Pitching: The problem isn’t the game, it’s the rules.

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New business is a game. There are winners and losers. And the most competitive manifestation of this game is the agency pitch. Like all good games it has a set of rules for both sides in the game – the agencies and the advertisers. But the increasing industry call to ‘ditch the pitch’ is not because the game is wrong, but because people are not playing by the rules. Rather than tossing out the pitch process, what we should be doing is making sure the players stick to the rules of the game.

The rules of pitching are there to ensure that the process is fair, robust, efficient and effective for all players. If you stick by the rules of pitching it should deliver these results for all players. We know this because we have been managing pitch processes for almost two decades across multiple regions and marketers with positive results and feedback from all concerned – even those who did not win.

On the other side, we have also been called in either during a pitch or soon after to fix the problems that happen when a pitch has not been played by the rules. And, like the industry, the really badly played pitches are those we usually end up reading about in the trade media.

So what are these rules and how do they work? Well there are rules for advertisers and rules for agencies. The good thing is there are a small number of rules for pitching (just three for each side). But while they are easy to understand, they can take years to master.

Rules for advertisers

1. Have a clearly articulated reason for pitching and an agreed vision of what success will look like at the end of the process

Before committing to a time consuming pitch you need to be very clear on why you are pitching and what you want to achieve. More importantly you need to ensure all of those responsible on your side are in agreement as well. Nothing messes up a pitch process more than disagreements and misalignment on the advertiser side, and it invariably leads to a compromise choice that satisfies no-one.

Besides, if you just want a cheaper solution or to see what else in available in the market, then there are faster, lower-cost and more effective ways to do this than running a pitch.

2. Make sure you have the time and the resources to manage this process as if it is the most important project on your agenda

Pitching your advertising account is time consuming and potentially costly if you get it wrong. Whether it’s media, creative or one of the other disciplines, it is a major decision to engage a new agency and therefore needs time and care to get it right. If you are already time-poor then a pitch will stress you out. And the more stakeholders involved, the more stressed you will be.

Changing agencies will always attract industry interest and therefore, beyond making the right operational choice, you want to ensure you reflect a high level of professionalism. Therefore, it is worth considering hiring a professional, either from your procurement team or outside from one of the many pitch management consultants available.

3. Be in constant communication with all of the agencies involved to make sure they know and are aware of the requirements and process

This goes against the recommendations of many corporate affairs professionals and some procurement professionals, but the fact is a high performing agency relationship is based on clear and honest communication. Therefore, what better time to start than at the pitch?

Make sure you communicate the process and expectations to all parties on a level playing field – but also make sure you update all agencies on any changes to the game plan or the process. Likewise be willing to answer any questions (within reason) that the agencies may have. Just make sure all are informed equally.

Rules for agencies

1. You only have to accept an invitation to pitch if it is the right decision for your agency

Remember the only scores that count are adding additional agency revenue and attracting advertisers that allow you to do great work. The best way to do this is have them walk through the door without a pitch or have an existing client give you more work, additional brands or greater responsibilities.

So when an advertiser invites you to pitch for their business remember – it is an invitation, and you have the right to turn it down if it is not right for you. Therefore, when you are invited to pitch make sure you know what you need to make that decision and do not jump in with your eyes wide shut.

2. Remember this is about building trusted and valued relationships

When considering whether to pitch or not, do some research and ask questions. Look for the opportunities to build a trusted and valued relationship with this advertiser and not just simply win their business.

If either their reputation or their proposed process suggests they do not value the agencies they are inviting to pitch, or they want a master-servant relationship by treating you as one up front, then seriously consider if winning this pitch is worth it.

3. Make sure you abide by the rules of the pitch process and play to win, not play to make your competitors lose

If you agree to play then you also agree to the rules so make sure you know the rules of the pitch (beyond the basics here). This will often include confidentiality or non-disclosure agreements and rules regarding governance and due diligence.

Breaking these rules comes with consequences, even if you are not caught. Advertisers quickly learn to not trust the agencies that insist on behaving this way. Besides, your effort should be focused on proving why your agency is the best for the client and not on why everyone else is not.


This article first ran in Mumbrella Asia and is by Darren Woolley, Founder of  TrinityP3, our partners in Asia. Darren is considered a global thought leader on agency remuneration, search and selection and relationship optimization.


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