The traditional pitch process is notorious for putting huge strain on agency resources with little guarantee of a business win. Increasingly driven by procurement, pitches generally involve initial briefs, preliminary responses, more detailed briefs, finally followed by comprehensive pitch selections. To agencies, it’s a necessary evil in order to win work. For clients, sadly, it all too often seems to be a way to collect ideas cheaply, to test the water for competition, to keep rostered agencies on their toes and a way to drive costs down.
Additionally, pitches are invitation-only, which often puts new and smaller agencies out of the running. There have even been stories of ‘pay to play’ where agencies are forced to pay to take part in a pitch. It’s not surprising then that agencies are looking for alternative ways of attracting the attention of clients.
Campaign Asia-Pacific contacted seven high profile client-side marketers across the region for their thoughts on ways to improve the formal pitch process. Only one agreed to speak with us, and he candidly described the process as “broken”. “What agencies are asked to do in the pitch process is crazy,” says Andy Lark, CEO of Group Lark and former CMO of Australia’s largest bank, Commonwealth Bank. “Would you ask Bain or McKinsey to pitch? [No]. It’s a stupid process that leads to bad decisions, poor work and short relationships for the most part”.
One of the major and well-documented pitfalls is the cost to agencies. In recent years, paid pitching has become the norm, but agencies are still only compensated with a nominal amount for weeks of work, and, more worrying, their intellectual property [IP].
“There have been times when clients have specifically gone to market with the express purpose of seeing what additional ideas are out there,” says Jeff Estok managing partner at client/agency relationship consultancy Navigare. “Concept development costs between US$50,000 and $100,000 at most agencies, so a pitch is a cheap way of scouring the market for free, or nearly free, ideas.”
In addition to concerns over IP is the fact that the pitch environment is intrinsically artificial — a performance, rather than an accurate reflection of the future working relationship. Clients often feel they are misled as to who will be managing their business day-to-day, while agencies lament the fact that senior management, present in the pitch process, often disappear post pitch, with ultimate decision-making left to procurement. Remuneration is not clarified up front, leaving agencies frustrated and with warped expectations.
None of these, says Lark, is a reasonable way to draw the best work from agencies. Many “get into the theatre of the pitch and entirely miss the mark on content”. Others “suck-up to the big guns in the room and miss the key players on the teams”.
Now agencies, and consultants on their behalf, are developing alternative methods to getting a foot in the door with clients, many of them using technology. Niqi, a boutique Shanghai-based agency is using WeChat to start conversations with clients and eliminate barriers to entry.
Clients submit a simple brief via WeChat, using text, audio, video and pictures. The agency gathers its talent in a room and brainstorms the ‘WePitch’ proposal, responding to the client — again via WeChat — within 24 hours. If the client likes what the agency proposes, they move forward with face-to-face in-depth briefings and presentations.
This system may be especially helpful for start-ups and smaller agencies. “Client/agency connections have become so troublesome and costly for both sides that clients tend to be reticent to see new agencies,” says Nick Landucci, co-founder and CD at Niqi. In the same way that online dating helps optimise the chance of success by testing initial chemistry, so does this WePitch, he says. Niqi concedes the tool has not directly won the agency any work — (this however, is not its intention), but as a conversation starter it is proving incredibly effective.
The process mirrors a similar system in the United States developed by creative collective The World’s Fastest Agency, which uses Twitter as a medium to brief, with a similar 24-hour response time.
Another way agencies are drawing attention to themselves is by getting smart about ‘how’ the work will get done, as well as the work itself. “They are using tools like Simple, Basecamp etc to show the client that there is a better, more agile way of working,” says Lark.
Last year, Razorfish struck deals with technology companies Adobe and e-commerce platform Hybris to enable it to approach clients with the best digital marketing technologies and innovative system integration solutions, coupled with strategic consultancy, brand building and experience design.
Pitch consultant Greg Paull foresees technology taking over the entire agency recruitment process within 10 years. What he terms “online auction processes” are already taking place in the US and Europe, particularly in the realm of media pitches.
“The whole sector is under threat, not just the consultants,” says Paull. “If I was a client, I would look to Victor & Spoils in the US as a potential crowdsource solution instead of agencies. Intel and Mondelez are also setting up internal newsrooms and social media solutions.”
For others, technology will only ever be a facilitator, with face-to-face relationships critical to forming and maintaining effective professional ties.
Oystercatchers is a UK company founded in 2008 which specialises in building long-term relationships between clients and agencies. The ‘Oystercatchers Club’ holds bi-monthly events to facilitate connections.
“Within an increasingly digital age, it’s the people that make the difference,” says Gillian Harrison, managing partner at Oystercatchers, which has just set up shop in Hong Kong. “The pitch landscape will be more data-led in the future. But great creative work starts and finishes with brilliant people relationships.”
BIG IDEAS Stop playing games
Jeff Estok, managing partner, Navigare
I have always thought the process was flawed because it is such an artificial situation. First off, you’re screened on the fact you’ve no category experience. You may have one chance for a chemistry meeting, but the client is going to sit back and not give you any clues because it doesn’t want to give you an advantage.
You are going to come back and present something you hope is on target so the client will appoint you, but probably never approve the work anyway.
The other thing that really irks me about the process is that financial discussions are left until the end. As an agency head, I entered one pitch where I said: “I want to know what the financials are up front to know if it would be worth my while.” They said: “We aren’t going to do that because it depends on which agency we pick.” I told them that meant they had a preconceived notion of the figure, probably based on commoditisation as to what the multiplier is going to be, and we just wouldn’t play in that arena. I said: “If you appoint us, you are appointing us based on the fact that we are the superior agency with superior resources and that commands a premium.”
I was happy to give them our rate cards up front to see if they were in the ball park, but it seemed unfair to get us all excited and have us spend our money to participate in the pitch, but give us no indication of remuneration up front.
With the huge costs of pitching, it’s no wonder some consultants report pitching is down by up to 75 per cent this year, and that the shift is being made to strengthening existing agency relationships.
If I were a client I’d get the selection process out of the beauty contest realm by getting the agency to work on an actual, live project. In my day, there would’ve been hell to pay giving work out to agencies that aren’t your agency of record, but these days clients have multiple agencies and regularly do that. I’d give them the same access they can expect during the normal working relationship. The key is to replicate real-world situations with the client and agency teams that are going to work on the business, with the actual access you would grant them.