'The odds are pretty rubbish, really': Starbucks' fresh take on the media pitch

Pitching takes up oodles of staff time, rarely offers much insight into what a real working relationship will look like and usually ends in disappointment. Have we been doing it wrong all along?

New-business activity is set to rebound. Offices have begun to reopen. Does this mean adland can soon get back to the kind of high-octane, in-person pitches we all know and love?

Well, it’s unlikely, and not just because of the challenges running an elaborate team presentation while maintaining two-metre gaps between individuals. But there are other drawbacks to the conventional pitch process that are harder to disregard during an economic downturn. There’s the duration; it’s questionable to spend four months looking for an important business partner when we have so little certainty about how the business landscape will look that far down the line. And there’s the investment in staff and financial resources, which many companies – both agencies and brands – simply cannot afford right now.

These issues have come to the fore because of the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic crisis, but they have long been factors present in an industry in which both sides of the exchange are under greater business pressure than ever. The length of pitch processes and the resources demanded by agencies are two issues that intermediary Creativebrief has been aiming to tackle with a rejigged approach to the agency review that it began experimenting with in 2018 and put into play in pitches for Uber, Rubicon and Britvic brand WiseHead Productions.

Each of these used a slightly different model, all designed to achieve similar objectives: to speed up the process, reduce the cost to agencies – both financially and to the mental health of their staff – and give both parties a much better idea of how working together would be. Following only chemistry meetings, for example, Britvic gave Leagas Delaney a four-week trial, which led to the agency’s long-term appointment.

A different mindset

"We feel the pitch process, as the industry has come to know it, is not brilliantly aimed at emulating what real-life relationships are like," Charlie Carpenter, chief executive of Creativebrief, says. This is perhaps the clearest example of how the traditional pitch can underserve brands as much as agencies. But Carpenter argues that brands will also reap the benefits of cutting the cost to agencies. 

"It’s a very real commercial reality for brands," he explains. "They’ve had their pick of agencies but now, because agencies are leaner on resource, they have to be more selective about what they have to pitch for." The intention is also to balance out the work involved in the process rather than putting all the pressure on the agencies. "With this process, we’re very clear with the client you need to come to this with a different mindset," Carpenter says. 

One brand that managed to do that was Starbucks, which brought in Creativebrief to assist its media pitch last summer. After changes to how it operated its business in some countries, the coffee giant was looking for a UK-only media agency. Its former European shop, Manning Gottlieb OMD, pitched unsuccessfully, along with M/SIX, while Havas Media emerged victorious.

"We are as clients conscious of the fact it’s a massive investment on behalf of the agencies when you go through these big pitch processes – you’re expecting a lot of heavy lifting," Reuben Arnold, vice-president marketing and product EMEA at Starbucks, says. He adds rather frankly that "the odds are pretty rubbish, really" – in doing so, recognising the post-pitch heartbreak that is a common feature of life for many agency staff.

The process used a format that Creativebrief closely followed in Manchester City’s recent media contest, according to participants in the latter (although neither the club nor Creativebrief has confirmed this). Starbucks’ pitch started with a standard RFI process, followed by chemistry meetings with five agencies, which were reduced to three. Rather than an extensive brief, the brand then gave the three challengers a two-page document with a brief overview of its business context.

After having five days to read the document and get prepared, each agency then had a half-day workshop with Starbucks – each on a different day – and after this was given 36 hours to write up its own brief. Around 10 days after that, the trio reunited with Starbucks to present their own brief. Both main sessions included a social hour and Starbucks made its marketing team available for informal discussions between the parties. The process lasted around four weeks from chemistry sessions to decision. The final three agencies were also paid for their participation – a policy that remains unusual, despite the clear case for it.

No more choreographed pitches

"At its most basic level, the traditional pitch process is a big exam question with a big reveal at the end of it," Arnold says. "What we were trying to avoid was: very well-orchestrated, polished, scripted, choreographed – which is never a true reflection of how it would go in real life."

Jointly creating a brief worked, he says, because the "real power" of the pitch is "when the agencies come in and challenge us" on assumptions they have made. "They might well come up with a whole different way of approaching it or a different set of questions we might need to deal with," Arnold adds.

As well as offering a more constructive form of interaction between the brand and agencies, Carpenter says the workshop format can give the client a better sense of the dynamic within the agency team. In a classic pitch presentation, he says, it’s easy enough for agencies to "create a role for everybody in the room" by splitting their slides: "In a workshop environment, it’s harder to do that – you genuinely get to see if there’s one very dominant personality in the room."

If it was obvious that this was a better way of doing things, it would surely be more common already – and Carpenter admits that it can be a tough sell to both sides. For agencies, the approach might be unnerving or only suited to more extraverted characters. Some chief executives, Carpenter says, "have mused to me that they feel removing some of that drama might make it more difficult to build excitement and momentum in the agency". But he argues that there’s also an element of "Stockholm syndrome" – an attachment to the familiar.

"They live for it, don’t they?" Arnold quips. He has conducted several pitches in his career, including three for Starbucks over two years. But while he’s definitely sold on this approach, he admits that the onus is on his fellow marketers to lead the way: "It will take a while for agencies to really believe that clients are genuinely wanting to work in this way."

Other benefits

But there are other advantages to a rethink besides those covered above. Research from Creative Equals has shown that female creatives are less likely than their male counterparts to take part in a pitch; this could be a barrier to their career progression and therefore women’s overall representation at senior levels of the industry.

Carpenter says one cause could be the antisocial hours expected in the preparation for traditional pitches – something that could exclude women, who are still more likely to be the primary provider of childcare (that's another issue altogether, of course – pull your finger out, dads). They also risk alienating younger staff who want and expect a good work/life balance. The Starbucks model, in theory, avoids the need to put in evenings and weekends.

Since pitching has relocated from painstakingly planned meeting rooms to Zoom windows with no more bells and whistles than a well-selected bookcase in the background, Carpenter says some of the changes he has been encouraging have started to take shape naturally. 

One chief executive told him that while normally there was a tendency during the pitching process to tweak details endlessly, the limitations of remote pitching meant "you’re just going a bit more with your gut instinct".

And the shared reality of being in a crisis, he says, has meant "there’s a bit of a sense of 'we’re all in this together' – there’s a bit less of that formal barrier".

For the time being, Carpenter is encouraging brands to consider skipping a competitive process altogether, in fact: "Personally, what we’re really driving for with brands is to say, rather than run some three-month pitch process, arguably there’s more value in just meeting an agency and just giving them a three-month project."

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