Jan 02, 2024
Alignment, boundaries and speed: 3 New Year’s resolutions for agencies and clients in the pitch room
By: Alison Weissbrot
Advertising is a people business, and agency-client relationships are at the crux of it all.
These relationships start — and sometimes end — in the pitch room.
From that first chemistry meeting to a long-term partnership, agency leaders and CMOs share five resolutions for creating better working relationships in 2024 in this two-part series.
Part 1: The pitch
Resolution 1: Better alignment and more transparency
Pitching is not only time-consuming — it’s expensive and resource intensive for both sides. According to research from the 4A’s, the average agency spends more than $400,000 on a pitch, while the average client spends $373,000. The costs are even higher for incumbents.
The already onerous process is exacerbated when clients aren’t clear on the brief or the challenge they need the agency to solve — which happens more often than either side likes to admit.
“Misalignment inside of clients causes a lot of pain for agencies,” said David DeMuth, CEO of Doner.
Brad Hiranaga, chief brand officer at outdoor brand Cotopaxi, noted that “If you don’t have a well-defined business problem, you’re not really giving that agency a fair chance to see if they can solve that problem.”
“That’s where clients really go off the rails,” agreed Kevin Keith, CMO at Edible. “They try to dump all their problems and tell the agency to fix it. They don’t do the homework to get prepared.”
Therefore, it’s crucial for agencies to “really dig in and see the red flags” before agreeing to pitch, said Tim Smith, president at creative agency Chemistry.
“We were just in a pitch where the CMO sat on one side of the room and their team sat on the other side of the room. And you can tell they’re not on the same page. It’s like, are we talking to you, or are we talking to you?” he said.
Lack of clarity on who is in charge can lead to weeks of wasted work if those in the pitch don’t have authority to make a decision. To avoid this, clients should enter a pitch as a flatter organization vs. taking a hierarchical approach, said Melissa Wildermuth, global creative director at General Mills.
“It’s more the perspective that we’re able to bring from different parts of the organization,” she said. “Positioning it like that, versus just a title game of who’s on top, clients can do a much better job at that.”
Sometimes confusion in the pitch room stems from a lack of proper training among clients on how to work with an agency effectively, such as giving a solid briefing and ongoing feedback, said 4A’s president and CEO Marla Kaplowitz.
Wildermuth avoids this by anchoring back to the brief and being extremely clear. “Positioning it as ‘clear is kind’ is really helpful, because you go in much more open to the feedback and also with a clear understanding that it’s coming from a very respectful place,” she explained.
“It’s really about being clear about what you want, not dumping all these documents [on the agency] and hoping they can figure it out,” Edible’s Keith agreed.
But sometimes even whether or not an agency has won or lost a pitch can be unclear. Doner pitched for a piece of business in May that it still doesn’t know the outcome of, DeMuth said. “Nobody’s called and said you won, and nobody’s called and said you lost,” he said.
Agency leaders agree that when a consultant is running the process, pitches are more structured with timely communication, a set budget and a clear beginning, middle and end.
“There is much more certainty and alignment on the brief, the big challenge, the hidden challenges … the budget, the timeline — all of these things have to be ironed out,” said Judith Carr-Rodriguez, CEO of creative agency Fig. On the other hand, when clients come to Fig directly, “there’s more work that we have to do to make sure that client is aligned.”
Pitches that aren’t led by consultants are often driven by price, Kaplowitz explained. “Typically we’ll have a procurement person leading it. That’s not their area of strength or expertise.”
Clarity and communication must continue once the pitch ends. DeMuth said Doner has won pitches where it’s not obvious what the financial potential of the account looks like for the agency, which makes it difficult to plan and allocate resources. “If we’re investing in a pitch, it seems fair and reasonable to have a sense of what the return might look like,” he said.
For Chemistry’s Smith, it’s crucial to set expectations around the transition, including mapping out up front how often the client plans to reassess the relationship.
“There’s a switch period,” Kaplowitz agreed, adding agencies and clients must establish up front a cadence for how often they want to check in, receive reporting and more.
Agencies have work to do on their part to make pitches run smoothly as well. According to Keith, meetings could be more efficient by cutting back on non-crucial staff, and agencies can do a better job of speaking the client’s language in terms of how they measure success. Hiranaga added that agencies can be more honest about their true areas of expertise.
CMOs agree they are miffed when they kick off a relationship with an agency and never see the senior team that pitched the account again.
