Pitches: a perennial gripe of the advertising industry. There has to be a better – for which read ‘a less painful and unpleasant’ – way to do it. But if pitches are unfair, it’s only because they represent the very sharpest end of the agency-client power dynamic. They are delightful for clients, a living hell for the agencies involved. If an agency-client relationship is a commitment, pitches are pure romance. They appeal to that long-suffering pose assumed by so many clients: all they really want is to be made to feel a little bit special.
But the use of pitches is changing. For years they were mainly the accepted method of dumping an agency. It makes the change look inevitable, and it offers the jilted party an almost dignified way out. ‘They beat us’ is easier to swallow than ‘they don’t like us’.
Just like it’s sometimes easier to cheat on your partner, than tell them you can’t stand the sound of them eating any longer.
Now pitches have a new role, and it’s one that we have unwittingly created for ourselves. A big brand might reasonably have four agencies on the go, say: DM, web, ATL and PR. It’s in the nature of the game that they’ll try to pinch one another’s work. The ATL agency becomes ‘integrated’ and starts doing the web banners. The DM agency has an idea for some press ads, the ATL agency hates them, but oh look, they end up pulling really hard. Then it occurs to some bright spark brand manager that, instead of just taking a permissive approach to this unofficial poaching, you could do it properly. Why let the incumbent ride the agency-of-record gravy train, when you can pitch the work out brief-by-brief and then sit back and watch your agencies fight for it like a pack of caged hyenas with a fillet steak?
The big losers here are the ATL agencies. There’s always the possibility that the DM agency or the web agency will come up with a good idea (the PR agency, meh, less of a menace), but what’s absolutely certain is that their solution will be cheaper. Worse still, pitched like this the brief becomes trendily ‘media neutral’.
We could spend a million quid on a TV spot, but look, the web kids have
an iPhone app. Ooh, so modern.
For creatives all this spells more work for no more money. More late nights and weekends, and no guarantee of a win at the end of it. This industry offers no sharper pain than a lost pitch: the futility, the wasted hours. Agency morale takes a dip, but morale takes a while to show up on a balance sheet that says ‘win more’, more urgently with every loss.
So we better learn to love pitching. And there is something, if not actually fun, then at least compelling in them. You probably won’t ever fight in a war. Maybe this is your chance to learn what you’re made of.