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Life’s a Pitch: how pitches are breaking (but sometimes making) agencies

It starts the same way . Every time . P​ing! ​One unread email . To: Office, Studio, Sales, Ops, IT, Janitor, Mum. ‘Hi all, help! Meet in main room ASAP.’ Then, the rousing battle speeches. “Guys, great news! A​mazing ​opportunity coming up. The team at [insert sales department’s new best friends] have invited us to pitch! Very exciting. However, as it’s non­billable, we’ll need everyone to knuckle down and put in some extra time after­hours. So, who can stay late this week? Show of hands. Anyone? Anyone at all…?”

The Problem with Pitches

Ah, pitches. Stuff of life. Essential for any agency, yet paradoxically the bane of many’s existence. It is a conundrum as old as the industry itself: how to leverage the potential dividends that winning a new client could bring against the fact that you’re pretty much working for free? It’s a puzzle that has in recent years led many industry leaders to question whether we need pitches at all. The video above, a lovely bit of viral marketing from Canadian creative agency Z​ulu Alpha Kilo, ​is but the tip of the iceberg, and an increasing number of people are now adding their voices to the clamour, agitating for a change to what they see as a fundamentally flawed process.

Writing in the Drum, ​the deliciously ­ named Paul Kitcatt gives pitches both barrels, pointing out the inherent flaws in getting umpteen different agencies to a) waste weeks of their time b) sink huge sums of money into work with no guaranteed ROI and c) showcase wacky creative thinking that no client in their right mind would ever put live. He points out how absurd this process would be were it for anything other than creative work, like, say, a car:

“We’d ask six manufacturers to show ideas for a range of cars they’ve never made, to do things no car has ever been asked to do, from materials that don’t exist, designed like no car known to man, at a cost no car could ever be made for. Then we’d choose one manufacturer, but buy none of the cars they’ve shown, but something completely different. And the rest we’d throw away.”

Blitz Spirit

However. Despite everything wrong with the process, when viewed from the inside, an out­of­hours pitch can be a peculiarly unifying experience. And, dare I say it, fun…?

Stop laughing. Let me explain. Sometimes in agencies, the day­to­day realities of working life can set different departments at loggerheads: suits see studio as creative prima donnas, studio sees suits as client stooges, operations view all and sundry as overly lax with the company credit card, and so on and so forth. A pitch however cuts through all that. Suddenly everyone is pulling in the same direction; working together with one unified aim. Sure, there’s a deadline, but it’s not internally imposed. Everybody’s objectives are aligned, keyed­in to working towards the creation of the best possible work in whatever time is available. A ‘we’re all in this together’ mentality develops. Blitz spirit if you will. It’s agency life at its best.

Pizza, Beers and Good Ideas

But it’s more than that. Part of the esoteric allure of pitches is the after­hours camaraderie: beers are cracked, stupendously unhealthy food is ordered, feet are placed on tables… If you forget the looming deadline, it can be rather congenial. As the agency tries to create the very best working environment conducive to churning out that business­winning idea, pitches can be, and often are, fun. On a personal level, some of the most memorable agency experiences I’ve had were the late­night pitches, working on our office tans with a bunch of like­minded souls who actually care about what happens. As the street lights start to sputter on outside, the pizza smears, lager stains and bleary eyes are signs of a job well worked.

It all makes me wonder if things are back­to­front. That perhaps regular agency work could be more like pitches, and pitches could be more like regular agency work. If all the checks, balances and financial common sense of day­to­day operations were applied to pitches (maybe d​on’t​pitch the £10m CGI ad concept to the bakery supplies start­up), while the camaraderie, integrated approach and all­in­this­together spirit of pitches became a day­to­day ethos, things might improve. In fact, I’ve an inkling the better agencies out there are already making this happen.

Still, if the f​uture of new business ​leaves pitches in the past, I doubt many will mourn their passing. But maybe, just maybe, people will come to miss what they inadvertently contributed to agency culture.

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So, what do you think? Should we pitch pitches into the dustbin of history? Or will they be pitched on agencies’ front lawns for many years to come?

Alastair Dickie

26th February 2016