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Belgian agencies recently 'went on strike' over overly time consuming pitch processes that threatened their commercial viability.  

Would there be cause for that in the UK or US markets? 

A few weeks ago the advertising and creative agencies of Belgium united in protest against the clients that were requesting as many as ten agencies to go through the full exhausting creative pitch process.

This solidarity, in a country famously divided by two competing languages, generated a fair degree of blog and Twitter interest and was even supported by the IPA.  The speculative effort in pitching is an issue that affects many agencies, and I can empathise with the agencies concerned. 

Although User Vision is a user experience agency rather than a creative agency, we do put a lot of effort into proposals and pitches, leading to elation when we win tenders and disappointment when we do not. It’s all part of the game and there is little escaping it, although carefully qualifying opportunities does help.

But the time we need to input to respond to a typical brief is fractional compared to that of creative agencies we know who must often create multiple potential creative options themselves and prepare for a pitch with the most senior and experienced team. Meanwhile, for their existing clients it must somehow remain business as usual, often by backfilling with less experienced staff. 

I think the incident is an interesting development in the competitive world of digital, creative and new media agency business. In answer to my initial question – could this type of thing happen in the UK or the US – my gut feeling is no. 

For starters, Belgium has a gentleman’s agreement of sorts among clients and agencies in which clients vowed to only invite three agencies and maybe the incumbent to propose for new projects. I don’t believe there is an official agreement in British or American creative clients and players. I also think the natural instinct is too strong among clients to cast the net widely as well as the agencies to respond to most briefs.

So some final musings and questions:

  • Do you think such a protest in unity would be possible in the digital, creative or advertising market? 
  • Would the original Belgian client & agency charter be a good thing or simply impossible? 
  • Would anti-collusion type laws prevent that from happening, or would it be supported by industry groups such as BIMA?
  • Is the competitive creative pitching process a significant draw on your resources and how do you manage it?  

Many thanks to Yousef Tuqan Tuqan of the digital agency Flip Media for contributing to this post.

Chris Rourke

Published 3 March, 2010 by Chris Rourke

Chris Rourke is Managing Director of User Vision and a contributor to Econsultancy.

23 more posts from this author

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Robin G

Obviously i'm client side (but have worked agency) - i cannot understand a lot of the complaints about the pitch process.

It's part of the model - think of it as marketing costs. You have to build into your fee structure the cost of doing these pitches, and (like all marketing) a good proportion will not work and is essentially wasted. If you are struggling then either (a) your fee structure is wrong or (b) you are not converting adequately, or both.

I agree that 10 agencies at a pitch is wrong (so don't go for the work) and sometimes payments for pitch is appropriate (e.g. you want to keep the IP created / have tricky and time consuming requirements) - but otherwise it should be cost free.

Promoting good client behaviour is a good thing though (3 agencies, fair amount of work asked for) - if that is what this is about then good luck to them!

almost 7 years ago

Tim Cawsey

Tim Cawsey, Head of Branding & Content at Gemalto

I'm on the client side and would never dream of running a tender with more than 3-4 agencies - it's simply too much work to manage it. After having worked in Europe and the USA (where you normally pay for the pitch) I prefer the European model as the agencies in competition are hungrier for the work. As long as the company limits the number of agencies and is open with them on this as well as the criteria for selection then just like Robin G I see it as Marketing costs.

over 6 years ago

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Neale Gilhooley

My career path has been 90% Agency and 10% Client, but the 10% has radically changed my views on how Agencies should service their Clients.

Agencies are not all the same and as a former Client I have seen many agencies presentations, largely falling into 2 categories: 

A. Those that are professional, insightful truly creative (in strategy as well as the creative product) and added value to my business. 

B. Those who displayed few or none the above.

In my view you Clients should do their job and sort these categories out before you ask them to pitch, thus saving you and them a huge amount of time and distraction.  Allowing you to spend more precious time with the A’s and as little as possible with B’s. Not easy but that’s your challenge. Speaking to 2 x A’s is more productive than speaking to 6 x B’s.

Also to get the most value Clients should consider spending some of your precious budget encouraging a low number of A’s to spend more time on your needs. Don’t forget that it is your problem they are solving and the better the solution the more chance of you keeping your job.

over 6 years ago

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Chris Wilson

I'm agency-side, and I don't mind the free pitch situation at all. It's down to the agency's own sense of the opportunity to qualify in or out. We turn down at least 50% of pitch requests. The ones we go for are the ones that:

1. Are interesting

2. Are where we KNOW we can add value to the client

3. Are run professionally by the client (to the point above - not asking hundreds of companies to pitch)

From the clients perspective, they have to try and derisk their decision - as it's a big one. A good agency doesn't spend lots of time speculatively pitching anyway: it's all down to qualification.

I cannot ever see a 'strike' happening - but I do think agencies should do more to share best practice on they way qualification is handled: it actually benefits the whole industry (and client-side marketers). It's something I'm doing as part of the Association of B2B Agencies, which I currently Chair.

over 6 years ago

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Rebecca Caroe

I am with Chris and Neale and think a voluntary "code" of limiting the number of agencies invited to pitch would help both sides. But I do see the other side of the coin too - if you are a young struggling agency, you'd be tempted to push for a wider search net and putting forward work for free in order to get noticed. It's pretty hard to get onto these pitch lists. But success does breed success and as Martin Brooks of Work Club said it took them three years before client brands would consider an "internet only" campaign. http://creativeagencysecrets.com/2009/11/06/shout-with-martin-brooks-md-of-work-club/

over 6 years ago

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Jilly Cross

I agree with the qualification sentiment - it's up to the agency new business person (like me) to put the agency forward for the right type of project, but saying "no thanks" can be hard when the pressure's on to get new work in and there's a general hunger from the agency to "have a go" even if the brief doesn't fit your skill-set perfectly. Being able to look at a brief and know you can really win this is fundamental to having a decent looking conversion rate at your end of year. In terms of time and financial commitment to pitching from agencies - it's part of the course. We've argued about this issue for years and I'm all up for solidarity amongst competitors when people are treated badly, but the UK and USA are too competitive for there to be a strike like this - someone will always be willing to put the extra bit of effort in, I don't blame clients for expecting it. But the key is mutual respect - Agencies, if you're going to compete, but the effort in - half-baked pitches make you look bad, disappoint the client, reflect badly on the industry and never bring results. Clients - you're in charge of a process that will result in you selecting the team responsible for how your brand behaves in coming months / years, etc - best to get the relationship off to a good start straight away. If that means offering paid pitch because you can afford it, great!!!! But if you can't, the most we can hope for is at least a decent amount of time to do the best we can.

over 6 years ago

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