Pitching pains

  • Business
  • Saturday, 14 Dec 2013

The ad industry can benefit from fewer unnecessary pitches

FEW industries involve the art of a fight with as much frequency and fanfare as the advertising industry. Everything about advertising engages one form of fight or another.

For example, ads fight to cut through clutter. Brands fight other brands to win the hearts of consumers. Agencies fight to sell great work to clients. Great work fight to win coveted awards. And on it goes.

Then there’s the fight to win businesses. In the ad world, pitching for business is big business.

It’s fine and dandy if the agency has to fight to win new business. What’s troubling is it has somehow become in vogue these days for the client to put their business up for pitch ever so often. They’ll invite multiple agencies to wrestle for their business. A straight pitch between two agencies is almost unheard off. In extreme cases, a pitch may involve up to 10 or even 15 agencies.

One can imagine the hassle and weariness of having to sit through 15 presentations in the pursuit of a new partnership. Oddly enough, many clients don’t seem to mind and choose to “review” their agencies every other year!

It’s unsettling that the agency has to fight to hold on to an account just because the client feels it necessary to explore who else can do the same job. It has to be asked, how has it come to this?

What happened to the days when agencies came together in fair fights for a piece of new business? The winning agency would then grow together with the client, some for decades, helping them nurture and build the business. This kind of partnership and mutual respect provided the positive environment needed for brands to flourish. Ahh... those good old days.

In recent years, when the agency wins a piece of new business, it barely has time to familiarise itself with the client, let alone its products, before the business is yanked from under it and is up for grabs again. How is this effective in harnessing the best results from a business relationship? Notwithstanding the fact that putting the agency under the constant threat of losing the business isn’t exactly positive incentive, is it? Seriously, to what purpose does this serve? Not to mention the unnecessary waste of time and resources this practice incurs.

Each time a pitch is called, great drama ensues for the agency. A close analogy is akin to going on a first date. (To refresh the memory for some, preparing for a first date goes something like this: Rummage through everything to find the best garb; consult with a best buddy on everything; visit the salon to get hair, mani and pedi done for the ladies; and all the while thinking of something smart to say on the date for the guys... or vice versa.) All this trouble just to impress.

Now, to put this in the context of this article, the preparation for a pitch is no different. The agency will rummage through every idea it has to find the best; it will mobilise its entire agency resources, and it’s not uncommon for the agency to consult with and “import” expertise from its network’s regional offices to pitch in (pun intended); and all the while thinking of something smart to say on the date. It basically comes down to the agency fanning out its tail feathers and showing how impressive it can be, rather than what it actually is.

Depending on the hunger of the agency and the size of the business at stake, pitches can run up the bill. Man hours and incidental expenses combined can come to as much as RM100,000 for a single pitch! Sometimes, this is magnified even more folds. With so much at stake, on what criteria does an agency win?

How does the client choose? Is it anything like how consumers choose when they shop? Does the advertising, or packaging, draw them? Perhaps it is word-of-mouth testimonies from friends and previous users that sway them. Or an adventurous streak that prompts them to follow their instincts to try it once. In the acquisition of intellectual properties, more specifically, in the selection of an advertising agency, do these same principles apply? That is the blatant question, isn’t it?

When the agency is selected and wins, then what? It’ll probably go on a frantic hiring spree!

For some, pinching people from other shops, and often luring the talents with much higher financial remunerations than necessary. All this just so that 24 months later, the vicious cycle can start yet again.

The client has got to seriously ask themselves if pitches are really beneficial to their business. Any self-respecting professional knows that the realisation of a great partnership takes time and a whole lot of concerted effort. What can be hoped for in two short years? There could only be more frustration than joy as both parties only have enough time to suss out each other’s nuances but not the luxury to work to each other’s strengths. Instead of feeling as sense of partnership with the client, the agency would be made to feel inept and nothing more than a supplier of dictated work.

There have been numerous discussions among industry leaders to come up with a better way. Instead of putting their business up for pitch, the client can choose potential agencies by evaluating the agency’s credentials, and speaking to the agency’s current clientele for feedback. If need be, the client is at liberty to award the agency with a trial project to gauge their competency. This is surely a less painful way compared with the rigours of a tedious pitch, hypothetically, an ideal win-win situation so to speak.

When this happen, both parties will enjoy the continuity and loyalty of a longer partnership. In addition, there will be huge cost savings as there is no need for personnel poaching or inflated wage bills. The agency can then further build and invest in the best resources to manage the business, without the constant worry of the dreaded reviews every other year.

The advertising industry as a whole can truly benefit from winning the fight against the frivolous brain drain of business pitches, and channelling the energy to educate and train its people. Perhaps then, there will be more talents lining up to be a part of this noble industry, proving that when good things go around, greater things can come around. Simply put, some things are worth fighting for.

Datuk Johnny Mun, who has been an advertising practitioner for over 30 years, is the president of the Association of Accredited Advertising Agents. He is also CEO of Krakatua ICOM, a local ad agency.

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