Resetting the pitch process and bringing the soul back to adland

Lucy Taylor
Lucy Taylor

On the second lockdown anniversary, MullenLowe Group UK’s Lucy Taylor explains how the pandemic has presented a much-needed opportunity to reset the pitch process and bring some soul back to the industry.

Two years on from the first lockdown and we’re back to as "normal" as I think we’re ever going to get. Everyday life as it was has gradually returned. From reuniting IRL with our clients and colleagues and working together in-person to enjoying team drinks in the sun, there’s a buzz in the air. Yet, while this is something to celebrate, we can't afford to forget the valuable lessons we’ve learnt along the way if we are to keep moving forward – starting with adland's pitching process.

Is the pitching process broken?

Going into the pandemic, pitching practices were certainly at their worst. From clients using pitches for the wrong things, money driving decisions instead of creative excellence, agencies agreeing to too many things, unrealistic timings, late nights, burnt out teams, and simply losing the excitement to pitch at all: these are just some of the issues our industry is facing. What’s alarming is that Nabs recorded a 35% rise in demand for its helpline in 2020, with emotional support being among the top requests. 

Change is needed and putting our people back at the heart of our industry is a vital first step. Adland has lost touch with the human element that’s fundamental to what we do, but without that, how can we expect to create work that evokes any sort of emotion or reaction?

We’re meant to be in the business of creativity, but the focus has shifted

As figures from the AAR demonstrate, the new business and business development market has already returned to pre-pandemic levels, showing an overall increase of 46.1% in 2021 compared with the previous year. And, while it’s great news to see that growth return, it’s also overshadowed by the stress and negative impact on mental wellbeing that’s tied to the process.

It’s starting to feel like the halcyon days of exciting opportunities, creative freedom, fresh ideas, beers and pizza are a distant memory. Clients have become disconnected from their agencies, and agency teams have become disconnected from each other.

The average agency now spends around 2,000 hours a year working on pitches, time that’s often tacked on to the end of the working day because the already-busy pitch team has to balance their everyday workload with these additional demands. Of course, we’re creative people, and we have the skills needed to keep multiple plates spinning at once, but that doesn't make it right.

F*ck you, pitch theatre

Pre-pandemic, there was already a lack of respect for many people’s roles, needs, limits, and expertise, and things have only been made worse over the last couple of years. Too many bad habits have been allowed to creep in, and the passion for pitching has gone. People have fallen out of love with it because the human connections aren’t there anymore, and who can blame them?

We’re meant to be in the business of creativity, but the focus has shifted. The fun has gone, and the soul has left with it.

From a purely business-focused perspective, clients want to see new faces during the pitch process. They don’t just want to see the usual senior leadership team that's perfected the presentation process down to a T. Instead, they want to hear from the real people working on their campaigns. But nobody wants to put their hand up to get involved anymore, and why would they with all the bad rep?

The pandemic clearly hasn’t helped things, and after two years of virtual meetings, there’s a real sense of disconnect. Everyone did their best to make it work under the circumstances, but the soul that ought to underlie the pitching process has been sucked out of the Zoom room.

The industry feels more disconnected than ever before. Disconnected from business, and our colleagues. As an agency that’s grown rapidly throughout the pandemic, we’ve welcomed more than 100 people through our doors (or not through them, which is part of the problem), not all of whom are from an advertising background. They need a guiding hand from more experienced creatives, which hasn't been easy with virtual working. If you’ve joined an agency and never met your teammates, you're going to feel alienated. You can't beat the connection that only comes from working together for years, and the strong interpersonal relationships that grow after spending time together overcoming challenges and celebrating successes. Unfortunately, drinks on a Thursday over Teams doesn't quite hack it.

So, now that we’re returning to the office, what can we do to kick-start the excitement once more and bring the soul back to new business pitches?

Reigniting the passion for our people and clients

While many things can be done to reform the pitch process, the number one action point should always be to put your people first.

Adland has long held the reputation of being an uncompromising environment to work in, but there are murmurs of better behaviours, and we should grasp this opportunity now with both hands. It’s been a challenging two years for everyone, and we want to do everything we can to come back bigger and better than before, reigniting the passion once again for both our teams and clients.

We need to reconnect our people again and reform those teams, making sure everyone knows who everyone is: what they do, how things work. We need to solidify our internal, interpersonal relationships, encouraging more cross-collaboration opportunities between departments and senior leadership teams.

By taking the time to properly get to know our colleagues, even larger agencies can encourage the famed "start-up mentality" to help create an environment where everybody knows that someone else has their back, and where they're comfortable asking for help. As a fully integrated agency, we do this well: we’re all under the same roof, and it's much easier to walk around the office soaking in the wide range of creative work our people do.

But it shouldn’t stop there. Once you’ve reconnected your people, don’t forget to look after them. Put their needs first, and don’t be afraid to say no to the opportunities that clearly don’t align with your agency’s values. Only go for the things you really want – the things that will be fun and that your people are genuinely passionate about.

Push back and challenge clients where necessary. Do you need more time? Should there be a pitch fee? Is this decision going to be made on creative excellence? While these may be important business decisions, they’re also about your people. If you put them first, they’ll put you first, and that’s the only way to bring the soul back into advertising.

Lucy Taylor is chief growth officer of MullenLowe


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