After more than two decades of the highs and lows of leading creative agency pitches, I've now had the privilege of seeing the process from the other side as an intermediary. It has been pretty eye-opening to say the least, and a lot of new-business folklore is exactly that.
Myth #1: "Clients don't really know many agencies, or know much about agencies"
Sitting with clients and openly discussing agencies with a view to drawing up a long-list exposed this oft-peddled myth. They can't wait to talk about agencies (and agency people too), clients love a gossip—they're only human.
Clients have their own stories, tales from other clients, anecdotes from their friends and partners (plenty of which will also be from agencies). "Oh, that agency is known for being creatively difficult"; "They're hard to work with"; "It's an old boys' club"; and "They're well known for fielding a founder at the pitch and then fucking off and never being seen again".
Just imagine how much these opinions can influence decisions on an agency pitch list. Your famous creative work and track record will get you on many CMO radars, but your agency brand reputation is just as important.
So, if you're wondering why you didn't make it on to many long-lists this year, you might want to dig into your reputation. I'm not talking about the net promoter score (NPS) from your existing clients—you've got bigger problems if that's low—but what does the industry say about what you're like to work with and for?
Myth #2: "It's all about the client-agency chemistry at the chemistry meeting"
I hate the chemistry meeting nametag—it's a misnomer—because it's really about business fit, and that is a very different thing. And before the client is even thinking about their chemistry with you, they are first and foremost concerned with your agency culture, your team and your own chemistry. Do you gel, are you a balanced team, what's the quality of key individuals in each key discipline?
I've loved seeing brilliant agencies at their best—but I haven't enjoyed watching agencies commit harakiri at chemistry stage: senior team members just not having done their research, an overly dominant and controlling CEO, the headstrong creative not reading the room, unapplied and irrelevant case studies, trading too much off past glories, try-too-hard icebreakers, or simply talking too much and not having any or enough thoughtful or searching questions... The list goes on.
The bottom line is that if you haven't got the time to rigorously prepare together as a team, you probably shouldn't bother.
Myth #3: "Even if there's an agency or two out in front, you can still turn it around and win from behind"
I have one thing to say on that—"not in a month of Sundays." An intermediary might well tell you that to keep you in the game. They shouldn't. It's no bad thing to have a straight two-way fight if there's only two genuine contenders. Find out where you are at each step along the way, question the intermediary thoroughly, decode the language, and be honest with yourselves about where you are. It's never too late to pull out. Save yourself the time, the financial and emotional cost of a full end-to-end pitch when there's virtually no chance of winning.
Myth #4: "The agency that wants it the most wins"
As an agency CEO, this myth was convincingly sold to me. Now, as a poacher turned gamekeeper, I've seen the agencies that "want it the most" lose out from the outset, during the process, and at the finale.
I've seen the agency with the best RFI, by quite a long way, not make the shortlist—something in there spooked the client. At "chemistry", hunger can some across as desperation, and I've seen passion cloud judgement. Overthinking the strategy can lead to complication. Too much work at "tissue" is just confusing. And no amount of hunger can solve an underlying issue with the pitch team: any imbalance, or a weak link, or lack of cohesion, and the client can smell it.
There is only one magic ingredient, and you can't manufacture it—the quality, charisma and camaraderie of the senior pitch team. Agencies either have it or they don't—and yes, you've guessed it —without it, your chances of winning in a fair fight are significantly hampered.
The good news is there are such things as genuinely level playing field pitches. But some clients and agencies are just meant to be together, it's written in the stars, and that is a wonderful thing to see...
Myth #5: "If you don't win a pitch you were confident about, you obviously screwed up somewhere"
If you chopped and changed your team through the process, then look no further. But if you know in your heart of hearts that you gave it 100% and were pretty flawless on the day, and still end up with the dreaded "Sorry, a close second" call, resist the natural inclination to beat yourselves up. Better to stand behind the pitch you are proud of, show the love to the agency team, and instead look up and out at the next opportunity.
Having said that, if you're the CEO, you should be raking over the coals and quizzing the team, the client and the intermediary hard. Because there is always, always a lesson to be learned and a chance to improve.
I sincerely hope this helps some of you wonderful, talented, hardworking agency folk avoid similar pitfalls next time you pitch, lord knows it's hard enough out there. And may the new business gods smile upon you in 2024.
Frazer Gibney is an independent consultant (recently acting as intermediary creative pitches for Premier League and Coral). Before that he spent spent 20 years leading pitches as founder and chief executive of FCB Inferno.