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The Agency Pitch Is A Losing Bet For The CMO

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at August 16, 2021

If you hire a typical pitch consultant to manage an agency search, the process will go something like that: They will approach a dozen agencies or so and ask them to fill an RFP. The verbosity of the response might remind you of Leo Tolstoy’s 1200-page War and Peace. It would take days of reading through it. You will then hold “meet and greet” meetings with half a dozen or more agency teams. They would, of course, take you through their “unique” process. As a matter of fact, the “different” processes will all differ in name only. And then you’d give the agencies a brief and ask for spec work for a business they know little about.

Not to mention that the typical pitch could take six months to conclude, and market make-up might have been completely altered from when you started, rendering the solution utterly obsolete.

In a word, you might get better odds at a Las Vegas roulette table.

Consultant-managed pitches are often convoluted and disjointed. They cultivated and perpetuated a rather unprofessional and certainly undignified system of a beauty pageant. Good agencies are experts in their field and know exactly what conditions they need to create the best work. Working in isolation under a contrived set of circumstances to perform before a panel of marketers with whom they have little interaction can’t possibly be an true indication of how a brand and agency will be working together.  

Ninety percent of advertisers pick an agency this way, through a pitch. The process, as practiced, is awful: It involves long lead times, layers of consensus needed to select a partner, lack of access to decision makers, cost pressure from procurement, search consultants who are not equipped to provide senior level perspective. 

The pitch is an archaic practice, and it is mainly responsible for the deteriorating stability in client-agency partnerships: In 1984, the average client-agency relationship lasted 7.2 years. By 1997, this had fallen to 5.3 years, and today, the average relationship lasts 2.5 years.

Short-termism is now an intrinsic component of the pitch process. When an agency wins a new client, the only way to make up for giving away all that high value thinking for free during the pitch is to charge as much as possible, for as long as possible, for as low value-add cost and diluted staff as possible. This is the cause of a growing misalignment of interests and friction between clients and agencies that leads to accelerated churn. 

Clients are often swayed by agencies emotionally, and that can lead to a distorted decision. Especially since agencies excel in dazzling, seductive presentations, infused with pronouncements that are smoke and mirrors. The result is that impressionable advertisers might not pick the best agency but opt for the best presentation.

On the surface, it may seem like a good idea for clients to harvest a smorgasbord of free ideas during the pitch process. However, there are wider consequences of all this that can lead to more harm than good, which aren’t well understood. The waste of time and resource for advertisers, and distraction from attending to on-going business needs is obvious enough.

A pitch can also harm careers. The agency churn is the main reason for the shrinking tenure of the CMO, now two to three years. What hurts CMOs is the fact that the pitch process is geared for delivering mediocrity and safe results. If an agency is investing major time and money into a pitch, very few shops are brave enough to go out on a limb to put forward an earth-shattering new concept. It’s too risky in a pitch. Hiring an agency that would deliver a substandard, low-risk work is a sure path to the demise of the CMO that hired them.

The pitch is created inside a bubble, with the focus on winning, not on whatever is the best solution to the client’s problem. The winning creative idea is often tweaked and altered after picking an agency, and eventually evolves into only a shell of the initial concept that supposedly won. Often, there’s no evaluation of the approach to an idea in a pitch, or how an agency’s thought process and insight when developing solutions to real business problems.

The pandemic has shaken things up – businesses the world over have pivoted with impressive, innovative new approaches, products and services. Advertisers can benefit hugely from broadening their thinking about pitching, an utterly archaic tradition. 

Clients need to find ways to experience working with their potential partners; to see in practice how their approaches differ and getting a genuine feel for an agency’s talent. 

If you’re looking for a long-term agency partner, instead of a typical pitch, “beta test” the candidates, using a collaborative approach. Start by bringing on just two or three agencies and pay them fairly but not excessively to work with your team for a couple of months on a real projecttreating it as an on-going relationship. You then can decide which agency makes the most sense to commit to, based on their thinking, cultural fit, ideas, achievement and commitment to the brand. 

With this approach, you’ll make a more informed and confident decision that would lead to long-lasting relationships with your agency.

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