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Think twice before you ask for creative in your agency pitches

By Beneath

You can tell a lot about a company by the way it invites you to pitch.

And you can tell a lot about an agency by the way it responds. (On two fronts. First, an agency’s rules about whether they pitch or not, and how they do it, will tell you something about their philosophy. Second, whether or not they actually stick to these rules will tell you something about their financial position.)

Most of us will agree, if a little reluctantly, that pitches are necessary. Businesses need to base their decision to appoint Agency A over Agency B on something.

But the big dilemma for a pitching agency remains: Do we show creative or not?

By ‘creative’ I mean your actual product or expertise. Often it’s a strategy. Often it’s mocked-up designs. Always it’s work you would charge someone for, if they were a client.

But they’re not a client – not yet. Oh that optimistic, forgiving ‘yet’.

In praise of pitching

Playing devil’s advocate, pitching has its moments.

It can be fun. It gives creatives the same low-risk, go-wild freedom that they usually only experience when they’re creating fake ads for awards entries. In that respect, they’re a good test for creatives, and I’ve enjoyed them in the past for that reason.

If you’re a well-known brand looking for a platform idea, in the old advertising sense, then asking for creative feels natural. For the agencies, the reward probably outweighs the risk.

And for the brand, it’s a decent way to make an X-Factor audition-style decision. (Here’s one from the archives: copywriting legend David Abbot pitching “It’s good to talk” to BT. His Cockney is surprisingly good.)

If you do the above and offer to pay a stipend to your shortlisted agencies, all power to you.

But if it’s a free pitch to become the marketing agency of record for a complex B2B business, you’ll have to be willing to make the following Faustian compromises.

The problems with pitching

There’s no real skin in the game. The flipside of creative freedom is a lack of creative accountability. If the agency knew they had to deliver the project next month, they’d probably think twice about including ‘Route 3’.

This is creativity without consequence. So what you get is a load of peacocking and irresponsible pitching.

It’s exploitative. You wouldn’t ask for a free steak from every steakhouse in town before deciding which one to make your go-to.

Brands get away with expecting free work because too many agencies and freelancers agree to it. I don’t mean to disparage those who have to make that compromise – often it’s the only way to get a foot in the door. And the rules of the game won’t change while the majority abide by them. It just leaves a bad taste.

A free pitch and a bit of spec creative is hardly sweatshop stuff, sure. But it’s a bit like offering an unpaid internship. You know you should feel bad about asking for it, and you know you’re not going to get the best talent. In reality, you’re going to get the team that are prepared to sink that cost, exhaust their creative team, and – in all likelihood – neglect their paying clients.

You get what you pay for – so pay for it.

Finally, and most importantly…

Pitch work is shallow work. It can’t not be. It’s done in a late-night rush, usually on a not-great brief, with a small fraction of the research and understanding it takes to actually do the kind of work an agency should feel proud to present.

People talk about the theatre of pitching. This is improv at its worst.

If you’re lucky, the pitch deck will have had a designer’s touch-up, but squint a little and you’ll see the turd underneath the glitter it was hastily rolled in.

Here’s an idea

If you invite Beneath to pitch for work (and I hope that you do), think about what you really want to get from the pitch.

If you want to see a version of the finished product, a sort of foreshadowing of the strategy or the Big Idea, then it will be just that: a pale shadow of what it could be.

If you recognise all this already (and of course you do – you’re smart, reasonable, pragmatic) and you want to see pitch work that’s representative of the kind of work we’d do, and you know that a good pitch will be more caveat than crescendo, then sign us up.

Or, even better, let us spend a few hours working with you and your team on a problem so we can knock heads over the brief and take steers from each other (instead of wasting too much time running in the wrong directions). I guarantee you’ll get a better idea of what it’s like to work with us and you’ll get better creative in the end, too.

If what you really want is 15 half-baked campaign ideas from five agencies whose creatives spent the last 72 hours trying to make sense of a brief that raises more questions than answers when they should have been working for paying clients before going home on time to their families, then…don’t call us, we’ll call you.