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Why advertising pitches are like ‘The Bachelor’.

For most of my career, I was The Client.

Whenever we needed to pick a new agency, we used to think that pitching was the responsible thing to do – we tested out agencies “for real” as we got to see them work on our problems, not other people’s.

But now I work at an ad agency, and the truth I’ve come to realise is: pitching is the worst way to start a relationship.

Pitching is the equivalent of the TV Show The Bachelor: one guy picking from 30 women according to a pre-defined process and time schedule, regardless of initial chemistry and compatibility.

You get a winner, but you rarely start a genuine relationship.

Just like with personal relationships, it is great when we meet a team on the client side who is so close to us in terms of thinking. It could be the start of a great relationship, a true partnership.

However, nearly always now, we have to pitch creative ideas next. My experience of recent pitches is that, even if we win, it is not a good way start to a relationship:

  1. It distances us from the client at the outset: it sets the relationship on a path of “us” vs “them, of “judge” vs “competitor”.
  2. Partnering and collaborating are not part of the pitching game: Media agencies are told not to intervene, time with the client and other information is limited, and the result is a contest that is more a test of endurance than a test of suitability.
  3. It also frustrates creatives: they know that the work they pitch is only a test, that it probably won’t even be used.
  4. Perhaps, most importantly, by setting agencies against each other, the competition – winning – becomes the important thing. Helping clients and building a true understanding becomes secondary to just beating the other guys.

Instead, when it feels right, when the chemistry in the relationship is there and both parties want to party, then maybe we should just start working and collaborating together and not competing for the prize of a new account. In my experience, working on a real project is the best way to get a team fired up and passionate about the new relationship.

So, to any clients reading this, here’s my advice: have a few “dates” and talk to a few people, and look at their previous work, but then make a decision and start working on something. You’ll find out pretty quickly if it was a good decision, and you’ll be much better off for it.

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