Break ups and home improvements: the Covid effect on creativity and new business

2021 has already seen a flurry of pitches, but how do you maintain creativity and agency culture amid the pressure to win new business?

According to leading British law firm Stewarts, there was a 122% increase in divorce enquiries between July and October 2020, compared with the same period the year before. England and Wales are currently seeing the highest increase in divorces in 50 years. 

So… lots of break ups. 

For the couples where locking down together didn’t signal an immediate call to the lawyer, the focus was instead on renovation. Between 9 and 15 March 2020, online sales of home improvement and gardening products grew by almost 50% compared to the same period in 2019. 

So… lots of getting houses in order. 

It feels like there are similar trends happening in client / agency relationships and it’s leading to what’s being called a “flurry” of new business. (“Flurry” is the official collective noun for Covid new business. That or “Unprecedented RFIs”.) 

I see a lot of pitches across Publicis Groupe UK. Pitching can be exhilarating and exciting, and it can be emotional and exhausting. The impact is felt right across the business and none more keenly than in the creative department, from the massive surge in energy and creativity following a big win, to the impact on morale if you don't get it. 

Last year the AAR said they “have seen a stream of clients looking for brand strategy partners to define their ‘North star’ purpose”. And they are expecting an equally busy 2021. 

If it carries on like this, there are definitely some lessons we need to keep in mind. 

Not all “new business” is the same, nor is the experience of pitching from a creative standpoint. There’s appropriate business to pitch for. There’s inappropriate business to pitch for. There’s defending business. There’s pitching for new business. Ten points for guessing which is more fun from a creative standpoint. 

Offensive v defensive 

It’s human nature to chase after the new and shiny thing, but empires overreach because they forget what’s happening at home. They’re busy exploring, discovering new territories, fighting battles, while back home the empire is crumbling and everyone is monumentally pissed off. 

I’d advise any agency going on an offensive search for new business to first look at the clients who have already invested in you, your business and your people, and make sure you are doing the best work and job by them before going off in search of shiny pastures new. 

Some of those Shiny New Things you actually have a chance with. Pitching for these are the best. You’re creatively free. You (let’s be honest) have more fun. If you’re subconsciously more conservative when you’re defending, then these are the opposite. Anything is a possible answer. You can offer all the opinions, you can say the controversial thing, you can shine a light on the elephant in the room. 

But beware the Shiny New Thing you don’t have a chance with and learn to say no. There isn’t actually status in just being on a pitch list. Money, energy and lives go into these processes, so we can’t afford (in every metric) to go for pitches that we’re unlikely to win. Especially with us all working from various kitchen tables, bedrooms and sheds, the day-to-day experience of pitching is intense to say the least. Don’t put your teams through it without being sure there’s a chance you can deliver them all a crate of beer at the end of it. 

Whichever way you look at it, defending on a pitch is tough. When you are on the offensive pitching for new business, you can visualise the win. But when you’re defending, I’d argue there isn’t one solo person in this industry who doesn’t spend sleepless nights thinking about the loss. You think about it in terms of jobs, of morale, the impact on the work. You second guess what the client might be looking for. 

The pitches I’ve lost in my career have usually been from overthinking and second guessing what the client wants. 

It’s more exhausting to defend than it is to attack. Ask José  Mourinho. The truth is when defending a pitch, you can’t really be an outlier. You can’t just say “wouldn’t it be crazy if….?” Because… why didn’t you say that six months ago? But you can honour the relationship, be responsible and show your understanding of the brand and the people it serves.  

Most importantly, don’t forget to do good work, and even more importantly ask your creatives if they’re okay. Keep an eye on them even if they say they are. 

Have fun / do good work 

Every pitch process is ultimately looking to make itself redundant. The creative grail comes in those Power Couples who manage to constantly redefine creativity and take risks with new ideas that surprise us, while staying firmly in partnership. 

Mother and Ikea (12 years). Leo Burnett and McDonald’s (37 years). Wieden & Kennedy and Nike (38 years). 

These agency relationships share common themes. They are profitable for the brand and the agency, they create great work together and they have fun. 

Every agency has their own version of the “make money, do good work and have fun” holy trinity. 

Over the last year the pandemic has put some pressure on those three things. Are you allowed to have fun if there isn’t money involved to protect the business? Are you allowed to make good work if it’s not linking to sales? Are you allowed to say no to a pitch you know isn’t right for the agency, if the P&L is under a magnifying glass? 

In a word, yes. 

Having fun and making good work is the reason most of us got into this industry. Good work drives growth for our clients, and growth for our clients means growth for our agencies. 

It might sound trite, but we have to protect the “have fun and do good work” bit. Always and relentlessly. 

If this year is going to be one thing, it’s going to be relentless. The way it’s looking, it will be busier than any other period in the last 10 years. This is coming after a whole year of locked down living, learning and working. People are knackered. 

So while winning pitches and briefs and establishing new partnerships and growing client relationships are all great, the relationships that are equally or even more important to protect this year are those within the agency walls. 

Check in with the designers who are working until 3am on the pitch doc. Tell the account person who’s managing a tricky client how bloody great they are. Make sure everyone knows they have support. Ask about their kids, their partners, their pets, what’s going on outside the little Zoom screens we’re all living in now. 

And when we’re finally allowed to (safely) be together in person, embrace every minute of that and keep asking about their kids, partners and pets. Buy them beers and bacon baps. Stand together on the pavements and get shouted at by cyclists. 

In short, put as much energy into our agency cultures as we do the pitches and briefs that keep rolling in. 

It’s the people, the culture, the friendships that keep us all going. It’s those things that create the best work. 

And it’s the best work that wins pitches.  

Ben Mooge is chief creative officer of Publicis Groupe UK

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