The best, in that it’s a condensed version of the whole process: you meet the client, find a way of working with them, try to understand their problem and do your best to come up with something that will help to solve it, present that solution and get a yes or no decision, all in (usually) a few weeks. Few things are as exciting and energizing for an agency as working on and winning a big pitch.
The worst, in that pitches are sometimes used to get free consultancy or to drive down fees*, in that fiercely competitive agencies in an oversupplied market are engaged in an arms race of pitch effort**, making new accounts progressively harder to win, and in that pitches are a huge drain on time and energy that may lead to the neglect of existing clients. Few things are as debilitating and demotivating for an agency as pitching and losing.
We’ve completed two significant pitches here at Wieden + Kennedy London in the last two or three weeks.
The first was for the pan-European Honda CR-V launch. We lost that one. The second was for the Tesco UK business. We won that one. Coincidentally, both pitches were handled by intermediary Oystercatchers.
The Honda pitch involved six agency presentations in one day to a group of 20+ people, not including the senior Honda management decision makers. Each of the agencies was a Honda roster agency somewhere in the world. We were the incumbent as Honda Motor Europe agency of record. The pitch was won by Dentsu/McGarry Bowen – Honda’s agency in Japan. Conventional wisdom is that it’s very hard for an incumbent to win a repitch – there wouldn’t be a pitch unless the client wanted to change – but we took the view that Honda has been a long term partner and that partners should work together to take on challenges when they arise. We were absolutely gutted to lose out in what seems to have been a narrow decision. (Of course, we all know that when you lose a pitch, unless you obviously comprehensively screwed it up, you’re usually told that you came a close second.)
The final stage of the Tesco pitch involved presentations by three agencies across two days to a group of half a dozen people. Other agencies had been eliminated at earlier stages. Senior Tesco management did attend the pitches, which meant that the clients were able to make a swift decision. We were obviously delighted to win what was obviously a hotly-contested pitch. Feedback was that we succeeded because of a combination of clear strategic thinking, strong creative work and great teamwork.
Old hands at pitching will tell you that the last of these may be the most important factor. Clients are looking for a team with whom they believe they can work. There’s no doubt that this is true in some cases but I find increasingly there are pitches where the client is more interested in buying a campaign than in buying into an agency. And they are more able to do this these days because agencies are presenting far more finished ideas, to the extent of building working prototypes of apps, Mac-ing up print layouts that are indistinguishable from the real thing, and cutting together and even shooting films or ‘stealomatics’ that look pretty much like finished ads. The old rule that 'the work you present in the pitch never runs' is less true nowadays.
Every so often, there is a move to try to put an end to pitching. BBH used to refuse to pitch creative work. I don’t think they still cleave to this principle. Crispin Porter in the USA had a brief period where they said they wouldn’t pitch. I believe they do now. When I chaired the IPA new business committee we debated whether we could get a group of agencies to agree never to pitch. This utopian idea foundered because none of the agencies could trust the others to hold the line. Consultant David Wethey of Agency Assessments International has recently proposed an alternative pitch process. His proposals for a streamlined version make a lot of sense. It'll be interesting to see whether it catches on.
I’d love to think W+K might some day achieve a status that would mean we’d no longer have to pitch but I don’t see it happening any time soon. Corporate governance and commercial pressure mean that most CMOs have to be able to show that due process has been followed and that the agency appointed has bested their adversaries in mortal combat to prove that they are the best possible partner. Procurement people like for there to be a choice of agencies in order to make negotiations competitive. I think we’re stuck with the pitch process for the foreseeable future. For good and bad, we’ll have to live with it. Because, as our American colleagues might say, losing sucks: winning rocks.
*A recent pitch, from which we withdrew, was reported in the press as a multimillion pound win for the successful agency. The reason we withdrew was the client’s stated aim of paying the successful agency a small fee for their creative idea and reserving the right to produce the campaign themselves. They didn’t want the ongoing expense of a retained agency relationship. Of course, this is their prerogative and, to their credit, they were transparent about this from the start. Not all clients are as honest about what the pitch will actually be worth to the winning agency. And some agencies are surprisingly coy about asking this question directly.
**Another recent major pitch RFP stipulated that agencies were not required to present creative work. All the participants ignored this. Some even presented work at chemistry meeting stage, before receiving the client’s brief. The reason? It’s impossible to do a ‘reduced effort’ pitch. That’s like saying to a bunch of competitive athletes, “We want you all to agree not to run too fast and tire yourselves out.” If you’re in it, you have to do what it takes to win.