Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Pitching For Success

Published in Jul-Aug 2022

Pitches are (mostly) an expensive waste of time and the fault is both the agency’s and the client’s.

Sir Martin Sorrell liked to make “to the point” phone calls to his agency managers in his WPP days. “You are on the pitch list for the Israel Tourism Board. It’s in two weeks’ time.” That was about all he said and then he put down the phone.

Not long to do something passably intelligent, let alone effective.

We got down to our strategy work quickly and tried to define the client’s problem as clearly as we could. “A problem well put is a problem half solved” is a useful starting point – and it often stimulates ideas quickly.

There were two big barriers to visiting Israel – knowledge and fear. Other than the iconic city of Jerusalem, most Brits did not have a picture of the geography of Israel in their minds. The impressions they did have were dominated by news of violence and conflict. They were fearful that it was not a safe place to visit.

We needed to overcome these barriers and increase the number of people who would consider Israel as a holiday destination. Something radical and challenging was needed (or so we thought).

We came up with an idea within days which we called “My Israel.” We would get lovable, well-known Brits to travel around the country and tell stories (in their own words) of the people and places they encountered. We would make communication that did not feel like advertising; short films, audio and picture stories in print. It would be “branded content” (before that phrase became marketing jargon). Our audience would both know more about the country and have their fears assuaged because people they liked had enjoyed both warm hospitality and safety on their travels.

The pitch went well. There seemed to be genuine excitement about using high profile personalities among the judging panel of eight. I thought we had won. (Always a mistake.)

The next day the news came through – the account had gone to another agency. I received another of those short messages from Sir Martin. “They did like the idea but they were just not ready to do something that high profile.”

The fog of ignorance started to clear. Most of the assumptions we had made were wrong. Our analysis of the problem was sound enough but we knew nothing of what was in the minds of the judging panel. What was their appetite for risk? What creative work had they rejected before? Why did they really want a pitch?

This is the subtext of every pitch: your idea needs to be something that fits with the culture of your client. It has to be something that your client can buy and get behind. In two weeks, it is difficult to uncover that kind of understanding. You only get it through trial and error. That takes time.

A few months later another pitch came up: The Wales Tourism Board (WTB). This was a much more drawn out affair. We had six weeks to prepare and I was determined not to make the same mistake twice. The competition was hot and heavy – BBH (probably the UK’s most renowned creative agency) and M&C Saatchi. A win would be a feather in our caps.

Three weeks into the pitch we went to see our client in Cardiff – we had three creative ideas. We thought they would love one of them – the one we showed last, of course. They rejected them all. “This is good work” they said (being polite and sparing our blushes) “but we have seen these before. They are not really different. Most tourism board ads are a bit generic – a bit of history, throw in some culture, smiling locals, attractive landscapes and voila! You have the average tourism board ad. And most ads are just that.”

A free flowing and frank conversation followed and we learnt about the culture and business model of WTB. They really wanted an idea that made them proud of being Welsh. This had a business reason – the idea also had to excite all the businesses and organisations involved in Welsh tourism (restaurants, campsites, hotels, golf clubs, nature holiday companies, etc.) so that they would put funds into co-operative advertising. That way, the “seed investment” made in media spend by WTB could double or even triple.

We returned to base in Soho, chastened but with more understanding. We decided to take a different approach to our insight work. We would conduct research amongst Welsh people and ask open questions like – “What is it like to be Welsh?” and “How would you describe the Welsh to other people?” A torrent of words flowed from our research panel that was rich in meaning and disarmingly honest.

There was a tension in the words – Big vs Small, Generous vs Mean. (I suppose if you are feeling pretentious you could call this ‘semiotic analysis.) Wales was “the biggest, small country in the world.” Inside one small country is a huge spirit; breathtaking landscapes, rich, moving voices and generous, creative people. We summed this up as ‘Wales – The Big Country’ and made a rough film from existing images and film footage and laid on the soundtrack of The Big Country film.

Anyway, we won the pitch. The campaign ran for five years and the media budget, swollen with cooperative advertising funds, tripled. (The current campaign, called ‘Find Your Epic’, is a recognisable evolution of The Big Country creative work.)

If you are a marketing person reading this, my message is not ‘weren’t we clever’.

No. The message is this: we would not have come up with this enduring idea without the collaboration, time and gentle honesty of the marketing team at WTB (now called Visit Wales, if you want to look up their ads on YouTube).

The quick-fire two-week pitches that are fashionable today are largely a waste of time and money. Most of the work produced by these types of pitches never run.

How does the best work happen? It is clear from analysis of the top effectiveness awards schemes (IPA, APG, Effie’s) that great work is the product of strong, often long-term relationships between agency and client.

So, if you are considering having a pitch you probably won’t get a good solution unless you are prepared to spend a lot of time interacting with all your shortlisted agencies (as the The Wales Tourism Board did). In fact, you may simply be engaged in an expensive distraction. Normally, it is much better to invest effort in a better relationship with your existing agency.

You are much more likely to get work that is both right for you and effective.

Julian Saunders was CEO, Red Cell advertising (a WPP company). He was also Planning Director at Ogilvy, Executive Planning Director, McCann-Erickson and in The Zoo at Google.