News & Views

The perils of pitching

Branding agencies and consultancies like us constantly face a barrage of challenges in the finding of new business. One such challenge that has been increasingly prevalent in recent years is expecting agencies to pitch creative concepts, for no fee in a lineup of an unknown number of firms. Another is the obstacle of procurement portals and processes that get in the way of building a full understanding of the brief from the people we would be working with. Finally, for the sake of this article at least, there is a rough calculation that we try to do before every pitch to get some idea of our probability of success, compared to the returns by way of fees. The results can be shocking… as you will see.

No win no fee, no pitch fee for winners

Free pitches, particularly requested by government organisations with cumbersome procurement processes, are taking a toll on the creative sector. Any pitch takes time, money, intellectual and emotional capital. Smaller agencies rarely have a ‘pitch team’ dedicated to the task and factored into the firm’s overall business and cost model. Therefore, it can mean redirecting folk from fee earning work to a pitch, thus incurring an opportunity cost stacked onto the real cost of responding. If you don’t do it, the peaks and troughs that are so familiar to agencies begin to build.

Giveaways and throwaways

As a through the line, brand strategy led consultancy, we need to fully understand the client’s business and marketing strategy and the target audience they wish to reach. Without that understanding we are conducting an aesthetic exercise which can only be judged subjectively. It doesn’t serve the client well in growing their brand and business. In a creative pitch, we neither have the time nor money for sufficient research that ensures that the integrity of the brand strategy is built into the pitched concept. We have even been told that the client understands a pitched concept will probably be thrown away – wasting even more time and money, but it ‘helps them see how we work’. We have a massive portfolio of work, delivered with our approach, detailed in case studies that show how we work and the quality of the result. But all the time others are willing to free pitch on often scant briefs, we are out on a limb.

Filling in boxes, not building relationships

One of the major hurdles for branding agencies and consultants is the lack of direct interaction with the individuals seeking their services. Instead, agencies are often compelled to navigate the maze of procurement portals. While these apparently play a crucial role in ensuring transparency and fairness, they inadvertently hamper the agency-client relationship. The bureaucratic nature of the procurement process can lead to a disconnect, as agencies are left with little or no opportunity to interrogate the client’s needs. The form based procurement process often seems to be more suitable for suppliers of chairs and pencils than it does the strategic and creative services of a firm like ours. In fact in some there isn’t even a category for creative services in the drop down menu. The portals are tricky to navigate and threaten disqualification if you have incorrectly completed some of the questions. However, it is not uncommon for there to be confusing contradictions, with the same question asked in different ways and simply irrelevant requests for information such as details of shipping procedures. Annoyingly, although the procurement platforms often look similar, to think they are identical can lead down a road to disaster, if you cut and paste information.

That’s a unique perspective, let’s share it

Most procurement led pitches and some others encourage questions. However, the questions and the answers are then sent to everybody in the pitch. So it may be that there is an incisive question that would give us an edge and differentiate our response, but we’d be mad to ask it. As everyone would enjoy the benefit.

Over a budget that doesn’t exist

Crafting a compelling pitch requires research, original thinking, and creative development. All demand the time of key people in the firm and studio time to create pitch content that will stand out. The cost of building an impressive response can be very high.

When we look at an opportunity, we assess it against several of our criteria. Is it ethically acceptable to us? Is it an idea or a brand that we can help grow? Are the briefed timescales doable and is the budget reasonable – if a budget is given. When it’s not, the response is sometimes, that the client has not set a budget, and is looking for the agencies to tell them what they should be spending. On occasions we have been unsuccessful, we have been told our proposal was over budget….but they said they didn’t have one?!

Improbable probabilities

We do a rough calculation to determine an approximate probability of success to help us decide if we should pitch. It starts with the number of firms in the pitch. Such as four firms, 25%. We then factor it according to how strong our credentials are and how well we can meet the brief to increase or decrease that initial percentage. Unfortunately, the number of people pitching is rarely known in situations where we are going through a portal. And if we ask the question at the beginning of the pitch process it is usually a much smaller number than it is if we ask near the end. Because the portal approach especially used in the public sector is open to all, it can be a very high number of respondents. And the shocker on a recent tender was finding out, after we had submitted our proposal via a portal, that ours was one of 1,300. Had we known this before, we would of course not invested in the process.

Now here’s the worse part. For that local government project, the budget was helpfully given up front. It was between £65-100k. Let’s be optimistic and think that they will go to £100k. If we then take a conservative view and say to complete the process, build an approach to the project, cost it, complete the spreadsheets of personnel and rates, prepare the case studies, line up references etc, it costs each agency pitching £1,000 (it was more in our case). That local government client who insisted on agencies providing fair policies, inclusivity, transparency and, ironically, anti-slavery commitments just took at least £1.3 million out of the creative sector, putting just £100k back in by way of fee payments.

Learning experiences

Not being shortlisted or awarded the project is disappointing. However, in many commercial pitches with a sensible number of participants, clients give valuable feedback and rationale for the loss. Reviewing unsuccessful pitches, learning and continuously improvement is good for us all. But in the procurement led pitches, we get very little if any feedback which is unsurprising given the typical volumes of respondents. If we do get the rationale for losing, it is the scoring of our proposal against their criteria. However, that too is disappointing when typical scoring matrices allocate 45% of the assessment to pricing and a miniscule 10% for experience. 

A Call for Change

To ensure a healthy and thriving creative sector, clients, particularly public sector organisations, please reevaluate your procurement practices. Instead of throwing out the brief to everybody via a procurement portal, do some research into which agencies could serve you best and then brief your procurement department to approach us. Make yourselves more accessible for conversations. With fewer agencies pitching you will have more time to talk to us. And please, stop asking for free pitches of creative concepts. They do neither side any good. They are wasteful, don’t get the best from us and are very hit and miss.

The UK creative services sector is internationally renowned but if these procurement practices don’t change, we will lose our place in the world order and many jobs along the way. We need to create a business environment that nurtures creativity, growth, and collaboration, ensuring a healthier and more sustainable branding industry for all.

“Why the pitching process is a broken and expensive drain on creatives”, Creative Pool, 26/07/2023

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