No we won’t participate in your creative pitch

Four reasons why the creative agency pitch is a terrible instrument for decision-making and what to do instead.

Dear pitch consultant,
Dear marketing manager,

No. We won’t participate in your creative agency pitch.
Before you shrug your shoulders and contact the next sucker agency, please take the time to read our explanation below. As a behavioural design agency we think we have a couple of things to say about why the creative pitch is a terrible instrument for decision-making.

By organizing a creative pitch, you’re basically arguing that what you’re looking for is a creative idea, in stead of an agency. You don’t really care about the agency you will choose. What you want is the best idea. Here’s 4 reasons why this is a bad way of decision-making:

1. The pitch idea rarely ever makes it till production phase

Everyone knows that the idea that wins the pitch is rarely the idea that is going to make it in the campaign. There’s a couple of reasons for that: During a pitch, we have very limited understanding of your business, your market and your brand. Furthermore: once the pitch is over, we suddenly get to hear that Dicky the CMO, who had no time to be in the pitch – busy, as he is – turns out to have some very outspoken ideas about what he thinks the project needs. So your creative pitch eventually hooked you up with an agency, but you both wasted a tremendous time and money because now you have to start all over again.

2. You have no idea what you want and you hope the creative work will do the thinking for you

So you’re the organiser of a creative pitch. But what do you know about reviewing creativity? How do we know your creative and strategic skills go beyond “I like this / I don’t like this”? Are you just hoping some creatives will do the thinking for you and the killer idea will just strike you? Your absense of knowhow is usually reflected in your shitty briefings and your ‘Go wild’ and ‘think outside the box’ statements. And in your refusal to include your budget in the pitch document (often with the cliché argument: There’s always money for a great idea).

3. You have no clue what an agency needs to do to win the pitch

I always hear you using the same argument: “We’re not asking for a complete creative concept,.. just a sketch”. Have you ever heard about the commercial with the two guys who are being chased by a bear? And one of the guys stops to put on his running shoes. The other guy says: “What are you doing? You can’t outrun a bear”. Upon which the guy responds: “I don’t need to, I just need to outrun you”. The problem with a pitch is that persuading you is the easy part. Being better, smarter, more eager then the other agencies: that’s the hard stuff. Every agency knows that there’s going to be at least one competitor agency that will go all the way to win the account. So once agencies decide to play the game, they’re trapped into this race to the top. We usually end up investing more money to win the pitch, than we’re able to win back while working for you. And we can’t really blame you. You already made your agencies prove they are willing to go work for you for free, so why would you now start paying for things like strategy?

4. Ideas are easy, shipping ideas is the hard part

Everyone knows that great work is the result of a great agency-client relationship. When both parties believe in each other and are prepared to accept all the hassle, the fights, the struggles, the endless discussions that are needed to get everyone to embrace the strategy and the creative idea, then great work is being produced. Every great project we ever did was a nightmare in terms of protecting the project from anxiety, politics, etc. So if you think you need an idea, in stead of an agency: Good luck with that. Ideas are worthless. Hustling an ambitious idea to the point of production: that’s were the real magic happens.

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So now you know why a creative pitch is a terrible selection-instrument, here’s some suggestions on what you should do instead:

1. Go and talk to maximum 7 agencies. Take your time to get to know them and to discover their view on your business, your market and your marketing challenge. Do they display insight, knowledge and wisdom on your market and your business? Do they pose intriguing questions? Of course, you can always contact us.

2. Ask them about their creative methodology: How do they work? How do they collaborate with you? Who’s in the team? How do they explore solutions? How do they validate their ideas?

3. Invite maximum 3 agencies to present a high-level strategy and pay them to do that. By paying them, you prove to them you’re also a professional who values strategic thinking: Ask them how they look at your problem, ask them what their strategy would be to solve this problem and ask them how they would collaborate with you to get to their proposed solution. Don’t ask for creative ideas. Never. Ever. Creativity is a commodity. Every agency can come up with original ideas. Just do your homework and look on their websites. What you want to discover is: 1) Do they understand my problem, 2) do they have an interesting perspective on the solution? 3) Do I see myself working with these people ?

4. Be honest with yourself: If you’re not the budget-owner and the highest in rank: don’t organize the pitch. You have no idea what you’re demanding of your agencies only for them to discover after weeks of work you don’t have a mandate.

5. Share your budget. There’s a simple rule of thumb that we had to learn the hard way: When clients won’t share their budget, they have no budget. I heard about a pitch with 7 agencies for a budget that turned out to be a 30k budget including production and media. The winning agency only found out after winning the pitch.

Oh, one more thing:
Dear fellow agencies that keep participating in creative pitches:
If you think that the originality of your ideas is your most important asset, and yet you’re willing to give them away for free during a creative pitch, there’s no excuses for you. You have a dead business model. You deserve to be disrupted.

And dear pitch consultants who advice marketers on organizing creative pitches: There’s a special place in hell for ex-advertising executives who get paid to do exactly the value-destruction they once detested.

 

You can also read these columns by Tom de Bruyne:


PS. If you want to master the art of influence yourself, join the Behavioural Design Academy now.

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