Get your slides out for the lads – it’s pitch season folks. But what’s broken about the pitch process and how can brands fix it?
Pitches – the familiar beauty parade of agency suitors for your marketing brief – are, I’m afraid to say, a bit shit. In reality, a lot of pitch situations should in fact not be a pitch situation at all, but they are so ingrained in our industry ecosystem that they feel impossible to avoid.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the drama of a good pitch, and as an agency we have a great win rate so I should be happy with how the land lies, but even a successful pitch can leave agencies feeling a little bit dirty – and worse still can leave a brand with a nightmare partnership.
Why? Because the performance and process of pitching has become more important than the purpose. And that’s understandable – it’s not every day you choose a new agency, so it’s a decision nobody is really very good at. I promise not to get onto a behavioural economics side-track, but just like holidays, houses and cars, when we’re buying agencies our brains are wired to do a shit job. It’s a high cost purchase we make relatively few times in our lives, which means we tend to over-rely on accepted value structures and under-value our own opinions, needs and desires.
So obviously what I thought I’d do is create some more value structures and advice. Sorry. But this time they are not built around a beauty parade process or industry biases, but rather around helping you to hack the decision making process for your brand’s benefit.
1. It’s all about chemistry
At Manifest, we’ve been invited to pitches where we weren’t even allowed to meet the client unless we were selected, and in many cases the only representation an agency can give to a client before the shortlisting stage is a creds document (we’ll get onto those later). This faceless process is, to be frank, bollocks. If you want to check out dozens of agencies before making a shortlist, don’t send them a form or ask for a PDF; do your research.
Check their websites and social profiles, then invite the agencies you like the sound of for a coffee and a chat. Use the 15 minutes you’d spend leafing through the creds deck of logos and case studies they spent 15 hours producing to instead find out if you get on with them. It might save everyone a lot of time. You can ask them about their work later, but frankly it won’t matter if they have an awe-inspiring creds deck cast in gold if you think they’re a bit of a dickhead.
“The goal in business is not to sell to people who need what you have. It is to work with people who believe what you believe” – Simon Sinek
Then once you’re engaged in the pitch process – ideally not with a shortlist of ten agencies, but two or three you really like – ask them some questions about their culture. Their values. Why do they do what they do? What is their business out to achieve? What elements of your brief reinforce their company mission?
As a brand, the single most important insight you need from a pitch process is not just confidence that the selected agency understands your organisation’s objectives, but that they share your passion to achieve them.
This is a much better indicator of how successful your partnership will be than how many people they have, what their hourly rates look like (they will look very much like everyone else’s, by the way), how many brands they work with or where their office is located. It is chemistry that will make the partnership work, so I never understand why a lot of brands put it to the back of the list.
2. Look for strategy, not flattery
Celebrate those agencies that look to collaborate on your brief, and who can bring strategic insight to the table. If they accept your brief outright, you might have the most perfect brief in the world, or you might also be sitting across from an agency that doesn’t colour outside the lines and will spend their time blowing smoke up your arse instead of getting off theirs.
It’s too often the case that questions or suggestions around the brief, or a build on a brand’s strategic thinking, is taken defensively by brand teams. The best agencies are not simply the compliant executors of your ideas, they are consultants and collaborators, and you need to judge them on that.
Having said that, don’t fall for an agency that comes in and tells you they know everything and that everything you say is wrong, either. You are the experts in your business, and an agency brings an outside perspective. It’s the combination of these things that makes the client/agency partnership a catalyst for success.
Finally, if they bring ideas without a strategy, that’s a bit like bringing a lunchbox without a sandwich. Even if it’s a shiny Transformers lunchbox, it’ll be pretty disappointing come lunchtime.
3. Choose expertise over experience
In recruitment, the latest research suggests experience is the worst indicator of future success on a CV. Not just a bad indicator, but the worst indicator. This is not because it’s totally useless, but because it is so over-valued in the process. The same goes for recruiting an agency.
When you’re judging experience, look for passion, strategy and results, not experience in your field or with similar brands. Often (although obviously not always) an industry specialism can make for lazy thinking, and just because someone has never worked in a category before doesn’t mean they can’t blow it wide open.
We had never worked in beer before when we were appointed by BrewDog when as an ‘agency’ of one person in 2010 – but we went on to build a campaign that ran for nine years, launched them into the public consciousness, raised over £50m through crowd funding and made them the fastest growing drinks brand in the world. We get a lot of beer briefs now as a result, but I think our lack of category experience helped us do things people with more experience in the industry said couldn’t be done – so we always try to see things with fresh eyes even in the categories where we have a reputation.
If industry experience alone made you the best agency for the job, there’d only be one agency in each industry.
So what should you value over experience? Expertise. Skills. Proprietary tools and processes that you can see would work for you. People who you think are smart and that you’d want to hire if you could. Also, an understanding of how their brief will not only integrate with, but amplify your other marketing channels. Even briefs that are siloed in terms of the channels they focus on will benefit from a broader skill set agency-side, and you might look to expand their remit if things really work out.
4. Pay for ideas
If you want ideas above and beyond initial strategic insight, then pay for them. Although agencies still predominantly charge clients according to how long it takes them to deliver their ideas, it is the ideas themselves that carry the true value. I doubt this shot into the digital ether will affect the status quo of agencies giving away their thinking for free, but bear with me here.
If you pay agencies to pitch it means you’ll get better, clearer ideas with more time spent on feasibility and execution. If everyone did this in pitches, brands would be more careful about shortlisting agencies, saving both themselves and agencies time and money, while in the long run brands would pay less for campaign work because agencies wouldn’t need to recoup the cost of pitching through their client fees.
Also, sleep on the ideas you don’t like – try not to judge too fast. Just as in an interview, it’s easy to judge an idea in ten seconds and spend the rest of the presentation justifying your instinctive reaction instead of taking an objective point of view. Even if you don’t go for it in the long run, it shows the agency is pushing you. Equally, if you love an idea, ask for rationale based on your business mission. Ask yourself if any other brand could do it – if the answer is no, then you might just be onto something.
5. Playing it safe is a dangerous game
The campaigns that change the world are not born from scale, reputation and contacts alone – they are founded on bold creativity. That should be your number one focus. Try and see that without the lens of industry stereotype.
The size of an agency, its reputation in your industry or the fame of its leadership team can often skew your view. Keep an open mind and avoid potentially flawed assumptions of what a safe choice looks like.
So there you go, some advice I’d give to any brand looking to embark on a pitch process. Disagree? Something to add? Slide into the comments and have your say.