Doing pitches in a radically different way. Anatomy of a difficult decision

Last summer I made one of the toughest decisions of my life: that my company AAI would turn its back on the conventional way of conducting agency pitches. I believe it was a great decision. But it was not an easy one.

Because making difficult decisions is one of the crucial tests for any decision taker, I thought it might be helpful to share the story.

By July 2012 AAI had been advising clients on finding new agencies as a specialist consultant for exactly 24 years. AAI had an established reputation across many countries as a state of the art facilitator of agency pitches. Running pitches was roughly 75% of our revenue stream, and our methodology was well known and accepted by advertisers and agencies alike as the default setting. Rival consulting practices and numerous advertisers across the globe had followed our lead.

Yet we made the announcement that we were no longer prepared to handle pitch assignments if it involved agencies giving away creative work for free. Why make that change, when we had been closely involved in organising such contests for many years?

First, and importantly, I emphasise in my book Decide (to be published by Kogan Page in February) how vital it is to make formal choices by establishing robust criteria, and sticking to them. At the outset of a pitch, all our clients work with us on deciding which boxes the agency of their dreams needs to tick (the criteria and sub-criteria). No client in our experience has ever been brazen enough to stipulate that their agency choice should be based largely on which agency provides the most plausible free campaign in the shortest number of days!

Secondly, we recognised that there had been a significant and continuous slippage from what was the custom 30/40 years ago – agencies offering just an indication of a possible solution – to effectively providing complete free campaigns.

We were also influenced by four salient facts:

1. The first is the research carried out by the ISBA/IPA steering group (of which I was a member) on the Good Pitch initiative: only one in five of the campaign ideas that win pitches ever runs for real. That means four out of five fall through clients changing their minds, or at the research hurdle. And that’s just the winning agency’s idea. If six agencies make speculative creative presentations, five of those ideas are destined for oblivion anyway.
2. Academic evidence is clear that picking a winner from exceptional candidates is a demanding and specialist skill, which requires both strict criteria setting and a healthy dose of gut feel. The AAI casebook – over 24 years – shows no correlation between the ability to create instant magic and forging productive long-term relationships. Some agencies are particularly successful at winning pitches. Others have an enviable record at long term stewardship. We can find no evidence of a link.
3. We researched a wide spectrum of other professionals (including lawyers, accountants, management consultants, architects, surgeons and consultants), also service providers as diverse as defence contractors, caterers, and kitchen designers. No one gives away IP, or offers for free what they should be selling
4. We believe that the movement to raise ethical standards in public life (politicians, media owners, company chiefs, bankers) is unstoppable. We have spoken to several senior marketers who would prefer a less lavish, more practical and more effective way of finding new agencies.
There is a strong case for marketers, procurement professionals and agencies to try something different: a pitch process that is:
• Faster (target 5/6 weeks maximum), much less expensive for everyone, with fewer agencies involved
• Dependent not upon final presentations of speculative creative work, but creative work done for the agencies’ clients (with results), reputation, track record, people, fit and strategic alignment

We called our new process Mutual Decision™. The name reflects the fact that there are two decisions at the end of every pitch: the client’s to appoint a new agency, and the agency’s to take on a new client.

Mutual Decision™ is designed to be a far more effective way of forming a productive long term partnership, because it is based on mutually relevant criteria, not one side putting the other through a creative beauty parade, largely to the exclusion of more important considerations. It also provides for two other vital elements of any professional partnership – a proper induction period, and ongoing – and two-way – evaluation of the quality of the relationship, and the productivity engendered.

It was a difficult decision to change our business model so fundamentally. But for me, having just written a book on making better decisions in a better way, it would have been even more challenging to carry on recommending an agency selection system that is not only costly and time-consuming, but also relatively ineffective and ethically questionable.