A Change in Pitch

By Charlie Carpenter, Managing Director at Creativebrief.


Wherever you fall on the pitch, it’s unlikely you think it’s perfect. About as likely, say, as this not being the first article you’ve read about it the topic this week. Or even today.

Everyone is talking about it, and everyone is moaning about it.

It’s a way of working that’s been around since the 1950s, yet it’s hung around for all that time without the mass overhaul almost all other work practices have gone through.

It’s something that especially interests us at Creativebrief. We’re positioned between brands and agencies, helping the two produce the best creative work they can together. We also like to disrupt things; to show the industry it needn’t keep treading in the same, tired old footprints.

In May of this year, we conducted a survey with 50 senior brand CMOs and 50 senior agency CEOs in the UK (including those with EMEA and Global remits) to gauge the industry’s thinking on the subject of the traditional pitch. Whilst the op-eds are plentiful and the noise is sometimes deafening, understanding how we thought as a community was strangely lacking.

By far the most exclamatory of the results to come from this survey was that 61% of brands said the traditional pitch process was not fit for purpose in today’s environment. As for agencies, 93% said the same.

For a process that is often seen as the sole route to agency appointment, it’s shocking that so many industry folk are dissatisfied with it.

Despite the unease at the process in its current form, it’s not impossible to see how it’s persisted. It’s a buyer’s market. If you were a part of the agency 93%, you might hate the process, but how on earth could you find an alternative when the client holds all the cards?

Agency determination to effect a change was further corroborated by our next question. We asked agencies if they would be prepared to refuse to pitch for the process to finally change. 82% of them said yes. But the real eye-opener came when we asked brands whether they’d still work with agencies if they refused to pitch. 67% of them said yes.

Out of all the stats to come from our survey, this was the lightning strike. It left us, and others asking ourselves if this were the case, why weren’t more agencies refusing to pitch?

The next question we asked brands and agencies really dove into the other possibilities of why it’s hung around for so long. We asked if the pitch process gave a true sense of what it would ultimately be like to work with the other party. 56% of brands and 79% of agencies said it didn’t. This survey was about shining a spotlight on the flaws of the process and this one really wasn’t pleasant viewing.

It would be naïve to think all that’s at stake here is work. The pitch is not only demonised for its archaism, but for its impact on working culture. Think late nights in the office, agency people made to choose between the big win and their families, or health. Its relentlessness and insensitivity to investment of time and money are staggering. So, leaving it to their own interpretations and experiences we asked brands and agencies if they felt the pitch process was in line with responsible and ethical business practice. 63% of brands said it was. 70% of agencies said it wasn’t.

The gulf between these answers is symptomatic of the problem. Even if brands and agencies are approaching an agreement on some of their views on the pitch, neither party seems to know where the other stands. And this stat goes one step further and shows just how unaware brands are of the impact the pitch is having on agency lifestyles.

We wanted this survey to be a wake-up call, and its traction in the industry has been encouraging. If the pitch process is to change then we need genuine reform. This survey gives permission for that, showing brands and agencies just how the other thinks. It’s crucial to canvas opinion, especially when we’re working on solutions. Clients and agencies don’t always have to agree, but the very least they should be is aware. This is how change will happen and an infinitely better alternative will be found.

Participating brands and agencies in the survey include Barclaycard, Virgin, TUI, Bacardi, IKEA, Starbucks, Unilever, VCCP, Poke, Missouri, Karmarama, Mr President and Iris Worldwide.