17 Jan 2022
In 2021 I was faced with a new challenge for the first time in the 24 years that I’ve been a consultant.
Instead of media agencies raising their hand to any and every new business opportunity, I found myself having to pitch AAR media opportunities against those of other consultants, as well as CMO’s and their procurement colleagues going to market without any external support.
As we all know, the market was awash with media new business opportunities from the start of January without let up through to the end of the year. At face value this appeared to be good news for agencies and, where appropriate, their holding company owners.
But against the unprecedented (there’s that word again) backdrop of a disrupted (and that one) marketplace what have we learnt that will result in long-term media pitch behaviour change? (Bingo!)
The catch-all answer is that I think some things will change for good and others will stay the same (what else is there?). So, here’s what I think will change for good:
1. Agency leadership will continue to put their people first, turning down opportunities that place unnecessary or unrealistic expectations on their teams (unless the request comes from HQ; see point 2 in what will stay the same section below). After all, a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you, and in 2021 it has proven to be a price agency leaders think was definitely worth paying.
2. Brands wanting to pitch their media will need to come to market in a professional manner and well thought through approach. If agencies don’t have clarity on the reasons for the pitch, the selection programme, the role and involvement of decision makers, the schedule and the size of the prize being relative to the ask and what it will take to win, domestic brands (and quite possibly some international opportunities) will find themselves being rejected by agencies in which they are interested, as I know to have been the case several times in 2021.
3. An unexpected consequence of remote working and video calls becoming standard practice has been the willingness of brand teams to be more accessible than ever before to agencies during a pitch. So, as well as the set-piece check in sessions, work in progress meetings and technical surgeries, marketers have made time for an impromptu Zoom (with camera on) to give agencies every opportunity to shine in their response to the pitch brief. All from the comfort of everyone’s home with children, partners and pets in the background (and occasionally, front and centre of the screen), adding a welcome touch of humanity that, in former times, was less evident as we all walked into the designated meeting room.
Then there are some aspects of pitching that remain unaffected by all that has been going on around us. Here are three constants that I predict, with confidence, will remain so:
1. We are a people business (still playing buzzword bingo?) and it’s the team of people that is an agency’s most potent and persuasive pitch winner. Of course, any successful agency must have a threshold level of hygiene and capability across data, tech, platform integration, audience insight, MMM, cost and quality buying, operational excellence, MI reporting and more, to compete effectively. But these soon become table stakes and are rarely the difference between success and failure, certainly at the sharp end of the pitch. What sets agencies apart and sets the CMO and their teams hearts beating a little faster is an agency’s smarts, the strategic Jedi knight who, in lockstep with the rest of the team, tells a story and sells a vision of the future that excites, inspires, and ultimately persuades the client team to want to work with that agency.
2. Sometimes saying no is not an option (see point 1 in the ‘what will change’ section above). The super-tanker global brands are on a never-ending journey of bedding in, working with or exiting media agency arrangements. Every year, depending on their governance lifecycle, there will be businesses that dock their accounts in a pitch port for what is never less than six months, and often much longer, before setting on their way with an evolved or completely new set of media agency partners. In 2021 AB InBev, Bayer, Chanel, Ferrero Rocher, Google, Kering Group, Meta, Sanofi and Unilever all reviewed, re-arranging their media agency deckchairs to varying degrees (too many nautical analogies?). And when the call comes from HQ in New York, London, Paris, or Tokyo to defend or attack the gazillion dollar opportunity, domestic offices have no say in the matter, regardless of how knackered or stressed their people feel. But what’s the alternative? For the 2022 supertanker opportunities, I suggest looking at the brands that haven’t reviewed since between 2017 and 2019 as three to five years appears to be a predominant timescale. Indeed, literally as I am writing this, VW has announced a review to kick off this year. Step forward any network that doesn’t have a global automotive account.
3. For all the good intentions over the years to modernise and update the pitch process, I think the basic recipe and constituent elements of a media pitch will remain more similar than different. Not a fashionable view amongst all, perhaps, but one that I believe for two primary reasons. Because pitching is an insurance policy for which brands have become accustomed to requesting fully comprehensive cover at no perceived cost to them, and in response agencies have been (in the main) willing to do whatever it takes to win. What’s the downside for a brand to have a bunch of super-smart people thinking about their business, marketing, communications and media challenges? All, more often than not, for free! This consensual behaviour simply perpetuates the arms race that pitching has become, with no-one willing or wanting to take a stand against it.
The second reason is more visceral. A well-run pitch that puts the best talent that the market has to offer in competition with each other is universally described by agencies as a moment in time when they are operating at their best. There’s an individual and personal desire to demonstrate market beating strategy, creativity, execution and delivery that is backed by a corporate (little c or big C) ambition and imperative to grow.
‘We’re at our best when we’re firing on all cylinders in a pitch. No-one can beat us.’
This sums up numerous comments over the years from media agencies of all persuasion. Winning pitches delivers the highest of highs as well as the wind-inducing emptiness that a punch to the stomach engenders in the unwelcome words ‘We’re going with another agency’.
When it came to media pitches, 2021 was a year like no other and there are positive lessons learnt that we will take forward, of which the industry should be proud, and rightly so.
At the same time plus ça change and the thrill of the pitch, with all the demands it asks of agencies, will continue to be pursued and participated in willingly by the marketplace. Because when agencies get it right, and win, nothing beats it!