There’s no greater destruction of value than pitching

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Following a decade in digital agencies, I went client-side to put what I learned to work. A failed musician, a failing rugby player, and a semi-decent marketer, I live in Wrexham and spend a lot of time explaining that there’s more to the place than a football club. We also have a really nice aqueduct. Find Lex on LinkedIn.

Biggest fuck up?

My most spectacular bollock-drop was when I somehow connected a (new, prestigious) client’s Google Ads billing details to a billing agreement with…the agency we’d just beaten to win them.

The first I knew about it was via a phone call from the old agency’s Google rep, who sardonically informed me I’d racked up over thirty grand on their tab.

Exasperated at my feckless handling of things and no doubt wondering how our team managed to convince the client we were a better option than the incumbent, they explained in slow and painful detail just what a pair of clown shoes I was.

Shaking like a shitting dog, I stumbled from my desk into the Director of Search’s office, grabbing the account manager along the way, and shamefacedly blurted out what I’d done, all the while making peace with getting either shit-canned or at least a written warning.

Showing enormous grace under pressure, the account manager assembled a plausible explanation for my incompetence and got us all on a conference call. (Cheers again, Han. That was god-tier account management).

The client thought it was hilarious.

Their old agency…did not.

Rant

Pitching for work.

My sister in Christ, I cannot think of a greater destruction of value for agencies nor a greater waste of clients’ time than the pitch ‘process’.

Example: when I was agency-side, we had one client who we had to repitch for three times in two years.

Three times.

We outlasted the marketing team and the CEO. Can’t think why…

Anyway, as an agency, it burns out your teams and distracts you from servicing your current clients – i.e., the people who are actually paying you.

As a client, you’d rather use sandpaper for loo roll whilst suffering a ferocious bout of stomach flu than sit through an afternoon of agency pitches.

Upon seeing our team attempt to untangle client briefs that were often nuttier than squirrel shit, an old agency CEO of mine would ask, “Who’s paying for this?”.

And if he asked that question, you knew damn well the agency was.

He was right because agencies often pay for it in two ways: there’s the financial hit of working for nowt and the ever-present risk of IP theft.

I won’t name names, but there’s plenty of smoke surrounding brands that go on knowledge raids and are renowned for ‘being inspired by’ work that’s been pitched to them without paying for those ideas.

It’s a dick move of epic proportions, so knock it off.

I have two ideas.

1) Sack off the concept of pitching entirely.

Plenty of agency people know of Blair Enns’ Win Without Pitching, but it’s no small task to change your model and say, “We don’t pitch for new business.”

Only the great agencies can and will hold that line…so perhaps agency land needs a cull to get rid of the weaker ones?

I read there are circa 25,000 agencies in the UK.

And there are allegedly over 5,000 UK agencies that provide “social media marketing services.”

There must be a LOT of shit in that 25k and 5k, respectively.

Thanos-esque reductions in agencies aside, I like what the Pitch Positive Pledge sets out in its charter and would love to see widespread adoption into agency and client culture.

It starts with the most important question: Does this genuinely require a pitch? If it does, give a written explanation of why you deem a pitch necessary.

If a client can’t articulate why they need to eat up dozens of hours of an agency’s unbillable time, that pitch is an aberration that should never exist.

Like cucumbers.

And wasps.

Or,

2) Pay agencies to pitch.

You want agencies to give up their time for the possibility of the privilege of winning your business?

You just want to hear them talk so you can understand their thinking, their culture?

You want their ideas for free?

That’s cool.

But pitching ideas and potential solutions to problems takes time.

And that time costs money.

Let’s collectively create a culture where it’s normal to ask for money in exchange for people’s time, creativity, and (in too many cases) their evenings, their weekends, and their mental health.

Useful advice

This is technically four pieces of advice but under one umbrella: Read.

For books, start with Ehrenberg Bass publications, along with the work of Roger Martin, April Dunford, Richard Rumelt, Luke Sullivan, Dave Trott, Richard Shotton, and Rory Sutherland. Then branch out.

Curate a good LinkedIn and Twitter feed of people who share stimulating articles. Fill it with the likes of Vikki Ross, Cindy Gallop, Dave Harland, Ty Heath, Dave Dye, Zoe Scaman, Tom Goodwin, Andrew Wilshire, and Kincso Biro – special shoutout for Kincso as she predominantly posts great questions to spark thoughtful discussion, something of a rarity on social media. (Sadly, both Andrew Wilshire and Kincso Biro recently left Twitter and or LinkedIn, so keep an eye out for them popping up on other platforms!)

Make sure to add people with backgrounds, takes, and experiences that are different from yours.

Studiously avoid the buffoonery of people named Gary and Simon.

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