Why don’t clients use the ideas that win pitches for their business?

I started looking back on pitches we’ve made over the years.  It’s amazing how they’ve evolved.  In my first pitches we used 35mm slides and a projector!  Not surprisingly these were pretty simple presentations.  One thing that hasn’t changed since those early pitches is how rarely the ideas in those pitches actually get used.  When you think about it, it’s quite amazing.  Agencies spend hours and hours brainstorming ideas for pitches, knowing full well these ideas have a 1% chance of being used.  Why aren’t they used?  Well there are good reasons:

1.  When you are pitching you don’t know the full situation – for example you may have some ideas on how to launch a company or product.  When you get appointed you often find out that, say, the product doesn’t quite work the way they implied in the brief.

2.  The resources to actually do the pitch ideas don’t really exist.  Oh yes, the budget just got ‘trimmed.’

3.  The clients have other more immediate priorities. ‘Launch that product?  We need to solve this crisis before we do anything.’

These are all good reasons but they still shouldn’t result in so few ideas actually being  used.  I think instead what this shows is that clients don’t for a minute believe they will use the ideas that come in pitches.  Instead they want to ‘see how we think.’  This is where things also get messy.  When agencies pitch they often use more than the proposed account teams in their brainstorms.  In other words what clients sometimes see is thinking that came from people not in the room.  Worse than that, they sometimes get thinking from people in the room that won’t actually be working on the business.  This creates the illusion that they are getting the right thinking, without them actually getting the right thinking.  It’s a tough problem to solve but as I said earlier in the week, I think the pitch process has been broken for a long time.

Perhaps PR Week could have an award for the best idea that was in actually in a pitch AND got used.  And maybe one for the best  idea that didn’t get used…

Should PR agencies have to pitch?

PR Week today announced that Chegg.com, an interesting startup, has hired Weber Shandwick for its PR.  According to the article they didn’t go through an RFP process.  Instead they were hired because they’d worked with the head of comms before at Match.com.  Some will argue that this is no way to make such an important decision.  Others will argue that the person who hired them knew what she was going to get and saved the company a lot of time and trouble.  She also, saved various agencies a lot of time as she clearly knew who she wanted.

Just about every agency head I know complains about the pitch process for the following reasons:

1.  Agencies have to invest a lot of time and money in pitches.  Indeed the cost of pitching can often wipe out the profits they’d make from an account for much of the first year.

2.  Agencies are forced to give away a lot of free ideas in the pitch process.  This is frustrating when those ideas get used by another agency that wins the account.

3.  Procurement departments are using pitch processes to drive a bargain and rarely are they focused on getting the best consultants to help a company.

4.  Every process is different so agencies have to reinvent the wheel each time.

5.  Some agencies don’t play fair.  In other words they make promises they have no intention of keeping – such as staffing

6.  Some clients don’t play fair.  They suggest they’ll be a great client and have a great budget.  They then reduce the budget and change the role of the agency.

7.  There are at least another three common complaints but I won’t bore you.

Given all these complaints should agencies have to pitch or should there just be a standard process by which agencies get hired?  While the latter would save everyone time, it’s sadly impractical.  Every client is different and has different needs.  A standard process denies agencies who really want to invest a pitch the opportunity to show how much they really want the business.  Also, some agencies use the current process to show innovation. Make the process standard and that chance goes away.

I for one would love to see the current process improved but I fully suspect I’ll hear the same complaints in five years that I hear today.  Instead, clients need to be reminded of the best way to handle the pitch process so they get the right agency without putting the agency world through the mill in the process.