It hurts so good
There was a time when I loved to pitch for creative work. There’s something intoxicating about the time pressure, the guessing game, the cajoling of strategic allies to have faith in you and jump feet first into a boiling cauldron of unknowns, the oozing suspicion and high stakes tension as we blindly attempt to resolve a major brand’s marketing woes in a ridiculously short amount of time.
It must be said that delivering the brief proposal to the client, having met all its creative and technical specifications, is cathartic. Afterwards, we generally head to the pub to celebrate our undisputed creative genius with copious amounts of wine or mezcal. We commend each team member for their insights and self-sacrifice that has once again proven beyond–a–shadow–of–a–doubt, their unflinching commitment to the agency as evidenced by the 2 or 3 all-nighters that were pulled in the effort to deliver unrivaled marketing greatness.
And then the reckoning – and the hangover – begins. The standard time allotted for a yay or nay response from the prospect varies, but the industry standard is roughly 2 weeks. So, a guessing game begins that sees steel nerves begin to fray, tensions rise and self-doubt set in. Pitch participants begin to question our decisions, apologize for a minor error caught in hindsight – turned gigantic – question whether the right partners were invited to participate and whether we should have dropped the price to go in cheap, despite not knowing who we are competing against and how they may have responded to the brief.
Sometimes, the deadline passes, and yet the brand manager has not called. In those situations I tend to scan my emails frenetically, searching my spam folder for a sign,any sign. A hint that we have at worst been shortlisted, or at best declared winners in this cruel game of chance, as I unravel before my very eyes. But all I see in my inbox is an endless stream of travel alerts to places I don’t have the time to travel to, and news updates on the seeming tsunami of bad news that is the norm these days. I break a sweat, in breath–bated, ulcer-inducing, constipation-creating, anticipation-anxiety.
And then the phone rings.
Rational doesn’t enter–into–it
Whether you win or lose them, creative pitches are oddly addictive, sadistically fun and wholly unhealthy for all involved. Why?
Because creative pitches provide agencies the opportunity to let their marketing savvy and creative genius shine in front of prospective clients, while providing companies the opportunity to evaluate and compare agencies on a supposed level playing field. If only it were that simple.
But it’s not. We all know that nothing ever is.
For the agency invited to compete, the unpaid pitch work means a costly and stressful endeavor that requires patching together an intelligent–sounding response to a brief. A brief that is usually based on few hard facts and many assumptions, lightly seasoned with a dose of indifference; that frames a poorly-defined problem, and seeks a game–changing solution that, sadly, will likely be evaluated solely on price rather than creativity or innovation – well, that’s not entirely true – sometimes, winners are selected purely on the agency brand name. Established agencies often win simply because if anything goes wrong, upper management, client-side, cannot fault the brand manager because he or she went with the reputable choice, anything less than stellar results become the sole responsibility of the agency…
But let’s break down exactly why creative pitches can be unhealthy for both the agencies that participate and the companies that request them...
10 reasons why only jerk brands expect unpaid pitch work and are bad for business:
1. Waste of time: The winning pitch is within the acceptable budget irrespective of the logic, creativity, reach or conversions promised from the campaign. This being the case, why not just ask for an economic and technical proposal and some client references?
2. Not enough info: The brief never contains enough relevant information. Here’s the highlight of a brief we just had the pleasure of turning down for a hotel and timeshare group and its plethora of entertainment brands. The brief was just one sentence long!
“Demonstrate and develop the winter campaign 2020-2021 for —- Group and its line of businesses….”
Right?! But, not only that, they wanted our analysis, creative solution and digital campaign in under 72 hours.
I saw this and thought, “w@ker”. I will generally do everything necessary to deliver a great strategy in the most efficient way possible, but let it be known that I charge upfront for performing backflips.
3. Chaos: Pitches tend to be crafted under extreme conditions – restricted timelines and a general lack of information (client companies tend to withhold vital information that would actually result in stronger proposals from all involved).
4. Broken promises: Given the arbitrary timelines under which pitch responses are developed, agencies often have to scramble to get quotes and proposals from partner agencies or 3rd party suppliers. This means that either the prices quoted are too high because they allow for a margin of error – or too low, which means that the end product will be made on–the–cheap in order to adhere to the quote that was prepared blind and under pressure.
5. Second best: The agency team that participates in the pitch may not be the most appropriate for project they are pitching for, but rather those that happen to be available at the time the invitation to pitch is received. This is especially true for pitch responses that must be delivered quickly.
6. Style over substance: Given that agencies are asked to work with scant facts, many tend to propose dazzling, attention-grabbing solutions that seduce prospective clients but may be unworkable or prohibitively expensive to produce – or both! I know of many great pitch ideas that were quietly shelved by agencies while the client was looking the other way.
