A Change in Pitch: Breaking the mould

Jess Feltham

Marketing Director


It’s easy when talking about the pitch to only think about the work. After all, it’s a process that came into the world to find the best of the best – to whittle down the agency pool for the client and to land the work at the door of the right people for the job. But these are best intentions more than reality.

In exploring how we unpick the nasty habits of the traditional pitch process, we looked at the artificiality of the process, whilst also tackling the misnomer that one size fits all; both explore how a broken pitch process can corrupt the output of a brand-agency relationship. In this piece, I’ll be looking at the impact.

If you think of the best pedestal our industry has to offer – the one that garners the most spotlight before both brand clients and agency teams – it’s the pitch. Yet its all-consuming nature can mean everything slips into the periphery for the sake of winning new business and inclusion is sacrificed.

It can be a boiler room for bad habits.

In an article on the IPA’s recent diversity study, Creative Equals’ Ali Hanan exclaimed how “the numbers of women moving up to senior leadership has moved by 0.6%. Overall, the BAME figures have moved by 0.7%.” She also quoted from a study by Bianca Richards which said how creative women are 45% less likely to be invited to join a pitch. The connection there is clear.

If the pitch is a catalyst for progression, then what happens to those who can’t conform to the demands it currently inflicts on agencies? Or to those who fall victim to the bad habits it plays into the hands of? They are left by the wayside and a bad working culture flourishes. And all because of a process the industry says it wants to change anyway.

Something to consider is whether highlighting the negative impact the pitch can have might help it finally change for the better.

Getting to know the team is tantamount to a brand appointing an agency. But what about who they are as people? Understanding that the people in the room are individuals with their own lives – and not simply idea-generators – is a crucial step towards realising the impact an unethical pitch process can have on them.

Speaking at our event, Leagas Delaney CEO Fergus Hay said how:

If we [the industry community] follow the habits of the last 30 years we will go out of business. We need to build businesses that have a proper moral code.

Fergus Hay, CEO of Leagas Delaney

Having worked extensively in Asia and the US, Fergus referred to both territories’ employment of a ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) system. With a focus on output instead of input, the system looks at how people achieve their best work, rather than the extent of hours they pour into their days.

Such a shift in focus sounds like something the pitch could do with. The process is undoubtedly skewed to agencies working as much and as intensely as possible. From my own time agency side, I can attest for the sense of ‘win at all costs’ that pervades agencies as they go for new work.

And because of this, we lose sight of one another as human beings. Instead, it’s the work and ‘the big win’ that occupy our horizon.

How this changes lies in “breaking habit and assumption.” That’s according to Fergus who went on to say how we base so much of the current process on what people did in the past, when in fact “there’s no real case to show that it has better results.”

Fergus continued: “If we can unpick previous assumption and decide how we want to do it; how the working environment can be conducive to everyone’s lifestyles, then I think we can make great progress. It just needs us [agency CEOs] to break the mould.”

Fergus continued by saying how:

Clients are much better at setting the standards than agencies at the moment.

Fergus Hay, CEO of Leagas Delaney

But he still sees the issue as lying “firmly within agency leadership.”

Deciding how we do it is of course something that lies with the community, not the individual. A symptom of the time warp the pitch finds itself in is that one party has done all the decision-making up till now. But as another article of ours explains, there needs to be a power shift. We’re a community now, and we need to be respectful of that and make decisions in that way. The mould won’t break until we all contribute.

Just because the working cultures are the agencies’ own, the problem doesn’t reside exclusively with them. As I said earlier, the pitch process (one orchestrated by the brand) is a boiler room for bad habits. But as James Hayhurst, (Global Brand Equity Director at Unilever) says, the impact mightn’t even be one clients are awake to.

There is something about talent leakage and mental health that clients aren’t aware of, they’d be horrified if they were.

James Hayhurst, Global Brand Equity Director at Unilever

We don’t see that as clients, and agencies never push back because they can’t because they need to do more, more, more.”

If agencies were able to vocalise their concerns more to brands, then brands would become increasingly aware of the pressures this current process has on agency working cultures. Only by bringing this problem to light, can brands implement it into their work with agencies.

The effort needs to be communal. That’s how we’ll arrive at an environment where anyone – regardless of ethnicity and gender, whether they have children, or whether they suffer from mental health issues – can flourish. The pitch should be a conduit for the best work and the most extraordinary people. Exclusion should be the opposite of what it is about, and this is why it must change. It’s not overplaying it to say changing it might even hold the key to changing working cultures across the industry as a whole.

The alternative is that we stick to our bad habits and, as Fergus warns, go out of business. The time for us to finally break the mould is running out.