Should agencies stop pitching?

Why Couleur Locale's Dominique Trudeau released a manifesto stating he would no longer pitch for business.
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The pitch process feels like a standard element of marketing and advertising, but one creative director is questioning whether or not they are valuable or even fair.

In a manifesto posted online last week, Dominique Trudeau, president and creative director at Montreal agency Couleur Locale, bemoans the amount of time, money and ideas that have been spent on pitches that ultimately led to nowhere. The demands that are considered “normal” parts of a pitch are especially unreasonable, the manifesto states, when agencies are dealing with greater restraints on resources and time. He says there is no reason that agency partners shouldn’t be decided based on its track record, its skill set, its people and fitting within a client’s budget.

The manifesto currently has roughly 70 co-signers, and has been endorsed by industry group La société des designers graphiques du Québec.

Pointing out the sometimes excessive requirements asked of agencies through the pitch process is nothing new. Toronto’s Zulu Alpha Kilo famously refuses to participate in pitches requiring spec work, and this year launched an online resource to help both agencies and clients work towards making the broader RFP process easier and fair for all parties involved. In 2017, the ICA launched Pitch Watchdog, a formal process through which agencies can flag pitch requirements they believe to be unfair.

Trudeau – who had creative leadership positions at agencies including Taxi, Bleublancrouge, Cossette and Sid Lee before starting Couleur Locale in 2013 – told strategy that while those kinds of efforts have been good first steps, he was compelled to take that thinking further and reconsider whether standard elements of a pitch are fair.

“A big- or medium-size agency might be able to afford it, but a small agency can’t afford to put all these resources into a pitch and lose it,” he says, pointing to things like doing research, crafting proposals, producing presentations and developing plans that an agency is expected to put time and money into, even if a pitch doesn’t include spec work. “It takes a toll on the economic side of these agencies, but also on the human side. We’ve all been through it, and it’s really hard on your people.”

Trudeau believes pitches are an old model that has stuck around despite all of the other massive changes that have occurred in the industry. He acknowledges that getting rid of pitches would be a hard change to make, especially for bigger agencies who have built their models around this process. But on the other hand, agencies are already promoting their own work and capabilities in a way that should make it easy for clients to find the partner they want to work with – or industry associations that can point them in the right direction – and discussions about things like budgets and timelines can happen from there.

Trudeau says it is also important to put the idea into practice for himself, and won’t be asking suppliers like production houses or graphic design shops to pitch to him. In fact, it’s part of the reason he decided to take a stand.

“The people I picked to pitch to me are all good and can do the job,” he says. “That’s why they were invited in the first place. And making them pitch knowing that I’m going to have to say no to someone whose work I love and respect, it’s bullshit and it breaks my heart. There’s no reason for it. If you need somebody, you should be able to make a simple decision, especially with all the tools we have.”

Looking forward, Trudeau says he and his signatories will be releasing proposed replacement processes for pitches and steps to take. But the idea behind the manifesto is to open up the conversation, and get people on board with thinking if there is a more appropriate way forward.

“I’m not pointing a finger at anybody, because it’s just the way it has always been and no one has questioned it,” Trudeau says. “But I think it’s a discussion that is worth opening because people that I have spoken to agree that it makes no sense. If I had a magic wand and could just get rid of pitches, it would make a lot of people happy.”