A marketer who believes commerciality is the key to unlocking a successful client-agency relationship, Michael Healy is an advocate for putting partnership back into the pitch process. Here, he shares his thoughts on why pitching is simply a lose-lose.
When the team at NZ Marketing reached out to ask whether I’d like to provide my opinion on the evolving creative agency landscape, including my view on pitches, I immediately asked my wife — a hugely talented account service professional — whether it was a good idea. Her response was, “Sure, the last thing the agency world needs is yet another opinion from a client about how they should run their business.” So here goes.
It’s probably worth me pointing out that if you work in an agency and are frustrated by the content of the first part of this opinion piece, I think it’s worth reading until the end.
The agency landscape
I believe that commerciality is a critical success factor in business, marketing and advertising, but when I think about the agency landscape as it stands today, unfortunately I fear there aren’t as many commercial people as there used to be. Worse, precious few now have the ear of a CEO, CFO or, increasingly dangerously, even a CCO or CMO.
In large part, this is because although agencies have people sitting in meeting rooms (where the technology doesn’t work) putting together presentations that crow about likes and shares, those CXOs are focused on performance, outcomes and P&L — the fundamentals. Not to put too fine a point on it, if your agency leader isn’t operating at the CXO levels of your client’s business and talking about the numbers, that’s a bit of a red flag.
It’s the lack of these fundamentals and of training commercial acumen in our agency folk that I believe has strongly contributed
to the profession being full of irrelevant ideologies, bullsh*t specialties, superficial insights from a bunch of predominantly well-heeled white folk about ‘how New Zealand thinks’, and a misplaced belief that you don’t need a strategy before you come up with ideas. Try these things in the real world with your own money and see how you go.
Every single one of us in agencies and marketing departments are poorer for it, and I think it means we’re seeing far fewer courageous and effective ideas reach the public, despite this sort of work being backed by the science. Sadly, so much of today feels very safe and largely lacking any solid marketing foundations. It makes watching Married At First Sight pretty depressing, even in the ad breaks.
In my view, apart from a few bright spots, the state of the advertising industry frankly isn’t great — which brings me to choosing your agency partners and a view on pitches.
About those pitches
Generally speaking, if you have enough candour and constructive dialogue with your agencies, you should be able to avoid pitching altogether. That said, unfortunately not all pitches can be avoided, but the ones that
are voluntary and self-inflicted are stupid.
But let’s say it’s all broken down and you’ve chosen to move — who do you choose? My answer is simple: put your brand next to the best and brightest creative and commercial talent you can. If you think you know who those couple of agencies and key people are, go and get into commercial discussions with them now and don’t waste everybody’s time, talent and money with the pointless pageantry of a pantomime pitch.
Most often, nobody wins from pitches, plus: unsuccessful agencies lose billable hours and affect the mental wellbeing of their talent the pitching client loses momentum and, if you do it too often, reputation other clients of pitching agencies receive less attention if you’re not an independent agency, the margin largely ends up going to a holding company the successful agency gets a lunch but then the ‘pitch’ idea often doesn’t get made the appointing client starts from a position of power, not partnership.
Now, for argument’s sake, let’s say you need to pitch because you genuinely don’t know where the talent is. First, I’d tell you to get out and meet some new people, and second, I’d suggest paying the pitching agencies for their time while you run the process, because that’s the right thing to do.
How did we get here?
We’ve probably all dreaded going to a party because you just know that a real buzzkill’s going to be there. Everyone’s there to have a good time and do cool stuff, but the moment this person turns up, the opportunity for fun goes out the window and the whole party goes to hell for everyone.
Here’s a newsflash for clients of all levels. There’s a pretty good chance that you or someone in your team is that person for your agencies. In fact, not only are clients likely the ones who are killing the party, you’re also the one who makes the decisions on entertainment, drinks, venues and themes — because you’re the one paying — so you might have even made it such a bad party that few people (agencies) want to turn up anyway.
As a kicker, despite ruining the party, you’ll then complain about how bad the party was to anyone else who’ll listen. As a partial aside, can everyone stop slagging off their agencies, please? As clients, we owe our ‘partners’ a fairer deal.
As a commercial enterprise, your agency can only bring in as much talent and commercial acumen as they can afford. Sure, you need to go through procurement and negotiate and get to a fair deal, but if you’ve nailed your agency too hard to the wall on pricing, you might feel good about it until a 12-year-old account director (no offense, talented young ADs) is misquoting Ehrenberg-Bass to your CEO and you’re getting some pretty direct feedback on how the marketing programme isn’t working — who’s fault is that, really?
Pay your agencies fairly and maybe you’ll avoid this because, make no mistake, no amount of using the word ‘partner’ makes anyone your partner in the same way that fair remuneration for top-tier talent and respect will.
When you get a great agency and fairly remunerate them, reflect on the wisdom delivered to me by Ian Moody many years ago: “Wherever you go, there you are”. It means that even after you’ve got great talent
on your brand, if every client at the agency is doing better work than you and every competitor has more cut through than you — which is what happened at the last two agencies — there’s a pretty good chance
you’re the problem.
It’s always served to me as a great reminder that if you’re an underpaying, uncooperative, uncommercial, unconvincing and ultimately ineffective client, no agency in the world is going to be able to help you with that — pitch or no pitch. We need to invest in better education, coaching and training for our people on both sides of the relationship, and get back to the fundamentals — otherwise, we all continue to suffer. Love it or hate it, we’re truly in this together.
So what are my takeaways? There are a few, really:
If you’re looking for the best agency for you, it’s the one that matches your talent and ambition, or lack thereof. Pay fairly for services, whether that’s in pitch or partnership.
Even the best agency in the world can’t make up for a bad client over
the medium or long term.
As clients, we’re a huge part of the cause of this sad situation, so if you’re an agency, do everyone a favour
and commit to only working with respectful clients.
This article as first published in the 2022 March/April issue of NZ Marketing magazine.