“There has been a trend of, ‘Now You See Me, Now You Don’t,’” Keith said. “You need that person to still stay around to pull that idea through.”
Hiranaga avoids this by trying to make the business challenge presented in the brief “as compelling as possible so people at the agency want to work on it.”
“If we can be inspiring to the agency in what we’re trying to achieve, that helps inspire them to get the best people to work on the brand,” he said, adding that clients should set expectations up front about the talent they want — and be willing to pay for it.
“Clients don’t always know the mechanics of how agencies work and make their money,” he added. “It’s transparency — here is how I am successful in my business — that sets good expectations and fair compensation models for both sides.”
Resolution 2: Say ‘no’ more
As agencies and clients set firmer boundaries, they’re more willing to say no to unfair demands — and even walk away from partnerships that aren’t working.
This starts during the pitch, where agencies are being more judicious not just about which businesses they go after, but also how much work they are willing to do to win.
According to Smith, agencies have less of an appetite for spec work because clients don’t always understand the value of it. “It shouldn’t be for, ‘whatever we come up with, we’re going to run next year in Q1.’ We are really trying to show you how we think,” he explained.
Chemistry is also pushing back on the number of deliverables in a pitch, which have been increasing steadily in the past year and prevent the agency from showing how it solves business problems more broadly.
“We’ll show you how we think and our process of thinking, but you have to believe in our way of doing it,” he said. “We’re trying to cut weight by saying no more to folks who don’t really have an interest in our vision.”
Having a set of defined criteria to navigate when and how to say no is helpful. According to Carr-Rodriguez, Fig turned down more than 70% of pitches it was invited to in 2023 based on what it calls the four R’s: Relationship, Reputation, Remit and Revenue.
“We picked the things that we think people are going to really want to work on, and they’re going to continue to grow in their career; things that increase our reputation, that [allow us to] continue to scale profitably,” she explained.
While Doner considers every opportunity in the context of how the business is performing, the best clients are those who consider marketing a real business driver, DeMuth said.
A major red flag for agencies is when it’s clear that reviews are just about price. “We would not move forward on that basis,” Carr-Rodriguez said.
However, according to 4A’s research, price is still the No. 1 and No. 2 motivator for running a review for both procurement leaders and marketers, respectively.
“Why aren’t agencies and clients having candid conversations about what’s working and what’s not?” Kaplowitz said. “It is a relationship, and when you have issues, you don’t treat the other person badly. You don’t just get quiet. You need to have open communication.”
She added that agencies should educate procurement to understand why selecting an agency isn’t the same as procuring a commodity. “There needs to be more speaking each other’s language.”
Resolution 3: Drop the formality
As client-agency relationships evolve, so too are the business models that underpin them. This starts in the pitch, where clients are condensing timelines or forgoing formal pitches altogether.
“I don’t like going through the whole RFP dog and pony show,” Cotopaxi’s Hiranaga said. “I’m looking for a vibe check between myself, their team or their leadership.”
Wildermuth agreed that formality can get in the way of real conversation. “The client is going to feel less open and comfortable with making it a conversation, and it makes the agency a little bit more uncomfortable too, because they have to come in with a polished end game. It just kind of eliminates the conversation, which is so critical.”
Keith added when he met his creative agency, “It was not the typical, bring down the shades in the master conference room and cue the PowerPoint and all the razzmatazz jazz hands. We sat around couches and talked.”
Some marketers are forgoing pitches altogether by awarding agencies projects that allow them to show what they’re capable of — and get paid doing it. Often, when executed well, these projects lead to more work.
“Project is the gateway drug that I prefer,” Keith explained. “I feel really guilty taking agencies through a [pitch] process and knowing we’re probably not going to use them. It’s just inherently very inefficient.”
While agencies such as Chemistry are testing this model more, the constant pressure to pick up more projects can lead to even more stress for agencies down the line.
“It’s both a blessing and a curse,” DeMuth said. “It’s an opportunity to get inside of a company and grow the relationship, but [if] a company is doing a pitch for every project, that creates a lot of burden on agencies.”
Wildermuth recognizes that while brands get more real-time and fresh thinking through projects, agencies are operating in more of a “pressure cooker.”
“It does feel a bit like politics, where you’re always running for the next election, versus being in your seat [where] you can focus on legislation,” Hiranaga added.
Shifting to a project model has the potential to not only destabilize long-term relationships in favor of more transactional ones, but can also create more volatility for junior talent — and potentially more turnover at agencies, Kaplowitz said.
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