Monday, September 18, 2006

Unlevel Playing Field

I was going to approach this blog in chronological order from entry-level job to “escape-level” job.

But I read this article on, and figured I would skip ahead:

You don’t need to read the article, just this excerpt:

"I hate pitching and I don't think we should do it," said Neil Powell, chief creative officer of Margeotes Fertitta Powell. "I wish we had an industry where everyone felt a solidarity that enabled us to not pitch creative ideas (for free) because rarely are pitches even playing fields, regardless of what the client says. There's always something going on. Somebody's got a favor. Somebody's got a friend. There's always something."

"We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every year on pitches where we would be better served if we took that money as agencies and went out and proactively pursued clients that we really want to work with," he told the audience of marketers and potential clients.

"It's remarkable how client's can't believe it if you don't want to pitch -- 'what! You don't want to pitch; you don't want to spend three months of your life coming up with ideas for free?!'"

I am not (at least for now) going to reveal my name, my agency name, or the clients I had. But I will say that I’ve gone up against the above-named person’s agency in pitches. Not to mention against Mullen, WestWayne, Ad Store, Crispin, Mad Dogs, Anomaly, Amalgamated, Mother, and countless other absurdly-named hot creative shops. Even bigger shops like Grey, Chiat, Fallon and BBDO played in my waters.

Anyway, like Mr. Powell muses, I occasionally told potential clients my agency does not pitch for business. I felt playing hard to get would make them want me more. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. If I did accept a pitch, I was able to get clients to pay a minimal pitch fee of $5,000.

Do agencies really need to spend “hundreds of thousands of dollars a year” on pitches? Just look on youtube at the genius videos some 14 year olds do. IDEAS are extremely valuable. But they don’t cost money to come up with. Also “three months of your life coming up with ideas?” Boy, that’s slow. If you can’t come up with three great pitch-able ideas in one day (and I know Powell can) you are in the wrong fucking business. I don’t know about you, but I am okay with the idea of making $5,000 for one day of work. And that’s if you lose!

So how do you win?

Mr. Powell is right. Rarely is the playing field level. Maybe the whole point of a pitch is to tilt the playing field in your favor.

On many occasions, the first thing I would do when getting an RFP or pitch brief is talk to the potential client about how ill-formulated their pitch assignment was. Surprisingly, many marketing execs want a smart outsider to talk strategy with. If they don’t, withdraw from the pitch!

I have rarely found a client, from President/CEO down to CMO, EVP, SVP, VP, or Director, that didn’t welcome a constructive devil’s advocate dialog. Even if I were WRONG. They were happy to show me why I was wrong. And I was happy to be shown. Being wrong in a conversation doesn’t mean you lose the pitch.

The problem, however, occurs when you have to interface with the client-layer that is too nervous to think independently (call them Fearacrats.) They don’t actually know why the RFP says what it says, and if you challenge them on it, they will be defensive and condescending.

At some clients this Fearacrat layer goes almost to the top. The president makes all the decisions. The marketing people are flailing at the end of a whip. Unless you are best friends with the president, drop out of the pitch! At other clients, even the marketing managers low on the totem pole are NOT Fearacrats and can throw millions in business your way. This is ideal.

On the other hand, when I would ask similar devil’s advocate questions while slaving away at J. Walter Johnson (agency name changed to protect the innocent), my Group Creative Director (call him Adolph, in honor of his passion for WWII German U-boat paraphernalia, seriously) would get very mad at the threat to his intelligence. “You don’t question the strategy. You do the ads.”

Talk to the client? Forget it. You can’t even talk to the head account guy at the agency.

Fuck that.

One time I rewrote the strategy. I talked to the head account guy. I got fired. But they used my strategy!

The feeling of being fired was more than offset imagining how my arrogant boss Adolph must have felt when he gave my old group the new creative brief they all knew I wrote.

Ironic that many ad agencies encourage their employees NOT to think in ways that would actually help their clients. And not surprising that J. Walter Johnson was not the last place to fire me. (More on the benefits of being fired in later posts.)

Here is a specific example of how this devil’s advocate strategy worked.

I had this client. A big national client. I worked with them for a year. They had a great year. Their business better than ever. So was mine!

They loved my ads. Print, TV, Radio, Outdoor, Guerilla. My ads worked for them. My ads won awards. I was very proud of the work. And it was a lot of fun.

I dealt directly with the SVP of Marketing, and her boss the General Manager. In Year Two the SVP brought on a VP of Marketing. But I knew her, too. It’s a small world and our paths had crossed before. She liked me. But she still wanted to do an “Agency Review.”

“Time to re-examine the brand direction.”

“Need an infusion of new thinking.”

Blah bla bla.

She hired a pitch consultant (call her Hot Married Pitch Consultant) who brought them a shortlist of agencies. I wasn’t on it. She had never heard of me. GM and SVP asked HMPC to add me to the list.

I had to meet with HMPC. She was very skeptical of me and my “agency.”

I felt rejected. I busted my ass for a year doing great work that got results. Now they hire a consultant who recommends they go with a “name” shop?! (Not that abused, however, because they had thrown a good chunk of change – justifiably earned – my way.)

Somehow, I won over HMPC. (More on that in later posts.) So much so that she not only added my Agency of One to the shortlist in this pitch, but to the shortlist of agencies in future pitches she handled for other clients.

Important point…never let ANYONE know your agency is an Agency of One. This is not a client benefit. First, it will make them nervous that you won’t have capacity. (BULLSHIT!) Second, they will not want to pay you as much as they pay Multinational Agency Conglomerate for the same quantity of ideas (MORE BULLSHIT!) Do not lie to your client. But make sure the impression of range, depth and overhead is there. (More on this in later posts.)