7. We´ll spy on you: In the absence of a solid brief laden with stats and graphs, the brand manager, or whomever is responsible for evaluating the proposals, is likely to be profiled, if not hacked or stalked, by the agency’s pitch team.
In this LinkedIn–connected world, we’re only 2 degrees and a skinny-late or Cross Fit class away from anyone in the industry. It takes little more than 3 minutes of browsing professional and personal profiles on Instagram and a couple of messages to shared contacts to get the lowdown on whom the technical committee is composed of and what their likes and dislikes may be.
We not only know where you work, but pretty much who and what you did last summer.
8. Risk adversity: Winning pitches tend to be the safe option. Innovation can be risky, and failure costly both to the brand and to careers of the managers willing to take risks in brands where the status quo is rarely challenged.
9. Familiarity (like likes like): The winning strategy most often confirms, rather than challenges, the client team’s existing ideas or bias. Often, the winning proposals tend to evolve what has been done in the past rather than revolutionize the brand communications.
10. Put some money in the tip jar: Asking for free work devalues the hard work and experience of agency teams. It’s unheard of to ask for a free-trial facelift or preview of a massage with a happy ending to make sure we’ll be truly happy with the end result, so why is it ok to ask for freebies from creatives? It’s not, It’s obnoxious, disrespectful and cheap. Brands should know better.
So, if asking agencies to pitch becomes the marketing faux pas as I am hoping it does, how is a respectable brand to fairly evaluate the strategic and creative thinking of agencies before committing to a business relationship with them? I am ever so glad you asked. The answer is simple. Here’s my…
6 step–guide to a managing a successful creative pitch while avoiding becoming a marketing pariah
- Do your homework: Prepare a comprehensive brief that includes hard data on your campaigns, your objective and all the juicy stuff we are happy to sign NDAs just to access. Remember, we live in the information age, being stingy with it is a sign of bad taste.
- Take a chance: Of course, invite the solid trusted names in the industry, but also consider inviting up–and–coming agencies that are not risk adverse.
- Chill out on the deadline: The industry standard seems to be 1-2 weeks, but if you are asking an agency to put their best people and resources on your project, then give them the time required to organize themselves, do the research and create their magic. If you expect the agency to drop everything and respond to you like it’s the only thing that matters just because you needed to present the proposals to management yesterday, that only really proves that you are a narcissist and should probably brush up on your project management skills.
- Be fair (and ethical while you are at it): While this may sound like a no-brainer, I´ve worked with and heard of literally many dozens of national and international companies that decide the fate of the final campaign based on project manager personality or some other trivial thing, like a bribe for example. (Viva México!).
- Be thankful (and give feedback): There is nothing that betrays the arrogance of a brand manager quite like the disdain for providing constructive feedback to the losing agencies after they have invested time, energy and creativity in a pitch. Don´t be a schmuck, help us improve our game. And last but not least…
- Don’t be cheap: We do not expect you to give up a vital organ in return, but a nominal payment for our participation suggests that, at the very least, you value the agency’s time, even if you really don’t, either way, it’s good PR (and karma).
While I have gladly participated in innumerable creative pitches in the past – some won, some lost – we at Mijo have taken the collective decision to refrain from indulging in marketing manager egos and power trips again: we´ll not participate in any more unpaid pitches with shoddy briefs.
Why? Because, while I may secretly enjoy feeling taken advantage of and undervalued, and may unknowingly get off on the adrenaline rush of the pitch process, my therapist insists that I am worth more, and that sooner or later, I simply had to say enough is enough.
And you know what? She was right.
So, if that pitch–invite you’re preparing is for me, save yourself the trouble and kindly remove me from your contact list.
At Mijo! Brands, a leading creative agency in digital marketing, with a presence in Mexico City, Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta, we have a team of multidisciplinary professionals, specialists in creating digital marketing strategies and successful brand launches who will know how to prepare presentations to revolutionize your brand. But first, let’s agree on a fair payment and a consistent brief.
Daniel Gómez is Brand Strategist and Director of Mijo! Brands in Mexico City. In 2007, he received his MBA from the LSBU in London, England where he specialized in innovation. That same year, Daniel returned to Mexico to put into practice what he learned abroad in combination with his love for Mexico to create a new model of creative digital agency. He highlights his ability to maintain a wide frame of vision to connect different phases of any process and deliver innovative solutions for brands in multiple sectors. Passionate about travel and food, he understands that changing your environment from time to time gives you another set of eyes and widens your senses to pick up subtle differences, which is the key to uniqueness. His free time is split between being spent with his boxer, “Sofi”, and training to finish the CDMX marathon in less than 4.5 hours.