I’ve always been fascinated by the well-established ritual of creative pitching in advertising. It’s the standard way in which clients start relationships with agencies.
How it works is this. The client decides to appoint a new agency for some project. He identifies three or four candidates he likes the look of. Then he gives each a brief on his project. They all go away for a few weeks and try to come up with a creative solution to the problem. Then there’s a series of presentations and the client chooses the people with what he thinks is the best answer.
That all sounds fine, but in practice it sets everyone up for a value-destroying untrusting dysfunctional relationship.
1 Agencies are forced to develop proposals under intense time-pressure. This inevitably reduces the time for reflection which immediately reduces perspective. Creativity and wisdom both depend on viewing problems from multiple perspectives. The view that time pressure supports creativity is debunked by Robert Weisburg in his book Creativity: Genius and other Myths. He says “The more ones knows about the criteria a solution must meet, and the greater role these criteria play in the actual generation of solutions, the better the solution will be.” Such an approach is not supported by the manic race of a creative pitch.
2 Pitching supports what I call the Big Idea fallacy. Whatever may be said by all concerned, client and agencies long for someone to present a brilliant idea to unlock their market. In a competition, agencies convince themselves they must have a Big Idea to win a pitch; and easily convince themselves that a Big Idea is what works best. This is a context in which half-solutions and tentative lines of enquiry are going to be scotched. The whole process contributes to the extraordinary degree of simplistic branding we see in the world.
3 There is huge financial pressure on agencies. Pitching is expensive in resources. The more work an agency does, the harder it becomes to countenance losing. Failure becomes terrifying. (Ironically, the ability to tolerate failure and learn from it is the key to a more humane model of creativity). Clients love to tell agencies they hate sycophancy; yet the financial pressures created by a pitch are virtually guaranteed to turn a right thinking agency into a smarmy flatterer.
4 The client pays a hidden price. There is a big downside for clients in this too. They may think that a competitive pitch gives them the creative ideas of several agencies for nothing but there is always a price! For one thing, the process means briefing maybe 30 intelligent and creative people on your intimate problems and challenges – and then burning perhaps 25 of them. How smart is that? Secondly, creative pitching means agencies adopt a business model in which they do a lot of unpaid speculative work