Pitching has always been my favorite part of the advertising business. I became good at it. I loved the focus, the camaraderie, and the adrenaline. I loved the late nights, cold pizza, and hot coffee. And I loved winning, which thankfully happened more often than not. For one stretch of my career pitching was all I did. Of course, I didn’t own an ad agency back then. I was pitching on someone else’s dime.
Ten years ago I opened my own international advertising agency and that’s when my love affair with the pitch ended. Actually, it didn’t really end. We broke up in 2001 but have been casually dating ever since. The Duffy Agency gets most of its work from referrals and when we do pitch we have around an 80% win rate, so I couldn’t see the harm in it.
Then about 18 months ago something changed. We began getting invited to a lot more pitches. The first was for a very prestigious account against some of the best agencies I know — the smallest of which was still ten times our headcount. I reluctantly accepted and we won. I was smitten. My ethics grew increasingly lax over the course of the next year as we accepted a dozen more pitches and won ten of them. This autumn the financial effect of creating a dozen global ad campaigns, social media strategies, and web site designs for free caught up with us — to say nothing of the cost of flying my best people all over the world for the next pitch round. Ouch. Even though we were winning, this was not a sustainable model for my agency. I felt used. Serves me right. I knew better.
My New Year’s resolution for 2012 is to stop working for free. And if you run your own advertising or creative services firm, I hope you’ll join me.
This would not seem like such an outrageous request if it weren’t for the fact that my company has the unfortunate word “agency” at the end of its name. In marketing, attaching that moniker to your company is like having a “Kick me I’m stupid” sign slapped on your back in high school. Clients expect free work. Lots of it, under an outmoded process called pitching.
There are many agency owners that have done a better job at resisting the pitch than I have. I feel I owe them an apology. But there are not enough of them. Obviously, if all agencies refused to do creative pitches and stuck to capabilities presentations, we’d all be better served, especially our clients.
I’m reminded of this as I travel to Brussels this week to start work with a new client we recently won with a capabilities presentation. If you recall, it was about this time last year that Belgian ad agencies had a virtual strike. For one week the top 24 agencies took their websites offline and in their place posted segments of an open letter from the Association of Communication Companies (ACC) that self-regulates the industry in Belgium.
The ACC has a code of conduct that, short of banning pitches outright, suggests rules of engagement that make pitches more equitable and ensure “agencies are protected from their instinctive hunger not to miss out on opportunities.”
The letter likens pitches to a boxing match. “You get through one round, and go on to the next. Last man standing wins. Unlike boxing, however, pitches rely on the participants punching themselves in the head. A big pitch can cost an agency upwards of 80,000 €. Just getting into the second round takes huge amounts of energy. And if you’re lucky enough to get that far, you then have to invest even more resources just to have a chance of getting something out of it. And if 10 agencies are taking part, that’s a 90% percent chance that you’re taking a bruising for nothing.”
But the letter went on to highlight why this practice is just as bad for the clients who call these pitches. “Pitches use up energy. Energy an agency would normally use to provide its existing, paying customers with the best possible work. So the logical conclusion of the system as it now stands is that at some point you will become a victim of it yourself. The day will eventually come when your agency has to divert the creative and strategic energy you’re paying it for into a pitch for some else’s business. Our idea of a sane world is where you do your best work for the clients you do have. Not the ones you don’t. ... Besides, judging an agency isn’t rocket science. … Talk to an agency and you’ll know right away if they see things the same way you do. But don’t delude yourself. Asking an agency to pitch is not the same as briefing one. In a pitch, the only target audience is you. The only question an agency can ask itself is, 'What do we need to do to get the client?'”
My resolve has already been tested this year. We just turned down a pitch invitation for a global FMCG brand. I know we would do great work for them. I’m just not willing to work for free to win the business. The client asked to meet to discuss this. We met and my partner and I explained our position and suggested alternatives. I wanted the client to admire our integrity and professionalism but I think they felt we were just being difficult.
As we left the meeting I recalled an Ad Age article on the subject where one agency owner commented, “My firm's unwillingness to pitch is one reason we repositioned as an identity and packaging consultancy 10 years ago. Prospective clients respect our time and opinions more now than when we called ourselves an ad agency. To me, that's a sad commentary.”
Sad, yes, but perhaps an evolutionary necessity for some agencies. The Duffy Agency’s decision to ditch the pitch may require a repositioning on our part as well. Time will tell. But, quite literally, it would be a small price to pay compared to continuing to subsidize advertisers who lack the ability to properly assess and choose their marketing partners.
Sean Duffy is a founder of Duffy Agency, the digital marketing agency for aspiring international brands. Sean has over 25 years of experience working with strategic marketing in Boston, San Francisco, Stockholm, and Copenhagen. In addition to his involvement with Duffy Agency, Sean is a frequent speaker on strategic international marketing and online brand management. He serves also as Lecturer and Practitioner in Residence at the Lund University School of Economics & Management and as Mentor in their Masters Program in Entrepreneurship. Sean is an active member of TAAN Worldwide where he has served two terms as the European Governor. He is also a speaker, blogger, Twitterer, and is on LinkedIn. With offices in Malmö and Boston, Sean splits his time between Sweden and the States.
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