How To Fix A Broken Pitch Process

Article by Portland-based copywriter, Robert Moss.

Why are DDB, TBWA, Deutsch and Leo Burnett not going to pitch Sears? It’s a huge account, they spent $500 million in advertising last year. Because Sears demanded that every agency that pitches them give up ownership of everything they present, whether they win the business or not, and without compensation.

The 4A’s has been very clear about the fact that it’s unreasonable and unfair for any client to expect ownership with no compensation for the agencies,” said Mitch Caplan, North American CMO at Interpublic’s McCann Erickson, and former chairman of the large-agency new-business committee of the 4A’s. “If agencies are going give their ideas away, it sends the wrong message to the marketplace, to the industry and to agency employees.

Sears claims they’re sharing confidential information with prospective agencies and they’re afraid an agency may use ideas formed on the basis of that information for competing clients. And that’s why they say they want ownership without compensation.

That’s like me calling Sears/Kenmore, G.E. and several other brands and saying we’re looking for a new refrigerator. Please deliver a fridge on such and such a date so that we may evaluate them. We’ll own all the refrigerators. We’ll pay only for the one that wins our business. But you’ll learn valuable information about what we keep in our refrigerator and the eating habits of my family.

All kidding aside, this is a symptom of a pitch process that’s sick in other ways. According to BusinessWeek, CEO’s want creativity more than anything else. So why has there been so little innovation in how companies solicit pitches from agencies?

What if companies looked at ad agencies’ past work as a first step in selecting an agency. And then went on a series of dates.

Pull up in front of the agency in a van and pick up people who’d have the most involvement. The president, an account supervisor, the creative director, a copywriter, an art director, an Interactive lead, a social media expert, as well as someone from planning and media. Then go on your first date.

How about the movies? Pick something that fits your company’s demographic. Sit in pairs but don’t bunch up, check out how other people in the audience react to the film. Then go have dinner and talk about what you saw. If you’re one of the clients, listen to how people from the agency talk about the movie. What do they think worked best and why? If you’re from the agency, what details does the client bring up? Do the people on your date seem insightful? Smart? Do you like them? Or did they crunch popcorn throughout the movie?

For a second date, how about a surprise? This time let the agency decide and pick up the clients in a van. Make it something like cleaning up a playground and painting park benches, see-saws and other surfaces. Or bring orange jump suits and clean litter from along the highway. Something out of the everyday and that takes teamwork. Then go have a beer and talk. But not about capabilities and that stuff. All that can be put together. And all that means nothing without the right chemistry.

A pitch process as dating would also use resources more efficiently. Agencies spend huge amounts of money (and time) on trying to win new business. What if that could be used to hire more people working on the accounts the agency already has? Or increase salaries or bonuses? Or be recorded as shareholder profit? It’s got to be better than the current new business system. So like a real date, start first with attraction. Do you like the ad agency’s work? Good, now get to know them.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.