Creative pitches – why are clients so callous?

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It is one of the biggest puzzles of the advertising industry: the creative pitch. When an agency gets a call for a pitch, it has the ability to fire up the teams and the office is abuzz with activity (usually the night before!). It also has the habit of sucking up agency resources across the board for an activity that may or may not bear fruit. The classic case of pie in the sky. Yet, the creative pitch is a proud tradition of advertising agencies. A branch’s success or vibrancy is measured on how many pitches one has been called for!

Agencies know that they are underselling and under-valuing themselves in a pitch. Because they dole out the only stock-in-trade an advertising agency – its ideas. They could be strategic or creative. A strategic input could be about pricing, targeting, positioning a brand. The creative input could straddle from a baseline to a TV script to a media usage idea. Any or all of these are asked for in a pitch. Any consultant would charge a bomb for such inputs. Yet, agencies line up in truck loads for a pitch and give all the gyan free.

The financial impact: positive & negative

From the agency point-of-view, it cannot say no to a pitch that has potential to double the turnover or have some such huge financial impact. No wonder that 18 agencies lined up for the Incredible India pitch in 2006. And not a day passes by without news of a big corporate calling the top agencies for a pitch. Even smaller brand budgets of Rs. 150mn and Rs. 250mn can get an agency salivating – depending on the city. When a pitch is worn, it is a great high. It also gives the confidence to hire and invest in capial equipment. And very importantly it is the magnet that attracts good talent.

Now for the downside. Clients must realize that an agency’s top talents are usually involved in a pitch – taking their focus away from the business that they already have. And extended pitches over several rounds can be potentially dangerous for the agency – because their team is busy chasing a possible new client and not thinking on their current brands. Apart from the monies spent on a pitch (typically involving research costs, purchase of archives, late night dinners and so on), the time cost is huge. That is money down the drain if a pitch is lost. And of course, it is a great setback for the youngsters in the team who have given up their beer sessions to stare at a Powerpoint slide or a layout.

Why pitches are not the answer

Clients think that they have made a considered choice after going through a systematic approach to shortlist agencies. The basis of choice is usually about category experience, strength of the creative idea, quality of the team etc.

But this is fundamentally flawed.

The reason: pitch recommendations are usually made after ‘understanding’ the category in 2 weeks or less. Sure, the seniors in the team may have had category experience. But to assume that one has a deep understanding of a category and its consumers in such a short span of time is flawed. The strategy is based on personal experiences, and notions about how the consumer behaves. The creative idea too usually emerges the night before. Notexactly the kind of time frame required to carefully consider long term implications, how it will drive the brand forward etc. The usual criteria is – the cleverer the idea, the better it is from a pitch point-of-view. So, the chances of the recommendation moving the brand forward are poor.

No wonder that the campaign most liked in a pitch (or the reason behind the choice of agency) hardly gets to see light of day when the agency-client relationship forms.

Pitch: fee or not to fee?

Industry bodies have suggested that clients should pay the agencies called for a pitch, a ‘pitching fee’. Seems fair. At least recover a part of the investments made in a pitch process. But the disunity among the agencies and the ‘upper-hand’ of clients has not made the idea work in its true spirit.

Its natural for clients to explore what the agency can do for them. But they rarely ask for a ‘research pitch’ – they go by the agencies capabilities. They hire someone in Brand Mangement, largely based on his or her credentials. Agencies are only too willing to offer their serives for free. So why not get it free? Agencies that prefer not to pitch will feel the pressure (market demands it, growth from current clients not good enough etc.) some time and they too will join the race.

This calls for a mindset change. Clients should go by the agency track record, stability of senior management and recent work. If they call for a pitch, let the agencies be paid fairly for the time and effort.

Wait a minute, I see something outside the window. I think its a pig. And its flying.

Enough said. I have to prepare for a pitch next week.

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