The lamp-post theory of pitch research

Halifax’s reappointment of Delaney Lund Knox Warren to its 18m account last week raises once again the use of focus group research to decide advertising pitches.


Halifax’s reappointment of Delaney Lund Knox Warren to its £18m account last week raises once again the use of focus group research to decide advertising pitches.

The bank is understood to have put pitch ideas from DLKW and rival DDB London into research before making its decision. But many in the advertising world are highly critical of clients who base their agency choices on focus group comments.

“If that is the main criterion for selecting an agency, I think it is dumb,” says Tim Lindsay, president of TBWA/UK & Ireland, which pitched for the Halifax work but did not make it through to the final round. Halifax made no comment.

It has been said that governments use research in the same way as drunks use lamp-posts – for support, rather than illumination. This sums up the view of many advertising executives on the way clients put pitch ideas into research. Many think they do it to “cover their arses” and deflect criticism if the work produced by the agency goes awry.

Creative work produced in pitches is often not the best the agency can do as it is produced under pressure and without full consultation with the client. Brands should hire agencies, not one-off ideas, they say. For some, this implies a lack of confidence by clients in their own judgement and reflects the increasingly fearful and unadventurous atmosphere prevalent in big companies.

According to some sources, up to half of advertising pitches are decided after the ideas presented are put into research, though others say the figure is nearer five to ten per cent.

Creative cop-out

Stuart Pocock, joint managing partner at client/agency intermediary The Observatory International, is a critic of using research. “It happens from time to time, but I think it is a cop-out,” he says.

Another source claims certain brand owners use research because of their internal culture. The COI puts many pitches for its creative work into research. The source points to Wyeth Consumer Healthcare’s pitch for Anadin, which began at the start of this year and is turning into a long-running process. The source says that as the company is dominated by a scientific culture, it is natural for it to use research to decide on its advertising.

Another client that observers say used research in its pitch decision is Homebase, which earlier this year awarded its £27m business to Leo Burnett following a protracted pitch against CHI & Partners. No one from the company or either agency would comment.

It is understood that tea company Twinings is researching ideas put forward by Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO, Adam & Eve and WCRS. No one from the brand would comment, but one observer says: “Most clients would say the research is an input into a decision, rather than the decision itself. But it is a strange way of deciding – why put the choice into the hands of a few consumers?” 

Long process

Mark Lund, chief executive of DLKW, defends the use of research in pitches: “The old view was you don’t hire a campaign, you hire an agency and you never get work you want in a pitch. But pitches tend to go on longer these days and clients are more generous with their time – it is more like an ongoing relationship.” He believes that up to 70% of work presented at pitch stage becomes the campaign.

Agencies may not like it, but clients will continue using research to back up their hiring decisions. It is not all about “chemistry” between client and agency.

David Benady

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