Brands and Agencies Should Celebrate Pitches Less and Relationships More

By The Cog Blog Archives
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What a strange business we're in. On the one hand, we talk a lot about the need for consistency in relationships — about the need to truly understand the client's business and the importance of our work being acknowledged and respected in the advertiser's boardroom. And on the other, we celebrate pitches as if we were involved in a sporting event.

For years, I've felt that there are far too many pitches.

There are times, for sure, when the need to pitch is inevitable:

  • The agency has failed to deliver on its set goals
  • Despite a mass of internal team shuffling, the agency has simply run out of ideas
  • The client has been given good reason not to trust how the agency is behaving
  • The business has outstanding issues that have entirely changed the requirement the client has from its agency relationship

There are other times when there is absolutely no need to pitch. First among those is, "We are sure we can get it cheaper elsewhere." Yes, you can. And the overwhelming odds are that you'll pay for it eventually.

The second is, "We fancy a change." So, talk to the agency about a change of team.

The third is a cry of, "We insist on a regular review with all our suppliers." What, including management consultancies, corporate lawyers, and accountants? It's a terrible thing but advertising partners are far too often bracketed alongside cleaners, security suppliers, and taxi firms as interchangeable commodities.

Finally, there is the time old, "My brother-in-law runs an agency and I promised him a stab at the business." (Yes, it happens; although the words used when I come across this are a little more dressed up.)

Let's be clear, there are many excellent procurement heads (and consultants) who do, indeed, understand the difference between price and value; but there are also an awful lot who don't.

I'm certainly not alone in having dissuaded more than one client from pitching his business.

There was the time when, in our first meeting, I asked why the client wanted to go through all the time and trouble of pitching and the best he could do was to describe the incumbent agency as "rubbish."

This was simply untrue, as they had many satisfied clients, a mantel groaning with awards, and a strong reputation within the industry. The team on the business might not be optimal, but that's a different thing, with a different desired outcome.

I had to wonder why the client had changed agencies so many times. They were literally running out of agencies without a competitor that might be prepared to go through all that rigmarole.

At that first meeting (and subsequently confirmed), it was clear that the problem with the quality of the work being delivered lay with the client and some truly awful internal processes, not with the agency.

Sadly, far too many agencies feel that they're unable to raise these issues honestly and openly with their client —until it's too late and they're in a pitch that they have literally zero chance of winning.

And that's another thing: Why invite an incumbent to pitch if you've already decided they won't win?

It's very rare, in my experience, for any advertiser to work out the cost to the business of all those meetings, all that time spent bringing the new agency up to speed, and all the legal fees, let alone the hidden costs of not spending time on their day job.

My one-time client Kellogg's always used to hand every new brand manager a booklet, outlining the beliefs and behaviors expected of its employees. The first sentence was something along the lines of: "It is not your job to change the advertising agency; it is your job to get the most from the agency."

Yes, pitches are fun; it's flattering to be welcomed by all those people wanting your business. But are they really beneficial to the long-term health of the business?

Agencies, too, always say they live for pitches. They do their best work under the adrenaline-fueled pressure; it's the one time they truly bring all disciplines together in an integrated, common quest.

Well-run pitches are an outstanding experience for everyone concerned, but not all pitches are well-run, fair, necessary, or capable of producing a true winner.

There's a cycle: Pitch the business. Win the business. Get over the initial excitement of winning the business. Work out that you can't make money on the business. Reduce the servicing on the business. Miss your targets on the business. Pitch the business.

We should celebrate long-lasting relationships more and pitches less.

Don't stop now! Read more from Brian Jacobs in The Cog Blog.

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