Pitching was always a lousy way to allocate your business. Secondly, agency finances are likely going to be very different after the lockdowns and inflationary pressures for a considerable time. So will pitching survive?
Don’t resuscitate the pitch
We may have all heard by now that 30% of businesses aren’t predicted to survive the Covid lockdowns, or future ones. That’s a scary thought already, but now that global central banks are normalising interest rates after fourteen years at the lowest levels in five thousand years of human economic activity, what is that going to do the economies and asset bubbles around the world?
Given upward wage pressures, difficult borrowing conditions and paper thin profit margins, I doubt agencies are going to want to spend $100k or more of their own money pitching for your business in this tough economic environment. If my hunch is correct, that’s actually great news for your business and great news for agencies too. Some of you will already agree but in any case I’ll explain why.
Behind the curtain
Firstly, don’t listen to what any agency might tell you about their pitch process – if you could peek behind the scenes during the two or three-week pitch process, you’d likely see little more than organised shambles. I’ve experienced pitches in agencies large and small in three countries and it’s almost always been a super stressful joyless omni-shambles, stumbling from point A to D and back again. On rare occasions they go smoothly, and sometimes we even strike it lucky and win.
Right strategy and creative, wrong pitch
As the agency tries to lock down a presentation, exhaustion and desperation during the final days often forces them to settle on a skewed strategy and creative. The idea being that something is better than nothing, and who knows, a catchy sounding proposition might just win it. But how often have we seen a creative idea win a pitch, only to see it discarded once the business is allocated and a new brief put into the agency? And once a client has awarded their business, they can suffer a degree of buyer’s remorse, hoping they’ve made the right choice of agency. Sound familiar? But surely the pitch process was intended to create certainty.
Break the process, not the agency
The pitch process is often damaging economically and spiritually for agencies, who spend tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money on the pitch and exhaust their staff mentally and physically in the process. You might think that none of this is your concern, but do you want to start off the relationship this way, knowing that just to win your business the agency had to partially break themselves? Agencies will also look for ways to claw back the money they spent on the pitch from your retainer.
Pitches also take resources away from servicing the agency’s other clients. No big deal you might say, but you’ll be on the receiving end of that resource drain one day (if you haven’t already) when your agency is pitching for someone else’s business. Most clients would be furious if they knew how much time and human resources are diverted away from their business and onto the pitch during this time.
Also, how do we know that the problem the client has outlined for the pitch is the right one to solve, or that they have defined it correctly? The selected agencies can often be working to an incomplete perspective or analysis of the business issue, as clients may have viewed the problem through a lens blurred with their own subjectivity. Only ongoing conversation and robust analysis unconstrained by a two-week pitch period can resolve this.
Why do we still expect that this hellish process will lead to the very best strategy and idea for your business? It’s not as if it’s the only strategy and idea the agencies could come up with, so why think that the pitch is the only way of delivering the right one at that time? Most of us don’t, but we still persist.
Some people feel that relationships aren’t important, but personally I’ve always found you’ve got to like the people you work with. Beyond that, the most critical area to focus on is expertise and this is the crux of my point. Do the agencies have the right skills and experience to service your business? You don’t find this out from a pitch presentation which primarily focuses on strategy and creative.
Sure you’ll be supplied a creds presentation too. But wouldn’t you rather talk directly to those people in a relaxed atmosphere to really find out what they know and how they can apply that knowledge to your business? Just keep talking until you feel satisfied.
I think it’s also time to ditch the awkward ‘Chemistry meeting'. This is a cringeworthy term and false construct created by adland in response to the feeling that we should really be having ongoing conversations about our offering and expertise. Instead we go on blind dates.
Analyse your product or service
Is your product or service offering up to date and correct for the market? Consider deploying customer experience analysis before you search for a marketing strategy. Often new innovations in this area create the fuel for your future marketing campaigns.
Banking is a perfect example. Most banks have little to differentiate them apart from customer service, and it’s a constant arms race. Sure, they have to put up posters saying that their interest rates are better than someone else’s, but what difference is there between 3.1% and 3% unless you have a billion dollars in the bank. The only difference is often customer experience and customer service innovations, which banks can and should develop then promote in marketing. You can too.
Conversations, not pitch presentations.
It’s only through conversation that you can determine if you and the agency would be well served by working together and it’s a much better process. Don’t be swayed by agencies who are addicted to the rush and validation of the pitch. Don’t accept any work from any agency who offers free ideas to try and dazzle you. They’ll want to lay out their jewels on a carpet in front you which sparkle and shine, but stick to your guns and your conversations.
How to allocate your business going forward
You need to have conversations with prospective agencies, not pitch presentations. Start the process of re-allocating your business earlier and give the selected agencies time to properly analyse the brief. That way they can come back to you with more insightful questions and perhaps a better framing of your business challenge. You’ll also get a better sense of whose thinking process is the correct fit for you and your business earlier in the process.
The best outcome of this process is that you will find a much better suited agency partner for your business – which in turn means moving your business to a new agency less often, and avoiding the disruption, expense and paperwork nightmare that goes with it. Force this approach on us. Agencies will be grateful too – they’ll win or lose just the same amount of business as before but without breaking themselves, and you may just be able to change the industry once and for all.
Many years ago I concluded the pitch process was ludicrous, but I still owe credits and extracts to Blair Enns’ book ‘Win Without Pitching Manifesto’ for galvanising my thoughts.