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The creative dilemma: Pitching in a world that sets you up for failure

The pitching process: a delicate dance between client and agency. It has its steps, its moments of push and pull and, if you're lucky, it ends with a flourish. But both clients and agencies have responsibilities when it comes to pitching and, if these responsibilities aren't taken seriously, projects with the potential for success are instead destined to fail. By mismanaging the process and not having the right people in the right room at the right time, clients step on their partners' toes and run the risk of ruining the entire dance.
The creative dilemma: Pitching in a world that sets you up for failure

The briefing dilemma

The problems often start at the very beginning: many briefs, quite simply, are badly prepared. Their ins and outs haven’t been carefully considered, and important questions haven’t been preempted. When these questions are asked, the answers are often slow to come and valuable preparation time is lost. On multiple occasions, we have had to proceed with a creative proposal in order not to miss a deadline, only to receive eleventh-hour feedback that derails the concept entirely, forcing us to rush to produce a new one from scratch.

This slap-dash approach to briefing prevents agencies from giving of their best, and increases the risk of clients feeling dissatisfied with the pitches presented.

The pitching dilemma

A great divide has wedged itself between the marketing and procurement departments of companies in recent years, and the consequences are disastrous for agencies attempting to pitch for work. Of course, marketing should be concerned with the creative ideas agencies present, their understanding of the company’s strategy, and the probability of the concept achieving a solid ROI. Procurement, on the other hand, needs to ensure that the agencies pitching meet the company’s due diligence requirements and guidelines, and, of course, are within the allocated budget.

But while they serve separate functions, communication between the two is critical. Internally, the marketing and procurement departments need to know how they are weighing up creative against cost – and, as far as possible, this needs to be communicated to the relevant agencies too.

Agencies are rarely aware of how their pitches will be scored, which means it’s hard to know whether to drive concept development or to push for a conservative price. Our hope – and I believe I can speak on behalf of many, if not all, agencies here – is that the client understands that the pitch is simply a response to the client’s invitation to dance. We’re showing our interest, and offering a sneak peak of our fancy footwork. We want to show that we want to work together to develop an idea that meets the client’s specific objectives (something we’re unlikely to be able to develop fully in a pitch document), and offer a quote that gives an indication of our costing model with line items that are typically both optional and flexible.

It’s therefore imperative that marketing and procurement sit in the same room and examine each pitch carefully. Marketing needs to be aware that initial concepts can be adapted, provided that the necessary experience and expertise is apparent, and procurement needs to understand that judging a submission too harshly on pricing is dangerous, as most costs can be tweaked. Conversations about these issues – internally and, ideally, with agencies too – ought to be as candid as possible.

The industry is not unaware of these issues, which are prolific. In May 2019, the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) established a Global Sourcing Board to improve marketing procurement practices. This was on the back of research undertaken by the WFA in 2018 among senior marketing procurement executives in 65 of the world’s largest multinational companies. The results found that, although 83% of executives “confirmed that there was a company mandate in their organisations asking marketers to work closely with procurement, less than a third got involved at budget planning or initiation of requirements in the supplier relationship management process.”

The creative dilemma

In this context, with marketing and procurement departments failing to communicate and often only considering their individual mandates, agencies are destined to fall short. The creative dilemma then surfaces: how best to represent your business and your abilities to a potential client in a system that sets you up for failure?

Of course, agencies have a role to play in this dance. More than anything else, we need to produce our very best work – every single time – to demonstrate our skills and commitment. But as the lead dance partner, the onus rests on the client to create a space that is productive and beneficial for all parties involved.

In the pitching process, clients might consider the following:

  • If possible, conduct your briefings in person or over the phone. It leaves less room for misinterpretation and allows space for questions to be asked.
  • Consider your briefs from the point of view of the agencies receiving them. Maybe bring an independent person (with marketing experience) on board to point out where you may have made assumptions or not provided enough detail. Also, make your objectives clear so that your agencies can focus on the most important points in their submission. Although it’s rare, we especially appreciate insight into what the key differentiator is likely to be.
  • Grant your agencies enough time. While it’s important that we demonstrate our ability to work under pressure, the best ideas take a while to brew.
  • Inevitably questions are going to come back to you – try to answer these timeously so that your agency has the chance to deliver a quality product.
  • Lastly, please let us know either way. We put our hearts into our pitches, every time, so please keep us informed as to where you are at in the process.

Pitching and awarding work is time consuming and expensive for clients and agencies alike. The best way to ensure that it is successful – and to mitigate the creative dilemma and the creative fallout – is for both parties to treat the other with mutual respect and to employ ethically sound business practices. If these steps are followed, the dance ends with a bold “10” on the judges’ scorecards.

Worx Group
The Worx Group is a marketing solutions company that combines design, production, digital marketing, activations and events to explore opportunities for our clients, staff and partners.

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