Pitch late hours

How damaging is the advertising pitch process?

While many ad industry practices have evolved over the years, the pitching process remains a long hours, high stakes exercise. Here, Ben Kay examines the insidious effect it has on agencies, from burnout to ageism

A few years ago I was freelancing at an agency that needed help on a pitch. I knew the ECD well, so we went for lunch and he told me that they would be spending around $50,000 to pitch for an account that might bring in $80,000 in fees.

Given the odds of winning a pitch (now around 48%; obviously that depends on how good you are and how much the client wants you in the first place), that seemed insane to me. They were effectively betting $50,000 at odds of two to one for the opportunity of winning $30,000. So why bother?

His answer was multilayered. This was a new West Coast branch of a medium-sized international network that could easily absorb the outlay. But it was important to them to establish themselves in this new location (full of tech and car clients), and a positive headline in Adage or Adweek might be worth far more than the fee.

It might help attract better staff or new clients. It might increase the morale of that office and give it some momentum for future wins. It would also provide a client to work on, and therefore an additional opportunity to create famous and/or award-winning work, which might then keep the virtuous circle going. No new clients means none of that good stuff, and instead additional months of lethargy and disappointment.

But when I looked into it a little further, I discovered that the high pitch-cost-to-return ratio was not quite what it seemed, and that the reality leans into the pitch clichés of late nights, weekends, cold pizzas and warm beer.