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The Pitch Positive Pledge: more harm than good

Much has been written recently about the latest attempt to improve the agency pitch process, this time a joint effort by ISBA and the IPA.

Much of what has been said about it to date, publicly at least, has been reasonably positive.

From the client side we’ve heard that it’s “a common framework of expectation on what a good pitch looks like” (Pete Markey, Boots) and “a great initiative that codifies best practice” (Toby Horry, TUI).

From the agency side it’s apparently “a great opportunity to set a new standard” (Charlie Martyn, Wunderman) and “a call for a change”, (Julian Douglas, IPA and VCCP).

But it’s also been summarily dismissed as “a Band-Aid on a process that this industry should have ditched a long time ago” (Julie Cohen, indie agency Across the Pond).

I fully support any attempt to improve the pitch process – especially the kind of process creative agencies go through – as laudable. There have been many over the past few years and this initiative is at least partly motivated by a mutual desire to reduce mental health pressures in agencies.

But I’d have to agree with Cohen that what the pitch process really needs is a complete overhaul and rethink and, unfortunately, this latest effort falls way short of that mark. Despite bringing the main client and agency representative bodies together in no-doubt lengthy discussion and, ultimately, agreement.

Only when agencies are no longer expected (and most continue to willingly offer) to give away their services for free during pitches will the process be improved meaningfully. This means not just the end of the anachronistic and old-fashioned creative pitch but even the strategic pitch, right across the agency landscape. There is no reason why pitching in our industry shouldn’t be about the team, how they work and what they’ve done for other clients – just like in every other professional services business.

And if you really want to reduce pressures on the mental wellbeing of agency staff, the chaos of a creative pitch has to be top of the list of things to stop doing. Only those who’ve worked in a creative agency will fully appreciate this.

The Pitch Positive Pledge aims somewhat lower. Indeed, and in case you haven’t read it, the three main tenets are to ‘be positive that a pitch is really necessary; run a positive pitch that takes wellbeing into account; and provide a positive resolution’.

It doesn’t take an anti-pitcher like me to see how that sounds a bit thin. Like me, you will probably assume that there must be more meat in the detail, but if you read the pledge fully you will see that there are certainly more words but I’m afraid very little more substance. Indeed, the pledge is a triumph of style over substance; written in the hope that by reasserting the same anodyne platitudes in more detail they will somehow gain more meaning and value.

I appreciate that hours of agonising discussion between ISBA, the IPA and some of both their members will have taken place and these may have taken the edges off potentially loftier ambitions (Douglas admits as much in his Campaign interview).

But if these negotiations watered things down to a point of banality, wouldn’t it have been better to drop the whole initiative entirely?

I imagine that everyone involved agreed that the final pledge was progress, an improvement and better than nothing. I’m not so sure.

Actually, while I have enormous respect for those who have worked hard to try to solve a long-running problem, I fear this pledge actually does more harm than good.


Partly because now the problem, still unresolved, has been put back in its box for a little while longer.

But mainly, because by having a pledge signed up to by 70 clients (why wouldn’t they? It requires almost nothing of them) and lots of agencies (they don’t dare not), it has further legitimised and extended the life of a fundamentally flawed process. A process that undermines the agency model, invariably does clients a disservice and will continue to contribute to unnecessary pressure on mental health in the workplace.

Paul Hammersley is managing partner of Harbour Collective


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