To pitch or not to pitch?

Craig Heath, creative director of creative design and brand communications agency Fresh Lemon shares thoughts on the pitch process.

Watching my six-year-old daughter in a swimming race recently made me realise what an excruciating process competition is when something you love is involved.

Similarly, presenting your creative work to a potential client can be just as much of an emotional rollercoaster. When it’s in a creative pitch, the heartache can be more intense.

When it comes to organising an event, the creative identity plays a significant part. Getting the branding right is key, so how do you go about selecting an agency?

The conventional route has been the ‘pitch’. Get a handful of agencies in, ask them to throw together some speculative ideas, select the best one and get things underway. Easy right?

Not quite.

As an agency, the pitch process is loaded with issues. Who’s the competition, can you neglect the fee-paying work, how much time can you spare? 

From the client perspective, of course, getting free creative seems, on the face of it, to make good business sense. Why spend money when you don’t have to? In fact, marketing departments across numerous sectors are turning away from the free pitch, because it doesn’t create long-term value. The pitch process is the legacy of the ‘Mad Men’ period of advertising. But in the modern age of event marketing simply placing an advert and hoping everyone turns up is long gone. You’re no longer ‘advertising’ an event you’re ‘branding’ it.

The Design Business Association recently ran a campaign called #30daystokickfreepitching advising agencies how they could unite against the practice of free pitching.

In an era when even interns are advised against working for no money, agencies are being forced to re-evaluate where they should be focusing their efforts to optimise their commercial performance.

The ideal suggestion is to ask an agency to pitch the agency itself. Probe beyond the visuals, examine the thinking that went into projects and solutions. Credentials, capabilities, creativity and chemistry are the truest measures to evaluate any agency, not a competition to see who can run the fastest.

Of course, circumstances vary and the need for a quick and low-engagement process may mean you have to hold a pitch. If you do, consider the following steps:

Pay a pitch fee. It doesn’t need to be huge, just a small amount to show respect for the creative process and gives the agency something minimal for their time.

Get the decision makers in the room. Pitching to people that have no control is wasting everyone’s time.

Don’t Google agencies to make up the numbers. A shortlist of selected specialists will produce a better response, giving you real choice.

Ask a maximum of four agencies to take part. No-one wants to be in a lottery.

Offer constructive feedback. Just saying “we don’t like it” doesn’t help either party.

Personally I can’t quite see the end of the pitch process - yet. Old habits die hard and there will always that be that dream brief that you’d happily work on for free. But agencies are standing up for themselves and each other. The tide might be turning, just make sure you’re swimming in the right direction when it does.

This was first published in the July issue of EW's sister publication Exhibition News. Any comments? Email Annie Byrne