Why major brands are pledging to make pitching more ‘positive’

ISBA and the IPA’s newly launched Pitch Positive Pledge aims to ensure all pitch processes are necessary, efficient and mindful of mental health.

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Brands including Boots, British Gas, NatWest and Samsung have officially pledged their commitment towards making pitches more positive, with Boots CMO Pete Markey arguing there is “no reason” for other brands not to sign up.

The Pitch Positive Pledge, devised by industry bodies ISBA and the IPA, launches today (11 May) with more than 70 signatories across advertisers, agencies and intermediaries, including 14 brands. The remaining brands are Barclays, DiDi, First Direct, Nationwide, Nestlé, Santander, Specsavers, TUI, Virgin Media O2 and White Claw.

The pledge seeks to improve the behaviours of agencies and advertisers around pitching for the benefit of their people, the planet and profit. It is the first pitch guide to take into consideration the human and environmental cost of pitches, noting that excessive pitching is at odds with many brands’ environmental policies.

In improving these behaviours, the pledge aims to drive better outcomes including more transparency and better mental wellbeing, resulting in better quality work, fewer costs and less wastage.

Speaking to Marketing Week, ISBA’s director of agency services Andrew Lowdon explains there has been “a lot” of pitching activity over the past three years, while the pandemic has changed the way advertisers, agencies and the intermediaries work together. This has created “different pressure points” on all three stages of the pitch process – before, during and after.

“The pitch process has remained unchanged fundamentally for years, although many people have tried. So if we’re going to drive real change, that has to be driven through behaviours,” Lowdon says.Advertisers urged to change approach to pitching amid mental health ‘crisis’

The Pitch Positive Pledge details core commitments agencies and clients must adhere to and the considerations they must take into account throughout the process.

Before calling on agencies to pitch, advertisers must “be positive a pitch is required” and provide a written statement clearly setting out why.

Advertisers and agencies must then ensure they “run a positive pitch”, with the advertiser considering the implications of the requirements it asks the agency to fulfil, while the agency considers both the interests of its client and the wellbeing of its people throughout.

Finally, after a pitch advertisers and agencies must “provide a positive resolution”. The advertiser must inform the agency of the pitch outcome directly and provide feedback, while agencies must accept the decision and provide their own feedback on how well the advertiser handled the pitch and adhered to the pledge.

The initiative will report on completed pitches to showcase best practice.

Why brands are signing up

Markey, who is also vice-president of ISBA, says Boots has signed up for the pledge because “this is the way we would want to operate within Boots if we have any pitches in future”.

“It’s a really good initiative to get good mutual respect in the pitch process,” he explains to Marketing Week, adding that a common framework of expectation between advertisers and agencies on what a good pitch looks like “feels like a really good thing for the industry”.

The shared learning around pitches that have gone well and those which have gone less well will be “extra powerful”, he says. In Markey’s experience, setting “ground rules” through a clear brief is the most important part of the process.

“In my experience, where a pitch has been really well run the process has felt very slick. It’s been well understood on both sides, there has been a really clear brief, and people’s time has been well managed. Expectations have also been managed really well,” he explains.

“The ones that have been less well [run] have been those where there’s been a lot of interpretation in the brief, the ground rules aren’t clear on what the client is looking for, and the agency may have put the wrong people on the pitch. And that comes down to the brief.”

Markey adds that where he has seen the pitch process “disservice” everyone involved is when it comes down to a “last minute shootout” on price.

You should never reach that point where things are fundamentally broken.

Pete Markey, Boots

However, the pledge could be “really helpful” as a “checklist”, particularly for marketers new to a brand as it can help identify where there are “gaps” in the agency relationship before the pitch process begins.

“Brands want to grow and succeed. Having an amazing agency partnership is going to help you do that. I would see no reason why you wouldn’t want to sign up,” Markey argues. “And [the pledge] gives people a sense of the sort of business you are and the values you hold.”

NatWest CMO Margaret Jobling says the pledge marks a reflection of “real collaboration” between ISBA, representing advertisers, and the IPA, representing agencies.

“The consideration of all aspects of the pitch process and how different behaviours can both positively and negatively impact the final outcome is a unique approach. It’s a pleasure to be able to add our name as signatories,” she says.

Meanwhile, TUI’s group brand and content director Toby Horry says having worked both agency and client side in his career, he has had both “very positive” and “very negative” experiences with pitching.

“I know how much physical and mental work goes into pitches,” he adds.  “I think the Pitch Positive Pledge is a great initiative that codifies best practice on both sides and I’m delighted to sign TUI up.”

Pitching is not the first resort

The pledge makes a particular point to challenge advertisers not to run a pitch process unless absolutely necessary, encouraging them to instead look at improving their relationship with their incumbent agency first.

According to ISBA’s Lowdon, there are clear signs more pitches taking place now “than ever before”, a trend he doesn’t expect to slow as the challenges of the pandemic are replaced by inflation and a cost of living crisis.

However, pitching “shouldn’t be the first resort”, he says. “That time and effort should be put into understanding what the issue is with the incumbent agency.”

While there are good reasons to look for a new agency partnership, “testing the market” is not one of them, he adds.

Agreeing, Boots’ Markey says agency relationships can be like a marriage. “If you end up in a divorce situation, aren’t you better off trying to talk it through and work it out first?”

Markey reflects on work he did with agency selection consultancy Oystercatchers when he was marketing director at insurance brand More Than 11 years ago and was looking at launching a pitch process. Instead, Oystercatchers encouraged him to “look at what’s broken”.

“We were able to fix things on the account with a couple of changes of personnel and a few bits of work, which made it feel like a brand new account. And we were also able to work much more efficiently. That meant we didn’t even need to get to pitching,” he explains.Are you the marketer the industry needs to reset agency relationships? 

Now, Boots runs regular reviews with its agency group at WPP to establish what’s working and what needs work.

“That’s really refreshing. Then you should never reach that point where things are fundamentally broken,” Markey says. In comparison, pitching is a “timely, costly, resource heavy process”, he adds.

Oystercatchers managing partner Gill Huber says she too welcomes the pledge and the support it offers brands and agencies on “best practice” in pitching, noting that some teams lack the experience required to run a pitch effectively.

“Clarity, communication and respect are imperative when pitching. Brands need to be clear on why they are pitching, what they are looking for and how they will make the final decision before they start a process. Agencies need to know what they are signing up for before they commit.  Everyone needs to understand the process and what it will entail,” she says.

To measure the impact of the pledge, the IPA and ISBA will be commissioning an industry survey of agencies and clients to benchmark current pitching activity with questions addressing the areas of mental health, wastage, costs and effectiveness, which will be run again in a year’s time to chart progress.

Pitch Positive Pledge will be regularly reviewed by the IPA and ISBA and a progress update will be provided in January 2023.