How to take the pain out of agency pitching

November 2022

Pitching for new business is a big and necessary part of a creative agency’s life. But it’s not always a part that we love. Agencies can spend months on a pitch, doing the research, developing the idea, creating the pitch deck, working up the visuals, all the while hoping that they’re on the right track. Sometimes, the client adores the result, we win the work and it’s all been worth it. Sometimes we don’t and it feels like all that time has been wasted.

Too often the process is time-consuming, frustrating and expensive. And it’s not just us who feel this way. Earlier this year, the advertising industry groups ANA and the 4A’s carried out a survey of 100 agencies and 41 clients to find out how they feel about the pitching process and what their pain points are.

All the agencies the researchers spoke to said they found it painful not knowing the budget or which agencies are competing for the work. Brands, meanwhile, have their own pain points. They are frustrated, for example, by not having access to the agency staff who will be working on the project day-to-day. What everyone agreed on was that it was time to rethink the agency pitching process, and that there needs to be a standardised system.

But before we talk about the cure, let’s talk about what’s causing the pain.

Is it worth pitching for?

The biggest beefs that agencies have is that they’re not given the information they need to decide whether to pitch at all. There’s a hesitancy on the part of clients to give away crucial details, such as the project budget or how many agencies are pitching.

Elespacio’s creative director Mara has been through the pitch process more times than she cares to remember. She says, “A pitch can take months, with several people working on it. If you know there are 20 other agencies pitching at the same time, then we can ask ourselves, is it worth it? Maybe if there’s a big budget with a year’s work and a retainer at stake, it is. It’s a business calculation that you have to make.”

“A pitch can take months, with several people working on it. If you know there are 20 other agencies pitching at the same time, then we can ask ourselves, is it worth it?"

Agnieszka, head of design and partner at elespacio, agrees that there needs to be more recognition of how much agencies invest into a pitch. “The amount of work you have to put in is extraterrestrial. And, especially if you don’t even know what you’re going to gain, sometimes you can end up pitching out the whole project. There needs to be a correlation between what the actual project will be in the end, and what you are asked to do for the pitch.”

Don’t judge us on looks alone

Next is the issue of not knowing how the client will make their decision. “In better pitching processes you are given a bullet list of criteria and how many points will be awarded for each one,” says Agnieszka. “That way you know what to pay attention to and you can be prepared for it.”

Brands also need to base their decision not only on the deliverables – whether it’s an ad campaign, a new packaging design or a content strategy – but on the agency’s approach. “Too often an idea is judged on something as top-level as shape or colour,” says Mara. “When pitching, you don’t get judged by your process or your argument, on how logical it is, how well-explained, creative or agile it is. You are judged on the result.”

“When pitching, you don’t get judged by your process or your argument, on how logical it is, how well-explained, creative or agile it is. You are judged on the result.”

And the problem is that the result is not a true representation of what you can do. If the pitch brief involves a photoshoot for a campaign, for example, an agency is not going to set up a real photoshoot. They can give an idea of what it will look like, but it won’t be anything like the finished result. The client needs to have realistic expectations of what can be accomplished at that point, and empathy for the creative process.

It's a lonely road

For an agency to do itself justice with a business pitch, the creative environment must be right, and that means more collaboration throughout the whole period. Without it, agencies can find themselves working in the dark.

Having regular communication allows client and agency to test their working relationship and it helps keep the agency on the straight and narrow – one of the brands’ biggest pain points according to the ANA/4A’s study was that agencies tend to veer off book. Regular check-ins will let the agency know if they’re going astray.

How to pitch for business

So enough of the complaints. Now for some suggestions for what a standardised, fair, transparent pitch process might look like:

1. Clear decision criteria

Knowing what they will be judged on gives agencies a real chance to show we can meet the brief. It also stops us from veering off book. And that makes everyone happy.

2. The budget and who is pitching

This is the one most important thing for agencies – deciding whether it’s worth chasing the work in the first place. We think it’s also a good idea for clients to limit the number of agencies they invite to the pitch, because that means they think more carefully about what kind of agencies will fit. One of the most excruciating things for us is being told we lost a pitch because our agency was too small.

3. Plenty of communication

This prevents agencies from wasting time by going down the wrong route. Sometimes we start with more than one idea and lose out simply because we chose the wrong one. It also allows clients to see how we work and how we approach a brief. At the minimum, set up some calls early in the process, so we can ask those crucial questions.

4. A realistic timeline and scope of work

Ideally, one that correlates to the value of the project itself. Endless iterations and adaptations are unnecessary – they just eat up the agency’s time and resources.

5. Agree on an etiquette for the presentation

If it’s a Zoom meeting, maybe agree that everyone has their camera switched on. There’s nothing worse than presenting to a grid of empty grey squares.  

6. Clear, comprehensive feedback

If we lose a pitch, we really want to know why, because that’s how we learn and improve. It makes all the effort worthwhile even if we didn’t win the work.

These are just a few ideas and, perhaps, a way of opening up a dialogue between brands and agencies. Because the pitching process really doesn’t have to be painful. It could be a useful, even an enjoyable, exercise for both agency and client. The agency gets to flex their creative muscles. The brand gets to focus on and refine their requirements. There will be valuable lessons for both parties. Ultimately, the project will run more smoothly and the outcome will be of better quality, and everyone, in the end, will be a winner.

Illustration: Monika Sroga

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