Saying no to pitches

TBWA's George Nguyen peeks behind the curtain on why an agency says thanks, but no thanks.
george nguyen

By George Nguyen  

With so much in the press these last couple of years about how procurement is becoming more involved, in terms of both agency relationships and the selection process, Ad Age recently spoke about the other side of the coin, and revealed that more and more agencies were bowing out of pitches, while the AAPQ spoke out against spec work.

Is this really happening? For some agencies, I’m sure the answer is yes, while others would say no. I can only speak for TBWA\Toronto and tell you that lately we’ve been faced with this same difficult decision.

Part of what makes deciding whether to turn down a pitch or not so difficult is that every opportunity is different. In fact, the only consistent truth is that it can be hard to decide whether or not you should pursue a new potential partner. Let me be the first to say that I’ve never enjoyed turning down a pitch. After all, it’s the only way to guarantee we will lose. The one thing that would influence our decision to bow out is an overriding concern that the cost of participating far outweighs the benefits.

So how do we decide the cost of participating? Agencies rarely get paid to participate in a pitch – it’s an investment. And just like any investment, we want to know what we’re getting ourselves into and what the return will be.

We start by asking certain questions: Why are you looking for a new agency? Are you unhappy with your current agency or is this just an exercise? And if you are unhappy, is this something that we will be able to answer or will we just present the same frustrations? Is it just a matter of cost reduction? If it is, do we really want to win? How will this influence our culture and our current roster of clients?

Then we take a look at the search process. Is the brief clear? Are your expectations clear? What’s your budget?  What are the parameters? Are you being transparent about what you are looking for?

Not because you have a responsibility to divulge this information, but because we worry that if you don’t reveal this criteria, it’s probably because you aren’t really sure yourself – and that will just result in hair pulling, tears, and lots of late-night drinking, on top of the endless resources we’ll pour into trying to solve the problem.

And what kind of way is that to start a relationship? Do either of us look forward to years of continuously wondering if we made the right decision, or when the other shoe is going to drop?

Chemistry is equally important, if not even more so. We keep a keen eye out for the people who we think will get the best out of us. Yes, it’s fair for you to expect this from anyone that you hire. But again, we’re speaking frankly here and we all remember relationships that were able to inspire us and coax the very best out of us. Everyone reaches a little deeper when they feel their efforts are appreciated. Attitude is everything. Are you as ambitious as we are? Do we share a vision for what success is? Are you the kind of people we would “go to war” for? Because if we work with you, you can believe that we will.

I also can’t write this and avoid the topic of revenue. After all, we are a business with our own employees and shareholders that we are beholden to. Now, money is not the key driver, but it’s important that in any potential relationship we understand the possibility for revenue or if there is an opportunity to create work that will help us generate revenue in the future. To put it plainly, will you pay us or will we get to do work that we think will convince other people that they need to work with us (and pay us)?

And the work that we believe will get other people to hire us? It’s work that showcases our abilities in the areas of innovation, strategy or creativity. As the saying goes, the only way to get good work is to do good work.

Lastly, is this an exercise in vain? Do we think that the deck is stacked against us? Do you already know which agency you want to work with? If that’s not us, should we be investing in this at all?

Let’s be clear, this isn’t a rant against procurement. We’ve found that some of the fairest pitches we’ve been involved in have been run by procurement. After all, they’re doing their job, and in a quickly evolving business environment, they have a responsibility to ensure that their company is best poised to succeed.  But we have the same responsibility, and that’s why we have to be more selective about the pitches we participate in.

George Nguyen is managing director at TBWA\Toronto.