The Ad Exec: The diminishing returns of pitch culture
by Tom Fels (@thomasfels) The advertising equivalent of a Cup Final, great pitches are a wonderful example of our industry at its finest, with equally paired rivals slogging it out for the spoils. A well-orchestrated process offers the potential client adequate agency exposure to assess chemistry fit, as well as strategic and creative abilities, while all parties are implicitly committed to the partnership on offer. In this context, pitches are a deeply valuable tool.
The problem, however, is that the pitch mechanism is increasingly being abused by clients looking to mitigate their risk by pitching projects out to multiple agencies with no commitment of ongoing business. Often with no compensation on offer to unsuccessful agencies, it is a win-lose situation that is rapidly undermining the value of the advertising product, and the role of agencies in the marketplace.
I was astounded to see the launch of a new pitch app in the Netherlands that assists clients to select a roster of prospective agencies. Claiming to be like “Tinder for marketeers”, “Pitcher” features agency profiles that can be screened and selected or dismissed with the simple flick of the wrist.
It sounds like a great piece of tech — and that was not the cause of my surprise, but rather that it’s been built by an agency, because to my mind it is an accelerator of the second type of pitch culture in which clients are trading multiple agencies’ time, expertise and energy for short-term gain.
Un-checked, this behaviour will increasingly result in diminishing returns for agencies everywhere.
Does the traditional approach work?
As was recently highlighted at the 2014 Loerie Awards by Xolisa Dyeshana, creativity and smart business are the product of a two-way partnership between client and agency. If value-adding creativity cannot sit in isolation of insight and strategy, how can a pitch process enabled by an app for a single project successfully deliver on both short- and long-term brand objectives?
Look no further than the success of long-standing relationships between leading marketing brands and their agencies such as VW and Ogilvy & Mather Cape Town to demonstrate the benefits of effective partnering.
After decades, the agency continues to generate highly relevant and awarded work, while VW remains a powerfully compelling brand. The depth of the brand knowledge the agency must have developed over the course of time is no doubt significant but, as any good agency will do, it has evolved the brand story through many teams of creatives without losing its soul.
My lesson here is that pitches should be geared to courting a partner with long-term intentions, rather than a short-term fling with someone you’ll happily send packing at the drop of a hat.
Marketers who favour regular pitches may be missing a trick, as the two or three weeks typically allocated for a creative response offers little opportunity to absorb the brand before agencies invest significant effort in a creative process which could hit the mark — or miss it by a mile.
On the surface, you’d be led to believe that the agencies are the only ones to lose in this equation. Far from it — clients are equally at risk, exposed to first-base work and higher per-project costs, as well as an environment where credible challenge may fall on deaf ears due to a lack of established trust and where a big idea may seem an idea too far.
Most notably, clients are at risk of brand-fragmentation as a result of short-term planning and implementation with multiple partners who are not involved in, or aligned to, the long-term vision of the brand.
Pitch for the long run
The communications landscape is an interesting mix of business relationships between clients, agencies, suppliers and partners. At its very core, advertising agencies deliver a human product that relies on engagement, collaboration, salesmanship and deep insight.
The prospect of trivialising this through an accelerated culture of frivolous and short-lived relationships can only harm the work, as well as partnerships that may have otherwise been truly remarkable.
With a decade of local and international experience in leading brand consulting, design, shopper marketing and integrated advertising roles, Tom Fels (@thomasfels) has gained a deeply relevant understanding of the dynamics of agencies. His skills are put to work daily as group managing director of Publicis Machine. He contributes the monthly “The Ad Exec” column to MarkLives.
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