quality and integrity of our work and everything to do with resources.

Most agencies are fully tapped resource-wise and pitches constantly threaten to be the straw that breaks the preverbial camel's back. Yet some of the best work I've seen comes out of competitive pitches because they force us to be instinctive, react quickly and in the end, go with our gut. What are we to do then? Don't stop pitching. Pitch less.

My belief is mot agencies should pitch 1/2 to 1/3 of the business they currently do. Then in turn, focus those saved resources on proactive business development. Here are a few criteria to help determine when NOT to pitch:

No Access
Great creative solutions are built on the understanding of a business problem. You can't deliver those solutions without a true understanding of a client's business inside and out. If a potential client doesn't allow for an hour's Q&A session with the decision-makers, it's probably not worth participating, even at the RFI stage. If they're not willing to put in that short amount of time, chances are you're not the front-runner, it's a cattle call, or they're not looking for a true partner.

How many times have you heard, "we don't really have a set budget, so we were just hoping that you could tell us what this would cost?" Wrong. Every client has a budget in mind, and typically the ones that have enough money to accomplish what they have laid out in the RFP are happy to share. No budget, no pitch.

Three's Company
I hate giving away creative as much as Mr Enns, but clients buy ideas and they want to see them before they do. However, giving them away is not the answer. Don't provide creative if there are more than three agencies, At that point, hypothetically, you have a 33% chance of winning. Knowing the budget and having met the decision-makers should allow you to reasonably determine whether to gamble on spec creative.

Sidebar: Since we've employed the system, every pitch we've participated in had less than three agencies in the final round. And one didn't even ask for creative. Maybe clients are catching on.

Although they seem simple, when combined with a commonsense new business filter, these criteria will typically reduce the number of pitches an agency participates in. We have cut the number of pitches by almost 1/2 and it's been remarkable.

What now? Here'a a thought. Take the resources you've saved and direct half their time towards proactively pitching target accounts you know you want to work with. Direct the other half of their time proactively solving your existing clients' problems, outside of what the dedicated teams are working on. My money, and experience, says those efforts will pay off twice to three times as much.

POINT: Singapore

David Shaw

In my previous lives, I was an advertising copywriter, then a client marketer. Both gigs gave me the unique privilege of experiencing the thrill of the hunt, as well as the chill of realizing that yanking my account away from an incumbent agency probably meant someone's ricebowl would be shattered, someone's head would roll.

You quickly learn to be responsible once you recognize the ripples of your actions.

So do I denouce the whole notion of pitching? Perhaps surprisingly, not entirely. As an agency creative director, I could see the value of putting the agency through its paces -- much like office towers conduct fire drills -- to see if protocols are in place and everyone knows their part. It's good to stress-test agency assets once in a while; it keeps folks sharp, and can enliven a slow month. But that's the operative phrase ... "once in a while".

You don't see fire drills conducted at your office every week now, do you? Yet that's what heaps of agencies do ... piching anything that moves. Like the inveterate gambler who walks into a casino knowing the odds stacked against him, agencies push their luck, hoping to strike paydirt. But even if they do, the rewards can be fleeting. Look at what's happened with Enfatico and their Dell jackpot.

It gets better. FMCG giant Reckitt Benckiser this week rocked India's ad industry by requiring agencies to pay for the privilege of pitching its local media account. Up to 10 media agencies have banded together to boycott the exercise, declining to fork out the US$10,000 pitch fee. ZenithOptimedia is one of only a few multinational agencies thought to still be in conversations with the client.

So what's an agency to do? My FOUR POINTS pals have served up some pragmatic advice, so I won't play the broken record, other than to commend British agency BBH for turning their philosophy of never doing a creative pith into a competitive advantage. Mind you, it was a competitive disadvantage for 5-10 years before they turned the corner -- but a principle isn't a principle unless it costs you something.

We should all be so ballsy.

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