How does an advertising pitch work?

If you watch any TV shows or movies that involve advertising, you will eventually hear the players talking about pitching. Indeed, there was even a successful TV show on AMC called “The Pitch.”

However, if you’re not embedded in the advertising and marketing industry, you may not know what specifically is involved in pitching, and how the whole process works. It’s certainly not that same for every agency and every client, but here is a fairly typical idea of what the pitching process involves.

Step 1: A New Advertising Campaign

This client may have an advertising agency already, known as the incumbent, or it may not be currently involved with an agency. Either way, the client has decided that the new campaign needs new blood, and agencies will contend with each other to win that business. For the incumbent, it’s not so much winning new business as keeping hold of it.

Sadly, many agencies use the pitching process as a way to light a fire under their incumbent, with no real intention of ever hiring a new agency. The agencies involved in the process know what’s going on, and realise that they are being used as leverage, but this is the industry. Plus, if the work is good enough, it can result in an unexpected win.

Step 2: The Client Puts Out a Request for Agencies to Pitch

This is commonly known as an RFP, or request for proposal. This will outline the scope of work, what needs to be done, when it needs to be done by, and other information that prospective agencies need to know. While the RFP may go into some detail about the target audience, the product or service being advertised, and even the budget, this is not a creative brief. It is simply laying out the skeleton of the campaign.

In most cases, advertising agencies are not paid to pitch. It is seen as a job interview, and you wouldn’t get paid to interview for a new position, right? Well, this is far more involved and it can be very expensive and time-consuming to pitch for a new account. It eats up resources, it can include many thousands of dollars in supplies, photography, equipment, and agency time, and it can also be demoralising. After all, would you want to work all hours of the day and night for free, in the hope that there may be something at the end of it?

For this reason, more agencies are refusing to pitch with a “pitch fee,” which can be anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 (sometimes, even more, depending on the work and the client).

Step 3: The Client Selects Agencies to Brief

Very popular, blue-chip clients will be inundated with pitch requests. They can’t possibly see all of them, so they will select a handful to brief. Often, they will send the RFP only to agencies they want to work with. Start-up companies, or businesses with a bad reputation, will have less interest and thus, the client will be more open to seeing agencies with less prominence. Sometimes, the agencies will meet in person with the client to receive the creative brief itself and ask questions.

On rare occasions, the agencies will all receive the brief at the same time, in the same meeting. However, that can make things messy and awkward at the beginning of the project. Agencies will not want to ask certain questions because it could reveal their strategy to the competing teams, meaning the client will have to spend additional time after the kick-off fielding specific questions from each agency involved.

Step 4: The Agency’s Principals Will Brief the Teams

After receiving the brief, and other information, the principals and account team will craft an internal creative brief for the creative director and the art director/copywriter team(s) working on the pitch. This is the driving force of the pitch in an advertising agency. Pitches are like fashion shows. They are not always an example of what should be done, but what could be done. It’s a chance for the agency to pull out all the stops, and really wow the clients.

Step 5: The Creative Department Creates Campaigns

Several creative teams will be given the creative brief, and will immediately begin crafting ideas. This can take a week, or even less, or it can take months. It all depends on the timeline given to the agency by the client. Over the course of this time, ideas are shown to the creative director, who will mold and advance some ideas, and reject others. Then, the account team is brought into the process to review the work.

It’s worth noting that pitches tend to be frantic, and the agency often goes into something called “pitch mode” or “pitch frenzy.” This is a kind of drop everything mentality, although it’s really more like “do all the work you normally do, plus all this new work, and do it in less time.” Creative teams and account management have been known to eat, sleep, and shower at the agency during a pitch.

Step 6: The Agency’s Principals Select the Campaign to Be Pitched

When both the account team and the CD are happy with the work, the principals of the agency will get to see it and select a campaign to develop. This is the one the agency will throw its weight behind, creating mock-ups of ads and websites, and even shooting some material specifically for the pitch. If the agency was lucky enough to receive a pitch fee, this is where the money will be spent.

Step 7: The Agency Polishes and Practices the Pitch Internally

Practice, practice, practice. The agency will make sure everything is right. They will bring in research to support their ideas. They will have boards made that look stunning. They will cut together sample videos. They will even hire actors or models. This is the time to remove the glitches, kick the tires, and make sure everything is as perfect as it can be. If there are any flaws, this is the time to iron them out. Of course, it also means that last-minute changes will be required, meaning more late nights, early mornings, and rush fees.

Step 8: Go Time: The Client Receives the Presentation

One by one, agencies will meet with the client, usually at the client’s head office, to give their pitch presentation. For a client, this can take up a whole day. Agencies may have to travel a long way to pitch, sometimes flying around the country for a 1-hour meeting. If there is the potential to win millions of dollars in new business, it’s worth it. Technology has meant that clients and agencies can do this via video conferencing, but few want to do it that way. For a start, if another agency is doing the meeting in the flesh, the agency calling in will have an immediate disadvantage.

There are also technical problems that can haunt a video call, and very few agencies want to risk the chance of new business disappearing because a piece of equipment is down.

Step 9: The Client Chooses an Agency

After much deliberation, the client will let the winning agency know who they are, and let the others down. Many people believe that the best work wins, but that’s naïve. The client will take into account many factors, including price, distance, personalities, agency culture, and capabilities. If they like the work from another agency better, it’s not uncommon to see that surface anyway. It’s not exactly moral, but it’s the way of the world.

Step 10: The Agency Works on the New Campaign

Once the pitch is won, the work comes into the agency, and the real work begins. Now, things get a little more down to earth. The winning pitch may have been stunning, but now the client wants to see a more realistic version, without all the bells and whistles. They will ask for things to be toned down. They will ask for smaller budgets. This is just what is expected. Very rarely does the work that won the pitch make it to the printer or TV screens untouched. And now, that agency has the client on its roster.

Until it becomes the incumbent with a fire about to be lit underneath it, and the circle begins again.



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