Should you stay or should you go?

Craig Mawdsley
Craig Mawdsley

Pitches should be a real contest and not just a pricey feedback exercise.

In the past few years I’ve been involved in more incumbent pitches than I would ideally have liked. Some I’ve won as incumbent and some I've lost as incumbent. Some I have won from other incumbents and some I have lost to them.

One thing I can say for sure is that pitching to keep something, especially if it’s big and you care about it, is a gruelling process. Now I know that many of you are thinking of that line in Reservoir Dogs ("the world’s tiniest violin playing just for the waitresses"). Woe is me, in my privileged highly paid creative job, having to do some work for a change. So let’s not talk about humanity and emotion, let’s talk about business.

We all know that when it comes to brand building, continuity matters. All that Binet, Field and Byron Sharp data is unequivocal on this point. It’s better to keep doing a fresh version of the same thing for many years than to chop and change and do entirely different things. It’s maths and neuroscience that delivers results.

Continuity pays. Now you can debate where that continuity resides, as of course it doesn’t necessarily have to be the same agency, as long as it’s the same idea, but often the people that devised it first will understand it more deeply and protect it more effectively. They have skin in the game.

So if you’re working on halfway decent work, with a halfway decent agency, your best bet is almost always to continue with that agency. It’s not the Monty Hall problem, it’s just simple business sense.

If, however, you fall out with the agency management, their ability to hire good people is dramatically degraded, or they are running your business badly, then leave. It’s not ideal, but sometimes it’s the right thing to do.

The worst thing to do in either of these situations is sadly the most common thing to do in these situations – hold a pitch and invite your incumbent agency to be part of it ("nothing would make me happier than continuing to work with you, and in fact you’re probably the favourites to win, but we need to go through the process").

Now I know that the history of advertising is full of stories of agencies digging deep to defend clients from competitive attack and devising amazing ideas as a result. But this isn’t a method, it’s a management failure that we’re pretending is a success model.

Nor is it entirely true. If we look at AMV’s most admired ideas, Snickers’ "You’re not you when you’re hungry" and Guinness’ "Made of more", neither came out of a pitch. And even though we won Libresse in a pitch, our most celebrated work, "Blood normal", came from the ongoing relationship, not the pitch.

Here’s my proposal. Only ever go to pitch once you are absolutely sure your agency can’t deliver what you want. If you make it clear what’s at stake, and then they don’t put their very best people on it and dig deep to give you their very best, then it probably is time to move on, because they’re not running your business properly.

If they do give you their very best, but it’s still not good enough, then it probably is time to move on, because they don’t have the quality you need.

Then hold a clean pitch without the incumbent. Your decision will be easier. Nobody’s wasting their time. And you will have established in advance that you have nothing to lose by moving.

If none of this is convincing you, then think about how you’re managed. If your performance dips, would you rather your boss had a chat with you about the areas where you need to improve, or instead bring in three temps to work alongside you to see who’s best? That’s the kind of motivation we all really enjoy, isn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong, pitches are exciting and often enjoyable. It’s a thrill to compete and an amazing feeling to win. But make it a real contest, not a hugely expensive feedback exercise.

Stay.

Or go.

Craig Mawdsley is the joint chief strategy officer of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

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