Smart agencies are taking responsibility; rethinking their lemming-like, pitch-for-anything behaviour. Marketers must press the reset button too.

(This article first appeared in Marketing Week and was written for a Marketing audience)

When the truth isn’t obvious, sometimes we need an insane caricature to see the point – like Donald Trump kindly donating himself to political satire.

So when a cautionary tale arrives like a brick through the window, it’s our duty to listen.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then grab some popcorn, peep through your fingers and let’s find the moral.

How not to choose an agency

I recently saw a vague and insulting pitch request on LinkedIn. Heartwarmingly, your confident agency partners stood as one to denounce this poor practice.

Kidding! Obviously they didn’t.

They stood as one to post needy ‘pick me’ replies – 380 of them (THREE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY), I shit you not.

Now, you wouldn’t dream of procuring like that, but stay with me. Let’s unpick the post. It read:

“I’m looking for 3 agencies to pitch for my new project. We’re about to start our first stage of investment and need 3 quotes and a simple strategy.”

So it’s a lottery with no prize. And you ‘need’ three quotes – that’s the primary deliverable? Sounds like someone wants some free thinking. It continued:

“Obviously, the agency that wins the pitch will be put forward to the investors to complete the work.”

Yay! Write the strategy, pitch, pitch again and then there will be money. Possibly.

“I would like a small, medium and larger agency to pitch. Can anyone throw their hat into the ring?”

Choosing between agencies on size is like comparing apples with pears and, er, ketchup? Come on, you wouldn’t choose a car, a cat or a chocolate bar like that.

“They need to be very forward thinking and love to stir things up a little.”

As opposed to what, exactly? And that’s just selfish flattery – like telling the missus those flowers are ‘just because’, despite you rolling home pissed after some unsanctioned post-work drinks.

“I don’t want an out-of-the-box strategy that’s just got our logo copy-and-pasted from the last job.”

Ooh, are you ‘negging’ us, you smooth-talking devil?

So what have we learnt?

Firstly, this story’s villain isn’t the individual who posted – let’s assume they’re just inexperienced – it’s the swarm of agencies playing pile-on with an ‘opportunity’ that has more hospital passes than a surgeon’s carpark.

The issue is that agencies have been conditioned to be on a hamster wheel that breeds short-termism. It’s an issue that I explored earlier this year but symptoms include pleading for entry to ever-longer long-lists, chasing tiny projects despite lairy IP clauses and 180-day payment terms.

They’ve become busy fools, struggling to do their best work or make a living – helplessly watching young talent cross the road to avoid them en route to Silicon Valley.

Desperate habits, desperate outcomes

Let’s be honest – you created this dysfunctional beast. And now it’s cornered. That’s why smart agencies are taking responsibility; rethinking their lemming-like, pitch-for-anything behaviour.

They’ve realised that a one-in-three win rate and the financial, emotional and opportunity cost of losing isn’t commercially viable long-term. Neither is resourcing so many bitty projects or the shambles that is agency pricing.

Liberated from the option of maintaining the status quo, they’re having to change the game. And judging by the IPA’s recent Growth Conference, even the biggest are saying enough’s enough – and that’s a real watershed.

Generally, the larger the agency, the more they cling to the antiquated idea that the RFI-chemistry-pitch fandango is the only way to grow. If new-business only comes from pitching, then more pitches equals more growth, right?

Well, obviously not. But whatevs – at least you’re never short of takers.

The same spray-and-pray logic underpins the dozens of agency approaches you get every day. But aside deleting their emails and ignoring your phone, surely that’s their problem too?

Sadly not. This oversupply of the needy hurts marketers badly. In the short-term, desperate, resource-deprived agencies give you desperate, resource-deprived work. And longer term, their talent will scarper, the market will contract and your options will dry up.

Finding a fit

So what happens now? In a word, discretion. Agencies are playing their only ace – the Cartman card, declaring ‘screw you guys, I’m going home’.

I don’t mean yet another well-meaning ‘alternatives to pitching’ initiative. These never gain traction because a bazillion agencies will always break rank. And anything more formal would be a cartel – like OPEC, the Crips or De Beers.

Instead, agencies are articulating a specialism and deciding who among you actually needs it. At last, ‘ROI’ is no longer a proposition and ‘CMOs with money’ isn’t a segment. Hallelujah!

They’re finally speaking up for themselves – stating their terms, pushing back and, heaven forbid, saying no.

Don’t shut the door on the experts

Ultimately, just like with politicians, you get the agencies you deserve. And running onerous processes with pip-squeezing terms and little decision-maker access is making in-demand agencies turn their backs.

When these specialists decline to compete, you’re left with over-claiming generalists. And because it’s a foolish agency and their (free) ideas who are most easily parted, misguided selection is creating poor outcomes like never before.

So research well, cast a narrow net and be open. And when an agency stands its ground, as I’ve said before, challenge them back to ensure it’s legitimate confidence and not just empty posturing.

If they pick up their ball and head home for tea, ask yourself whether you’re happy playing on without them – if so, their absence is a result for everyone.

But if not, then restart the relationship as peers. You’ll be amazed by the impact it has on your business.

Image: Sarah Cervantes