Anyway, back to this particular pitch.

The client wanted a “branding campaign” instead of putting future money behind the successful “product campaign” I had been doing. It’s hard to find a good analogy in a different category so as not to violate professional trust. But here is one we all might be able to relate to: if you are a TV Network, say, ESPN, you might think the ESPN brand is what brings viewers in. Or you might think Monday Night Football, SportsCenter, MLB, etc. will bring viewers in, and therefore bolster the ESPN brand. For the sake of this analogy, I believed with all my mind, heart and soul, that the path to “ratings success” was to let the “network brand” be defined by the “programming.” In a world of limited ad budgets, you can’t successfully do both. And in my client’s category, I strongly felt product trumps brand.

With only the best intentions, I argued my point with the VP and HMPC. (Access to SVP and GM had been cut off for political reasons.) I told them I didn’t mind pitching for their business, and I would accept the $5,000 pitch fee. (As if I were doing THEM a favor.) I urged them again to abandon the brand strategy and to re-direct the other agencies to a product strategy. They didn’t.

I told them they were wrong! They didn’t care.

(The HMPC agreed with me, by the way, but said her job was to help the client find a branding agency. And that was what she was going to do.)

A day before the pitch. Client Assistant calls.

ASSISTANT: Just calling to confirm your pitch time of 3pm. How many people will be attending…names and titles please?

ME: Just me. President. 3pm is good.

ASSISTANT: Just you?

(The other agencies were flying in with name principals, top creatives, AE’s, etc. What should I say???)

ME: Yes, just me. Our agency philosophy is about the work. I rather have my people working then pitching.

(I have no people!)

Day of the pitch. Me at head of table. Big stack of black boards face down. Story boards, print ads, guerilla ideas, etc. All labeled and beautifully printed, trimmed and mounted.

Around the table: GM, SVP, HMPC, VP, Director, Manager, Supervisor, Assistant One, Assistant Two.

Wow am I outnumbered. Who cares! This is all extremely serious AND a huge joke to me at the same time.

“We are very excited to see your ideas,” says VP.

She makes some introductory remarks. I love her. I really, sincerely do. (I still do, by the way, even though I am out of the game.) But I totally disagree with her.

Before the meeting I asked HMPC how the other agencies’ work had gone over. She said, “Let’s put it this way. They are counting on you to save them.” (FYI, in this pitch, Mr. Powell was not one of the competitors.) I loved hearing that. But I wasn’t surprised. The assignment made no sense from the beginning. “Even (agency name changed) Nullem?” I asked. “Disaster,” she said.

So now VP turns it over to me.

“I am going to present to you several storyboards and a range of print ads that are the best possible solution to your brand assignment. We, at the agency, feel very strongly about these ideas. We’ve worked long and hard on them. You might find them a little shocking…(laughter from client)…but we wouldn’t present these ideas if we didn’t believe they were right for you.”

Then with great dramatic fanfare I turn over the first storyboard…a black board with six, blank, white storyboard frames.

“This is your TV campaign. I think the work speaks for itself.”

Then I turned over three more boards. Each with a big, blank, white glossy 11 x 17 page.

“Here are your print executions.”

And so on. Guerilla, outdoor, etc. All blank pages. I kept playing it straight. Spreading all the blank, labeled boards across the room.

No one said anything. I wish I could remember the expression on everyone’s face. But the adrenaline rush of what I did clouded the visual detail.

Finally, the GM said, “Okay, so you are recommending that we don’t do a branding campaign. What do you think we should do instead?”

ME: “We think you should keep doing what you’re doing. Support the [individual products] with great ads, and let them build your brand image.”

GM: “In other words, keep working with you like we are.”

ME: “No. Even if you hire another agency, which I think you might need to do, you should support the [products]. In this category the brand image is meaningless unless you have strong [product.]”

MANAGER: “We just paid you $5,000 to present us nothing!”

ME: “I know. We agreed to a much lower fee than we normally charge.”

MANAGER: “That’s not what I meant.”

I knew VP and SVP disliked Manager, so it was okay to play with him a bit.

The rest of the meeting was a very intense and informed intellectual debate about the client’s business, how to grow it, how competitors in the same category have done it, or failed to do it, etc. Pretty much just me and the GM talking back and forth. Sink or swim. Then the VP and SVP got into it with the GM, and I shut my mouth.

The whole time I kept thinking, “Holy shit! I didn’t do the assignment. They paid me for NOTHING. Manager was right!”

But, whatever. They already knew the kind of creative my agency did. And that “we” were very easy to work with.

So I am sitting there now, saying nothing, while the three top execs have this debate. They are saying shit they shouldn’t be saying in front of any agency.

I feel good they trust me that much. Or wait, I think they might just be ignoring me.

Okay, great. I fucked up. The meeting is over. I just blew hundreds of thousands of dollars potential net to me. Manager helps me pack up the presentation and ushers me out. Not even giving me the respect to say “thanks for your presentation, we’ll let you know.” VP, SVP and GM stay in the room. Still talking.

I am not sure what really happened. Or what they said. But I am pretty sure the top three client execs were NOT impressed with the other agencies’ creative, nor with the substance of what the other agency principals had to say during the post-pitch “Q&A.”

Why am I sure? By presenting nothing, my agency WON the pitch. And the client stuck with the product strategy. Their business continued to grow. So did mine.

Ironic twist: unrelated to their advertising, a year later the GM, SVP, and so on were all gone and replaced by a new regime. There was no new agency pitch. I was out. New SVP brought her agency with her.

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