The Problem with Pitching & Why Your Should Never Ever Do It

Every creative agency has gone through the soul-crushing process of pitching. Even the firms with a strict ’no-pitch rule’ have had to compromise at some point, usually due to how important the client is (and how great they’ll look on your client list) or because they have the kind of budget that makes you salivate. So you take the risk, a leap of faith brimming with hope and the great Maybe, you enslave your team to work throughout the weekend and pull all-nighters. And then minutes before the deadline you run out of the office, laptop open in hand, putting the final touches on your presentation as your colleague drives like a maniac during rush hour to get to the meeting on time. And then, once you’re there, it all pays off! Your presentation goes beautifully, the client is happy and encouraging, you feel like this is in the bag and you go home with a huge smile on your face. You know you worked hard and presented work so awesome you want to plaster it all over the city!

A week (or month) later, suddenly that email pops up. You know the one. The subject line fills you with dread mixed with frantic anticipation, and then you skim to the 2nd or 3rd sentence. “Your presentation was great but…” – your heart sinks into your stomach like a sack of bricks – “We regret to inform you…”  – your heart feels a stab of pain -“We decided to go with another agency” – the final blow. You stare blankly at the screen. Do you cry? Do you scream? Do you just quit and run away? How are you gonna face your team? What did you do wrong? Are you as good as you thought you were? Are you in the right career? Have you fooled yourself? Was it you? Was it that laugh that came out too loudly? Did you smell bad? And so the endless barrage of self-deprecating thoughts flood your mind before someone comes by to interrupt. Then you face reality and break the news to the team. A hush falls upon the room. Everyone comes to a standstill. Your team is shocked and the air is suddenly thick with sadness, tension and self-loathing.

Then you decide, this was not worth it. That was the last time. You will never pitch again. Ever.

Until the next brief comes along…

New business is both the lifeblood of an agency and its biggest nightmare. It’s very difficult for an agency to say no to new business. New business means more revenue and more revenue means more success. But there are many problems that come along with pitching and the consequences can be dire. I’ve seen many an agency suffer great loss – of time, money, energy, clients, staff and sanity – with irredeemable results.

So… What exactly IS the problem with pitching?

Pitches are all about money. All agencies have creative abilities and great designers, so don’t for one second that you’re special and that your design (however awesome) will win you the project. I’ve worked on both sides of the aisle, at agencies and and client-side, I can tell you a marketing manager or CEO is only interested in the bottom line. They don’t even read your proposal’s scope of work. Their eyes go straight to the bit that says TOTAL AMOUNT. They’ll usually go with the cheapest. Its a terrible way to select an agency but that’s the reality. Another scenario I’ve witnessed many times is when a marketing manager already knows which agency will be selected (usually because there is a personal connection somewhere) but simply go through the entire pitch process to tell the boss that they did that. This is extremely unfair and conniving so the only thing you can do is to refuse to participate.

Pitches are based on very little client information. A brief might explain the client’s goals and objectives but will rarely help you understand the client’s personality, culture, temperament, challenges, character, ethos etc… so most pitch work is guess work, its all too easy to over-promise and (inevitably) under-deliver and the chances of you not providing what the client wants are astronomically high. Pitching puts agencies against one another in a highly artificial way, rarely comparing like for like. The agencies who don’t win end up having spent a lot of time and money on the pitch, all for nothing. And, sadly, clients that base such important decisions on price alone tend to be much more demanding than the rest, sometimes unreasonably so.

Clients almost always steal your work. If you’re in the creative industry, you’ve had your ideas stolen. Whether you know it or not! Almost every agency has a horror story to tell about a prospective client using their advert idea or website design after rejecting a pitch, without any compensation. It’s downright dishonourable and dishonest. We’d much rather steer clear of the risk altogether and, as you can imagine, we don’t like working with people whose primary aim is to rip us off! We’re nice, and we like working with nice people.

Great design depends on excellent planning. Planning involves competitor research and analysis, brand audits, examining strengths and weaknesses, how to communicate the message the right way to the right audience, product testing and a lot more. The creative side of a pitch will almost always be sub-standard. Simply because the companies pitching don’t have all the information they need to do the best job. It’ll be based on a narrow and often naïve view of your organisation and an equally narrow view of your target audience and sector.

Pitching distracts you from your actual paying clients. Which is unfair and frankly if I were a client and I found out the quality of my work was suffering or being delayed by my agency was out trying to score a bigger fish I’d resent them and not say a single good thing about them. Referrals are EVERYTHING. So always keep your clients happy and never cheat on them with some floozy who doesn’t know what she wants.

Last but not least, pitching is not normal, period. Would a builder build you a house on spec, letting you decide for sure whether or not you want to buy it once it’s finished? Of course not! Here is a wonderful film by Canadian Agency Zulu Alpha Kilo that says it all:

So how do you convince the clients?

  1. Education: Through conversation, explain why this process will not produce the best match, work or relationship between them and their selected agency.
  2. Experience: Your experience should speak for itself! An agency’s website portfolio, credentials presentations, case studies and client testimonials are more than enough to indicate whether they’re the right fit or not.
  3. Response: Craft a well-written reply to, and don’t be afraid to send it to anyone asking for pitch work. Feel free to post this article as well! You can also send AIGA’s official stance on spec work
  4. Courage: I get it. It’s hard saying no. But standing your ground will not only save you the traumatic effects of a failed pitch but the client will actually end up respecting you. We tend to value something we paid for a lot more than something we get for free so you may decline today, but tomorrow that same client will approach you when they have work that is worthy of you.

So, what can I do?

You can still submit comprehensive proposals that detail your approach to this project, your response to the brief, general strategy direction, creative process, project plan and timeline, scope of works and prices, team CV’s and degrees (!) as well as selected relevant case studies indicating the type of work you’ll do. Combined with your portfolio and testimonials this becomes more than enough to convince a client you’re the right agency for them. And if they still say its not enough, then you know they’re just window shopping and frankly you shouldn’t waste your time, energy and resources.

So be firm but smart, don’t be afraid to stand your ground and have the balls to say no! Your staff will love you for it and client’s will respect you and value your work. As the great Warren Buffet once said:

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything”.