Agencies: Nobody is forcing you to pitch
“The fact of the matter is the clients hold all the cards. They always have.” A strong opener from Media Sherpas CEO, Nancy Hill, in her recent opinion piece for Campaign Asia. It’s accompanied by an equally hard-hitting headline, “Gruelling pitch conditions to stay until marketers shift disrespectful power dynamic”.
Both statements struck me as emotionally charged, hardly an uncommon symptom when discussing this particular topic. In fact, the agency pitch process has been the subject of much conjecture of late, most recently at MFA EX, where agency leaders went head to head on the issue of price undercutting and the seemingly endless ‘race to the bottom’.
A few tense minutes and the odd profanity later, the frustration and fatigue among the big agency groups when it comes to pitching was clear.
To that end, Hill makes many good points throughout. She is clearly acutely aware of the challenges agencies are facing when it comes to the pitch process, unsurprising given her background as president of US ad agency trade association, 4A’s.
- The pitching power dynamic currently allows clients to take advantage of agencies, who are faced with the dilemma of accepting often unworkable terms for the chance to pitch on a piece of business they sorely need.
- This creates a lose-lose situation. The client loses out on exposure to potentially great agency partners who simply can’t meet the terms. The agencies lose because they either refuse the terms and miss out or give into demands.
- The responsibility lies squarely with the clients. They have the power to conduct this process in a mutually respectful manner, one that’s transparent from the beginning, clear and direct in its intent, and acknowledges that an agency is a professional services firm with a business and employees to consider.
- Until the side with all the power acknowledges that dynamic and actively sets out to design a more respectful process, agencies will continue to face this version of "Sophie’s Choice" every day.
The pitching power imbalance is real, and it’s wrong, but in my experience, it doesn’t reflect the majority of what’s happening in ad land, at least not with Australian owned clients.
I can’t be alone in thinking that the positives still far outweigh the negatives when it comes to pitching. Surely it can’t all be fire and brimstone?
In an independent agency like ours, for example, it’s is the lifeblood of our business.
Pitching, even unsuccessfully, has the potential to do you a world of good. It keeps you hungry, helps you evolve and fine tune your product offering, ignites the competitive spirit, and ultimately grows your business.
Do situations like those Hill describes exist? Absolutely, but they are hardly the norm, and typically easy to spot a mile off. And when they do crop up, I remember the golden rule of pitching:
You are not obligated to do so.
That is not to say the decision to withdraw or walk away is an easy one, especially in a relatively flat market, but tough decisions are par for the course when running any business.
If you are ‘obligated’ to pitch, rest assured that obligation is not coming from the client. Therefore, rightly or wrongly, it’s not something you can expect them to be inclined to help resolve, especially given they are likely under a similar ‘win at all costs’ pressure on their side.
To avoid mismatched expectations and the resentment that inevitably causes down the track in the pitch process, you cannot be afraid to ask the right questions upfront. Both parties should begin as they mean to go on, which is to say (hopefully) with honesty and transparency.
Find out the information you need to make an informed decision on the value exchange the pitch represents for your business. If there isn’t one, find the nearest exit. Because while it might seem as if clients hold all the cards, the option to play the game still sits with the agency.