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Why the pitch is out-dated and flawed… and how we can fix it

“Accountants wouldn’t do it either. Neither would builders or plumbers or heart surgeons. So why do we?” Richard Midgley, Founder & Group Strategy Director at Ponderosa Agency in Leeds, on why it’s time to change the flawed pitching process.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a piece about all the funny things that have happened on pitches. It’s not the one with the live owl because that was the client’s logo. It’s not the one where we turn up in Manchester at the client’s office, while they turn up at ours in Leeds. It’s not even the one where the client fell asleep during the presentation and we had to wake him up.

Maybe it should be about that and everyone can send me stories at so we can collate all the best ones.

Before we go any further I don’t actually hate pitching. I love it. The adrenaline is going, hopefully you have some great thoughts and ideas and everyone has made an effort – maybe a suit or a posh frock; bit of extra aftershave and a shine of the trainers.

And this will all be the culmination of RFP, chemistry meeting, briefing, research, experiencing the client’s product or service, creative taking over the whole agency to put stuff on walls and lots of rounds of meetings, checking the ideas, writing the presentation, everyone claiming to be too bloody busy to do anything for paying clients because we are “working on the XXXXX pitch”. The late nights, the way the team actually comes together to fine tune the presentation that will never be right but could we just change the order at midnight the night before.

Then hopefully a tissue meeting where you chuck it all out and start again and someone throws in a Hail Mary at the last minute and suddenly that’s the best idea. Brilliant. Exhilarating. Brings the team together like nothing else.

But are we the only industry that does it?

Imagine saying to a lawyer, or in fact six law firms: “I want you to work out what I need to do, give me all your best advice from all your top people, laying out my strategy for the next year and present it all in an hour and a half. Oh and I’m not paying you. And I have asked five other firms to do the same. See you next week.” 

I’m not sure you would see them next week and you would get a bill for the phone call. 

Accountants wouldn’t do it either. Neither would builders or plumbers or heart surgeons. So why do we?

Richard Midgley, Founder & Group Strategy Director at Ponderosa Agency

Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t had a particularly bad track record which has caused me to have a deep loathing, we just don’t seem to have come up with a better plan in our industry. Some brave agencies refuse to do it. We could do that, but then we wouldn’t have some of the best clients we have that we won by nailing a brilliant pitch. And I’m not that brave. 

So why is it flawed, other than lots of people doing free work?

I don’t think the client gets the best work. How often does the pitched work actually see the light of day? The best work comes from getting to know someone and more importantly their brand. Getting under the skin of the organisation and unearthing that golden nugget of insight which is very difficult to unearth at the pitch stage. Then working with the client to bring that insight to life and show how it can work across the many platforms it will have to live. Having enough time to ensure that it works across many levels and can be fine-tuned to be the best it can be. That way everyone can buy into it and as most of us know the best work comes from collaborating with our clients to get the best work, not presenting them a finished solution.

The other reason is that if we are presenting an idea, just one idea, then maybe a pitch is fine. But recently pitches seem so complicated (maybe our fault) but the brief required an idea, then discussion about the brand and how we could ensure leads came in while also ensuring a repositioning. All of that and include SEO, PPC and social media. If we had nailed that in an hour and a half then we deserve much more than a new client. Someone clearly did because we didn’t win it. But I would argue that no-one could nail that in a pitch process. 

But I am a realist, so let’s say we have to use pitching as the way to do things. How do we make this flawed system work for both clients and agencies?

Here is my plea/request to anyone thinking of putting things to pitch:

  1. Don’t ask too many agencies. I know some organisations have to follow the rules and make things a level playing field open to all but state the criteria upfront. If you want a UK agency, make sure you say so. If you want a Midlands agency please say so. So those of us outside your region/timezone/size criteria/level of fame/specialism don’t waste our time.
  2. State the budget. If a piece of work is going to warrant the client investing all the time it takes them to put something up for pitch, they must have asked someone with a calculator for some money to be earmarked. 
  3. Allow a chemistry meeting and a workshop. A workshop is more than two people for more than two hours. Half a day so that we can really get stuck into what is going to win this and what isn’t really important. So often it will be under the brief. And the chemistry meeting is important so we can at least know whether we really will annoy each other.
  4. Be honest – most agencies would prefer a blunt “no” than a polite “why don’t you see if that could work”. 
  5. Set clear timelines and stick to them.  We pitched for things months ago and still have had no answer. Please put us out of our misery. Or send us all to the pub rejoicing. But please let us know.

If I really had a magic wand we would do it like this:

  • We send the client all the relevant case studies with results so that the client has some confidence we know what we are doing.
  • We give you a list of real clients that you can ring and have a chat with to check we can do what we say we can do.
  • Then we get together – maybe with a task be it a marketing task or a related task and try and solve it together.
  • Then we will know what it’s like to work together and whether we get on. Surely that is the most important bit.
  • But if it has to be a pitch, please put us on the list as I actually quite like wearing a suit and my trainers need a polish.

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