You know the scenario — a fantastic brief arrives in your inbox. A great client with a challenging problem is interested in working with your company to fulfill their business objectives. The only snag — they want you to work up some ideas and present them at a pitch. Oh, and while they’re at it, they’re inviting 5-7 of your closest competitors to do the same. But don’t worry you’re in with a good chance, they like the “cut of your jib”. The budget? Well, that’s with the board, who need to see your ideas in order to release any money, but it’s [insert figure to keep you interested here].
Many hours of hard work later you arrive at the pitch and stun the audience with your brilliance. Fast forward a couple of days and all the pitches are over. The client calls to inform you that the ideas weren’t quite there, but they were very, very close. Can you make xyz changes and resubmit the work? A few more tweaks, you tell yourself, and the work is yours. So you make the changes and resubmit the work.
Time goes by and you hear nothing. You call the client, they’re unavailable. You call again, still nothing. Finally, you get ahold of the client who informs you that you weren’t quite right/the project got pulled/is on hold/got a much lower budget/etc. Gutted, you count the cost to your business. A few months later, the client does launch their site and, hey, isn’t that funny, it looks an awful lot like the one you proposed …
The same old story
What I’ve described above isn’t new. We’ve all been there and it’s been part of winning work since the dawn of “work”. But there is growing concern within the digital industry about the spiraling cost of pitching to clients for new work. After all, it wasn’t always this way.
A few years ago we had the dot-com boom. Clients commissioned work from a new growing digital industry with little regard for their return on investment. Over the years the industry has matured and our clients approach to commissioning work has changed — dramatically.
A now over-serviced digital marketplace has led to increased client choice. And as digital budgets rise, clients are putting increasingly high demands on the agencies pitching for their accounts. Add to this the reluctance of clients to support agencies by paying for pitch work and it’s easy to see why agencies are feeling the pinch.
Recovery fuels client choice
After the initial fallout of the dot-com crash it’s clear that the industry has recovered and in many ways is booming again. Countless new agencies are opening their doors each week, yet the potential client base appears to be growing at a much slower rate.
Due to the ratio of agencies to available work, pitching agencies often find themselves included in large pitch pools with loose, fluid briefs based on embryonic marketing ideas rather than solid campaign objectives. The fictional scenario above isn’t really that fictional. It’s not at all unusual for individual agencies to be pitching against 5-7 of their contemporaries in the pursuit of a piece of work. Not the best odds.
It could be argued that the growing digital industry itself is to blame for this scenario. These loose briefs are potentially a product of the over-serviced industry, where agencies approach work without placing reasonable demands on their clients regarding upfront project information.
When the competition is so fierce it’s almost impossible to push back on the client and, as a result, simple requirements such as scope and budget are swept aside just to get a foot in the door. If we are prepared to receive poor briefs from our clients it stands to reason that the quality of their content will decline as time-poor clients spend less time preparing them.
Increased competition increases level of effort
This intense competition among agencies means that the level of effort required to win work has increased exponentially. Gone are the days where the pitch content consisted of a presentation giving a flavor of the pitching agency, their culture, their values and a demonstration that they understand the brief and the reason for the project’s being.
Clients now expect near complete solutions backed up with full strategic thinking and planning — none of which they are prepared to pay for. For the unsuccessful agencies this represents a huge loss in time, money and effort. Not to mention the opportunity cost of the work that never quite made it.
Even for the successful agency, the work given away during the pitch represents a large loss — especially when we consider the relatively low margins seen in the industry. We give away so much for free.
It’s clear that in the long run something needs to change. It’s difficult to think of another industry where this amount of unquestioned client demand and wastage is acceptable. Especially where so much work is done up front and the final selection by the client is often based on individual preference or luck.
So, if the current situation isn’t working, where can clients and agencies look for advice?
Within the industry, for both clients and agencies, there is a general lack of considered guidelines with regards how to approach the activity of pitching. Every agency approaches a pitch in it’s own way and every client offers work out differently, making their choices against different metrics and fueling confusion and wastage. Unlike other industries, to my knowledge, our industry does not have any accredited bodies who can work to resolve this situation.
I don’t believe that clients are purely to blame for the current situation. As an industry I believe we need to work towards developing a set of common guidelines — embraced at least in part by agencies — to help potential clients get the most out of the early stages of the relationship building process, setting expectations and building long term partnerships with their agency partners.
The problem with putting common guidelines in place is bringing agencies together in the first place. And then ensuring that the guidelines are followed. There will always be market forces at work fighting against this as agencies put their bottom line first over common working practices. Competition between agencies will always be difficult to overcome, but as a maturing industry I believe that this is the logical next step that we have to take.
Standard guidelines exist in other industries here in the UK such as the kite mark, the PRINCE2 standard in project management and the international ISO standards for business processes. So it stands to reason that they could be developed to stabilize the pitch process for interactive work.
“Let’s make them pay!”
Many agency owners have suggested that pitches should be paid for. I don’t believe that paid pitching is the answer, but it is clear that agencies give away too much of their experience for free. I believe that common guidelines would work well to set expectations for both agency and client.
For this to be successful, clients would need to be more honest and open about their budgets and objectives, and agencies would need to offer more upfront support to their potential clients to help them make decisions and set realistic expectations about their budgets.
The pitch process should be a more collaborative activity between the client and a small number of potential agency partners. Perhaps we could also look to provide impartial industry assistance to clients, provided by the body responsible for setting pitch standards.
Issues often arise in the early stages of projects due to the fact the client is not particularly web savvy. Providing generic guidance has been very successful in other industries, such as architecture, where here in the UK the RIBA assists in the selection process for large contracts by commissioning work through a central RIBA organized board comprised of both industry experts and the client, working as a team to ensure the best possible client, architect match is found. This process was used to great effect in the selection of an architect for the new Scottish Assembly building.
I’ve covered several of the reasons for the problem and a couple possible solutions that could help stem the tide — but I alone don’t have the answer. That’s why I’m hoping this article might spark a discussion in the comments, because I’m very interested to hear the views of my contemporaries and the experiences of designers and developers around the world. There have been previous movements such as the no-spec campaign that have attempted to change the process, but I don’t believe that these have gone far enough. So, how can we work together to tighten up the pitch process? It’s over to you.