The pitch badly needs relaying

The pitch is as integral and time-honoured a part of the ad business as the commission system. Many would suggest the similarity doesn’t end there: both are also hopelessly outdated.

The failings of the pitch ‘process’ – and the antique etiquette which surrounds it – were thrown into sharp relief last week, when M&C Saatchi allegedly ‘played offside’ by rolling up the whole of the Transport for London (TfL) business (worth about £24m in billings), after formally tendering for only the small corporate account. Agencies which had been preparing themselves for the plumper (£20m) congestion charges brief, in what had been billed as the second stage of a two-part process, were incandescent when M&C made off with the booty before they could so much as utter the words ‘strategic presentation’.

They have a point. Quite apart from being misled by the client as to the nature of the playing field, the thwarted agencies have spent a good deal of time and money to no avail. A classic stitch-up then, which does little for the professional reputation of the client or the winning agency?

Well, not exactly. If M&C has the adroitness to wrongfoot its rivals by short-circuiting the process, then bully for it, one could argue. In any case, the ultimate decision and responsibility lie with the client. TfL’s team certainly had some explaining to do: not least to their ultimate boss, Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London and head of the GLA. Why, he might care to ask, were the GLA’s favoured agencies – BMP, Euro RSCG and Soul – cut off at the knees in such a high-handed and arrogant way?

TfL clearly does not suffer from a surfeit of political finesse – a fault for which ad chief Charlie Edelman seems to have paid the full price, by falling on her sword. But its conduct was no doubt defensible on pragmatic grounds. If M&C had indeed come up with a knock-out idea for the congestion brief (it was the only agency on both pitch lists, and therefore reached its audience first), there was little virtue in going through the rest of the pitch process just for form. The pitch, after all, is merely a means to an end, albeit a means hallowed by tradition.

This, of course, is the nub of the problem. The pitch is not a properly codified process backed by sanctions against transgressors, but a misty tradition. True, there are guidelines, drawn up by ISBA and the IPA, yet they can be broken with impunity. And, so long as clients are not legally obliged to meet reasonable pitch costs, they will continue to be so.

A broader criticism is that the two-hour formal presentation to clients is an artificial and outmoded process – and the agency people who attend are rarely those who end up handling the business. It is scarcely surprising, then, that clients complain pitches offer little insight into future working relationships.

Some believe that brainstorming or workshops offer better solutions. But these can be tremendously time-consuming, and won’t necessarily supply the rigour and even-handedness often lacking in the present pitch system.

In the end, the pitch – to paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill – is the least bad way of selecting an agency. But it is one, sadly, that is in grave need of reform.

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