The age-old debate around pitch versus non-pitch was once again raised at an aptly named "Fight-Night" event hosted recently by the Brand Council of South Africa (BCSA).
Some of the old hands in the industry tell me this same debate has been going on since they got into the industry in the 70's and 80's. Clearly a solution to the conundrum has not yet been found.
Thus far the main response by agencies has been to declare they will not pitch without a suitable pitch fee (and even these fees barely cover the actual costs involved). This is certainly a viable option and industry bodies such as BCSA should be commended for the efforts in policing their members on this issue. It has downfalls, however:
- When times are tough and you're looking at an empty new business pipeline, you know your business will soon be considering retrenchments; the temptation to pitch for free will be strong. After all, we are only human.
- New entrants into the industry are not able to rely on credentials that they have yet to build up, hence pitching allows them the ideal opportunity to show off what they're made of and to ultimately get a foothold in the industry. It's important that they have a way of getting in the competition and fresh thinking is what will ultimately make the industry successful.
- Creative pitches are by their nature one off events and, having sat on both client and agency side in my career, I'm not sure they really give a sense of what an agency can produce for you over an ongoing time period. It's easy to load a pitch with your best minds, and then take them off once you have won the pitch.
So, when confronted by a situation for which the same repeated action is not achieving the desired result, we need to look at a different solution. How about we tackle this from another angle?
Agencies should provide clients with a set process that they prescribe for a pitch process. One that doesn't rely on massive efforts to produce entire campaigns or the loss of intellectual property and one that gives the client all the information they need to make an informed decision.
Let's start by understanding what makes for a successful client/agency relationship. I would propose four key elements should always be present:
- Good understanding of the client industry - If you plan on taking on a financial services client, for instance, it's important you know the difference between investment banking and asset management. Individuals and their experience build up this knowledge. A successful relationship will bring this experience to a client in a manner that adds value.
- Chemistry and culture - good chemistry and a culture fit between agency and client are critical to a successful partnership. Ever seen a sports team who isn't gelling? Enough said.
- Creativity - Partnerships are built because one party needs something from the other that they don't have. In our case we need the brands that clients own and clients require our creative and idea generating power to grow their brand assets in a manner that aligns with their strategy. Some want crazy off the wall, others require a gentle nudge. It's important to find what you're after.
- Finally the prickly cost equation - different clients have different cost parameters and its important you find an agency that can deliver the value you require on the budget you have available.
If these form the basis of a strong relationship then they are the things that should be tested in a pitch process. The pitch process should also not consume too much time for either the agency or the client - I would say two meetings, for which large amounts of preparation are not required, is fair: Meeting One - Meet and greet
This is a little bit about 'you show me yours, and I'll show you mine.' The teams (and when I say teams, the actual team who will work on the business, not the silver-tongued agency guru who's wheeled out for such occasions, and by the same token all the key players from the client side as well) meet in an informal setting to share the client objectives and marketing problem they are looking to solve. Agency will present some of their work as well as talk about the client's industry and brand as they see it from an outsider's perspective. The client has a chance to engage in some navel gazing by steering the conversation. They will quickly pick up the fly-by-night's from the serious players. Meeting Two - an approach and costing
This is a more formal one and will go into more detail on the agency's response to the client problem and objectives. It is not a creative response, it is a strategic one which details how they plan to tackle the problem at hand and clearly demonstrate that they understand the industry, the client and the issues they face. It could include a few cases on how the agency has tackled similar problems in the past. A broad outline of costs should also be presented so the client has the ability to compare agencies. With procurement turning their beady eyes in the marketing department's direction this is becoming even more important.
Armed with this knowledge, the client is in a position to make a decision. All this without hundreds of hours of studio time expended and the agency's best minds being taken off the paying clients' work in order to compete in a race with no guarantees.
So, now what?
It's all fine and dandy that we propose this way of pitching, but how do we get to the point where we stop petitioning and fighting for "fair pitching" and actually take part in "fair pitching"?
This is where you (yes you the agency AND the client) come in.
Agencies of all shapes and sizes need to commit to a "pitching process" as set out above (or similar) that does not shortchange anyone. Clients and agencies need to come to an agreement. The point where clients (and agencies sometimes too) realize the value of the IP they are expecting for free, is the point where positive change will occur.
The last resort, if an agreement cannot be reached and IP is insisted on, is for ALL agencies to agree to walk away. We will only see success if we work together as an industry (clients and agencies) - if some comply and some do not, a new process cannot be forged. Perhaps this leads to the need for a broader industry body that will enforce "fair pitching" on both sides of the fence - for clients and agencies. This body could even remove the "fence" since, in the end, we are all on the same side - our primary concern is the brand.
The current scenario is not economically efficient and right now our country needs all the creative brainpower it can muster to create value and growth.
Are you willing to commit?