Pitches no longer offer brands a buyer's market

Creativebrief's managing director Charlie Carpenter explains why an industry shift is creating a rare window to modernise and streamline the client/agency pitch process.

Since (what feels like) time immemorial, our industry has bemoaned the traditional pitch as no longer "fit for purpose". We seem to like that phrase.   

"It’s long. It’s slow. It’s expensive. It’s over-rehearsed. It’s a general shit-show." You know the drill.  

Yet for years, collectively we have failed to find any kind of viable alternative. That’s still puzzling.  

Maybe it’s because there isn’t one. (Do any of us really believe that?).  

Maybe it’s because the industry has neglected to organise itself sufficiently to bring about change. (More than a distinct possibility).  

Or maybe (whisper it softly), it’s because to date only agencies have been disagreeable to the full creative pitch.  

It's undeniable that for them the process is painful. More resource heavy and distracting than most brands know. And hugely expensive, with laughable odds of success to boot. 

It also (let’s be honest) devalues and commoditises their product on an industrial scale. Gladly offering-up weeks of unpaid time and free ideas like over-enthusiastic puppies doesn't exactly ooze confidence in self-worth. 

On top of that, recent data from Creative Equals evidences that the pitch in current form does much to perpetuate a depressing lack of industry diversity. That it sees us trapped in a frustrating vortex, relentlessly failing to deliver on IPA targets.

Oh, and what we haven't even yet referenced is the undue strain on mental health and family life shouldered by agency staff during pitches.

Dated and off-key

Given the times we now find ourselves in then, the pitch as it stands today quite suddenly seems terribly dated and off-key.

For client-side marketers on the other hand, in a previous life there have ostensibly been some benefits to the traditional creative pitch. 

It’s an unparalleled period of high intensity around their brand, awash with free ideas designed to refresh or even re-boot.

Plus the high-stakes construct of the process affords brands an unreasonably strong negotiating position (and yet another chance for over-eager agencies to further devalue their product).

What’s not to like? Well, even these apparent benefits mask some fundamental flaws for marketers.

The clouding of decision-making by the theatre of it all, for one. The long-term cost ultimately borne by brands through an enduring loss of high-quality talent, for another.

But, whilst none of these are entirely new revelations, here’s something that perhaps is: a tectonic shift with the potential to change our approach to pitching forever.

Put simply, we may just have reached the tipping-point beyond which it is no longer a buyer's market for brands.

Sounds strange, doesn’t it? The economy is twitchy. Agencies are staring down the barrel of declining margins. Networks are streamlining and consolidating.

Arguably the conditions should be creating a perfect storm for brands to take their pick of struggling agencies in the spiralling gloom. Interestingly though, the opposite seems to be coming to pass.

Precisely because brands are tightening their belts, so too are agencies. Their ships are leaner than ever before, and this is changing behaviour.

The smartest amongst them know well that every pitch requires a diversion of already straining resource from paying clients; a dangerous game they play too many times now at their own peril.

As such, for marketers the risk is also now increasingly real that if you choose to run a long pitch for your brand, the best agencies will decline. That you’ll be left with a more mediocre selection in lesser demand prepared to drag themselves over hot coals for you.

And that's where the heart of this issue lies now. The commercial imperative for brands to find an alternative to the pitch is soon to be as great as that of agencies.

Finally then, we have a unique window for change. One to establish a more streamlined, responsible and (frankly) effective approach to the coming together of both parties in today’s business environment.

But it will rely on a monumental industry-wide effort, that’s for sure. On a willingness to collaborate, to modernise, to simplify, to harness technology and to adopt a more revolutionary attitude to what has gone before.

Let’s not watch this opportunity pass us all by.

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