Pitching is evolving. Will it ever go away?

“Pitching is becoming a poster child of bad work-life balance,” one agency exec told us.
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Francis Scialabba

5 min read

Pitching: Can’t live with it, can’t make money without it. Or can you?

In recent years, more agency workers—particularly young ones—have called attention to the impact of pitching on work-life balance, given that it’s often non-billable and can require long hours. More conversations are also being had around the financial costs. This summer, the 4A’s and the ANA released a study that found that the total average cost of some new account pitches can exceed $200,000 for an agency and $400,000 for a brand.

To address some of these concerns, agencies like Mother have created alternatives to pitching, encouraging clients to meet instead for a date-like “chemistry meeting,” with the agency donating first-year profits from new clients to a not-for-profit org. In the UK, the ISBA and the IPA created the Pitch Positive Pledge, encouraging brands and agencies to pledge to do things like evaluate whether a project’s budget justifies a pitch at all.

But given how entrenched the pitching process is in marketing, can it ever be replaced? While sources told us it’s doubtful, there are signs of—and ongoing calls for—improvement heading into 2024.

Skip the pitch

More than a year in, Mother’s “Pitch It Forward” initiative is going strong, Chris Gallery, strategist at Mother London, told us. He said the agency has seen more interest from clients over time, and cited two major success stories in the last year: retailer Marks & Spencer’s clothing business and liquor brand Jägermeister.

“They were both clients that were predisposed to not necessarily [think] a drawn-out pitch process was going to be a useful use of their time, but equally, they needed some kind of reassurance that they were going to find a partner that would be the right fit for them,” he said.

In the case of Marks & Spencer, all it took was a meeting with the agency to discuss the brand’s needs, which Gallery said created an environment where everyone felt confident to move forward.

When clients aren’t comfortable with Pitch It Forward, Gallery said Mother London tends to look for pitches that take no longer than six weeks. That’s because as longer pitches go on, “the more costly they are, and the less likely they are to end up in success,” he said. Mother London has also been working on more pitches where participants are paid for the work involved in the process.

Gallery said it’s not a big deal when clients opt not to Pitch It Forward. “We’re not going to force that on anyone, but I think there is a growing movement,” he said, later adding that “pitching is becoming a poster child of bad work-life balance.”

Great expectations

While VMLY&R (soon to be VML) isn’t asking clients to skip pitches altogether, Lynn Hurley, managing director of business development, said the agency works to spread out pitching responsibilities across its workforce to manage the effect it has on employees.

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“It’s not like this is their night job after working their day job,” she said. “Growth for an agency is everyone’s job, so we try to be as respectful and thoughtful in who we’re putting forward and for how long.”

According to Hurley, one of the most frustrating parts about pitching is due to an imbalance in effort between agencies and prospective clients, which can lead to a lack of clarity on what clients are looking for in an agency.

“If we’re going into something completely blind, we’re just not going to be able to service the business in a way that we want to that is best for everyone,” she said.

Since the pandemic began, she said RFIs have improved in clarity and feel less like a “cattle call” to 30+ agencies at a time. She said she’s hoping to see more flexibility on deadlines, as well as less lengthy timelines, since “life happens.”

“Having a pitching process that’s three years long hopefully goes away because the world changes much faster than that,” she said. “If our reviews aren’t keeping up with at least the speed of change, then we’re not doing a service to anyone, clients and ourselves included.”

Lisa Colantuono, president of agency search consultancy AAR Partners, told us that time can be saved if clients are upfront about their budgets, or at least the range and scope of their budgets, so there’s no guessing or time wasted.

“Marketers have a habit of not wanting to share the budget…Just give the proper range, give the proper scope of what you’re looking for,” she said. “You could still negotiate.”

Bye, pitch?

As for whether pitching will ever go away? Colantuono pointed to all the industry standards and tentpoles built around the practice as evidence that it could stick around for a while.

“If we want to stop the pitch altogether, well, then don’t have conferences, don’t have email blasts, don’t have webinars, don’t have any of that stuff,” she said. “In a way, they’re tools for prospecting.”

Hurley also had her doubts about the end of pitching. “Do I think in my lifetime it will go away fully? Probably not, because processes that are entrenched in such a large agency landscape are hard to change,” she said. “But I look forward to where it evolves to, in much more focused reviews and, truly, partnerships built.”

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