The relationship between a client and an ad agency should be akin to that of a marriage, rather than a power struggle in which brands seek to exploit a buyer's market. This was the overarching theme of a recent joint IPA/ISBA roundtable discussion, attended by 17 leaders from brands and agencies. The event was intended to start the process of 'reforming' pitching to save time and money on both sides.
In conjunction with ISBA, the IPA New Business and Marketing Group conducted a survey of 119 companies ahead of the roundtable to gauge opinion on current pitching methods.
The research revealed that 58% of brands felt there was a need for a new pitch process. However, most interesting was the wide disparity between perceptions of the cost of the pitch-process to agencies.
While the internal cost to the brand during a pitch amounts to £31,756 on average, including resource costs and expenses, the companies in attendance estimated that the cost to an agency was lower, from £13,000 to £30,000.
The reality, according to the research, is very different. For bigger agencies with a gross income of £15m-plus, the estimated length of time devoted to a pitch is 99 'man days', with minimum resource costs of £178,000 and additional out-of-pocket expenses of £31,500.
The debate surrounding pitching models and practices is not new. Yet little has been done to alter the costly and 'resource-hungry' process - something ISBA and the IPA hope to change.
The premise of the roundtable was to discuss four ideas that could replace the current model: the pitch in a day; the tissue pitch (where initial ideas are presented to brands to gauge feedback) as final pitch; elimination rounders; and a capped pitch with time limit.
Each concept was weighed up, but it was felt that none could be presented as a perfect model. Both sides agreed that a one-size-fits-all approach was impossible and a degree of flexibility was essential to get the best result.
'On the last pitch we did, we ranked who we thought would win it at tissue stage,' explained Mark Given, brands director at Heineken. 'However, it was almost the opposite of the actual final result - the pitch process needs to have that further stage. I also think the principle of elimination rounds, down to a final two, actually works pretty well, as long as it is not very strict. We need a bit of flexibility, but also a set of established principles.'
Instead of favouring one pitching method over another, the discussions formed the basis of what are intended to be a set of best practice pre-pitch guidelines for both brands and agencies to sign up to.
The 'principles' for pitching, which will be drawn up early next year and published in March, are likely to cover several areas: honesty throughout the process; transparency, including clarity of the timescale, commercial opportunity and other agencies involved; respect, particularly with regard to bringing in the decision-makers from day one; access and navigation of the process; time-setting, to ensure pitches don't run and run; and the power of collective action - an ISBA/IPA pre-pitch agreement to be authored and signed by all parties participating in a pitch.
'I think it's important we define and agree a set of principles. If enough high-profile clients publicly adopt these agreed principles, then I would hope we set a standard that others will follow,' said Diageo global category director Simon Tilden.
Brands and agencies concurred that a form of guidelines could bring a new level of respect to the process that would benefit both sides.
Marc Nohr, co-founder of integrated agency Kitcatt Nohr Alexander Shaw, believes that 'collective action' will encourage the whole industry to follow best practice. 'How would it be if a client phoned an agency to ask them to pitch, but the agency responded: "We abide by the IPA-ISBA pre-pitch agreement. If you do too, we would love to pitch",' he said. 'If we also get clients to adopt it, then we will raise the bar and shame people out of poor practice.'
The strength of the client-agency relationship can only improve with a set of formalised guidelines, according to Dominic Grounsell, marketing director at Capital One.
'It is important to have a written set of principles, as currently we don't have such a thing,' he said. 'Clients need to ensure that they always act with integrity toward their agency partners - as they make so many of our successes possible.'
AT THE ROUNDTABLE
Sara Bennison Barclays; Dominic Grounsell Capital One; Mark Lund COI/chair of the roundtable; Simon Tilden Diageo; Andy Bolden GlaxoSmithKline; Mark Given Heineken; Joe Clift Lloyds Banking Group; Duncan MacCallum Nestle; Richard Woodford News International
Paul Phillips AAR; Bridget Angear Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO; David Wethey Agency Assessments; Paul Graham Anomaly; Lee Leggett Dare; Chris Hirst Grey London; Marc Nohr Kitkatt Nohr Alexander Shaw; Chris MacDonald McCann Erickson; Tom George MEC; Philippa Brown Omnicom Media Group
Hamish Pringle IPA; Mark Robinson co-chair, IPA New Business & Marketing Group/Grey; Helen Weisinger co-chair, IPA New Business & Marketing Group/Fallon; Jo Wardle IPA; Debbie Morrison ISBA.