To Pitch, or Not to Pitch? S.A.’s top Advertising & Marketing Leaders pitch in…
That is the question that perpetually haunts today’s senior leaders at advertising, digital and marketing agencies. No matter their size or scope, every advertising agency is shaped by the number of pitches they decide to take on, and of course, their successes and failures in the pitch process.
So how do South Africa’s top ad agency leaders approach the question?
“Firstly, it’s important to recognise how invasive and how disruptive a pitch is to an agency at any given point in time,” says Alistair King, Chief Creative Officer and co-founder at advertising agency King James. “No agency is sitting with a dedicated pitch team waiting and ready for any opportunity that arises – [the work] all has to be accommodated within the staff that an agency has at that point.”
According to King, an agency will spend anything between half a million and a million rand’s worth of time dedicated to any pitch – and that’s often ‘time taken away from existing clients.’
“You often have to put current clients at risk in order to entertain new relationships, and that’s something we take very seriously,” he explains.
Quality of Work & People
King outlines several factors that play a key part in deciding whether or not to enter into a pitch. First, he says that his team will consider the brand/client’s reputation for doing ‘good work or bad work’, and whether King James is likely to do the kind of work that ‘we will be proud of on that brand’.
“Within that brand, the marketers themselves have a reputation – for being responsible, fair, abusive, etc,” he adds. “Their reputation is important, and we have to ask whether we want to be involved in business with these people.”
If the agency likes the brand and the team, and is confident that they can produce good work on it, then the ‘conditions of the pitch’ come into play.
“So for example, who are we up against?” explains King. “Ironically, if we are up against great agencies then we are more inclined to take that pitch, because the client has probably done their research and thought through the process.”
A Mandated Process
What often happens, however, according to King, is that the pitch process is simply a formality – conducted to meet four-yearly procurement requirements. In this scenario, it is simply a mandated process and not a genuine search for the right partner/agency.
“So what it becomes is a benchmarking exercise – the incumbent wins, and you realise you’ve simply been benchmarked against that agency,” says King. “And in a way, you’ve been used to bring down their fees. And that’s actually criminal, given how much time is taken away from an agency…”
He adds: “If they [clients] genuinely want to hear what you have to say, then we’re in, then we’re prepared to throw all of our emotional energy into it – and it is an emotional, draining exercise! If we get a sense that it’s not genuine, then we’re not going to enter into the pitch.”
An ‘Instinctual Thing’
Gareth Leck, Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of advertising agency Joe Public, has a similar approach to the pitching question, although his views on the entire process are more positive.
“We will assess the type of client it is, and question if the client will fit within the business,” he explains. “Also, we will ask if it represents a great creative opportunity, and can we make money out of it?”
Leck explains that the decision is a collaborative one, taken together with the senior leadership team and the people who will be deeply involved in the pitch process.
“Often, pitching is an instinctual thing – it’s something that you feel is right for the agency (or not), and then you start to think of the rational reasons why you should or shouldn’t pitch,” he adds.
Leck says that factors leading to the decision not to pitch would include instances where the agency feels they lack the capacity to participate in a pitch; if the client’s brief is badly defined; if the client doesn’t follow the ACA codes; and if the client doesn’t give the agency enough time to prepare.
Keeping the Industry ‘Real’
Despite the hard work, lost resources and disappointments involved in the pitching process, however, Leck says that ultimately, pitches ‘even the playing field’ and are an important driver of growth in the sector.
“When we started [Joe Public], we were three people,” he explains. “The only way we could physically move from that point, to the point where we are now, was by winning clients…and when you’re a small, unknown agency, clients don’t just walk in your doors, the only way [to grow] was through pitching.”
Leck adds: “There is an argument – and I agree with the argument – that sometimes you can appoint an agency on credentials. So, from an ACA point of view, there is an alternative to pitching and that’s to appoint an agency on what they’ve done. But that argument serves the bigger, established agencies.”
In Leck’s view, pitching is undoubtedly a good thing: “It keeps the industry very, very competitive, it keeps the industry very real, and it keeps us on our toes.”
‘Lacking a Pitch Strategy’
Gillian Rightford, founder of consultancy Adtherapy, which consults to both advertisers and ad agencies, says that many ad agencies don’t have an organised and clearly defined approach to pitches.
“I think the challenge is that a lot of agencies don’t have a pitch strategy – they haven’t decided which kinds of businesses they want to go after, so they go after all of them,” she explains. “What lands up happening is that people are sucked off [from the work for] the clients who are actually paying the bills – so it’s massively work intensive, and your best people are not available in your business.”
Rightford insists that it is critical to understand that ‘not every agency is suitable for every client.’
“That’s where agencies fall down…when they take on work they are not equipped to handle, and that they don’t want to handle,” she adds.
To get around this, she says agencies need to be very specific about what the positioning of the agency is, what type of business/clients they want, and then sticking to their guns.
Fix Your Own Problems
Interestingly, Rightford points out that from the client side, the approach – in many cases – is deeply flawed.
“From the client side, the decision to [put your business out to] pitch is something that has to be thought through very carefully…a lot of the delivery is tied up in how the marketer actually briefs,” she explains. “I often find that unless you sort out the issues that are causing the problem [that led to the decision to pitch] in the first place, changing agencies is not going to make a difference. You’ve got to change the things that are causing that relationship to break down, before you change agencies.”
In essence, says Rightford, you’ve got to fix your own problems!
Alistair King of King James reiterates this point, and urges the marketing fraternity to develop ‘a much stronger point of view on how pitches are managed.’
“The marketing community should develop its own rules and regulations [around pitches] because it does affect them in a roundabout way,” he adds. “Clients owe it to themselves – and to other marketers – to think through the process very carefully to make it as minimally invasive as possible.”
The Role of Intermediaries
Johanna McDowell, Chief Executive Officer and founder of the IAS (Independent Agency Search and Selection Company), asserts that all parties involved in the pitch process will benefit from an intermediary.
“It’s quite a contrast from the pitch process to the reality of the day- to- day negotiation process,” explains McDowell. “It’s important that a stringent negotiation process is in place as it is too late to negotiate afterward. This might take more time and money but it saves distress later.”
According to McDowell, the role of an intermediary is ‘more important than ever’, in order to achieve the best pairing between the brand and a creative partner.
“An intermediary has the skills and experience to achieve this with the minimum of inconvenience,” she adds.