Julian Douglas ‘Rebuilding the pitching process’


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Julian Douglas



After a grueling year in which agencies faced off in a competitive market, IPA president and VCCP international chairman Julian Douglas writes that it’s time agencies reconsidered the impact pitching is having on their teams.

Following last year’s successful inaugural cross-industry Reset conference, the Advertising Association, Isba and the IPA once again came together in January to set the agenda for the year ahead. This time the theme was ’Renew: Meeting advertising’s challenges’, as industry leaders put forward their ideas on key themes including trust, measurement, inclusion and the environment.

Despite a largely disappointing Cop26, there was a clear strong commitment from the advertising industry to tackle the climate crisis by achieving real net-zero carbon emissions from the development, production and media placement of advertising by the end of 2030 in the form of AdNetZero.

But there is another crisis our industry faces that demands immediate resolution: mental health.

Mental health crisis

Data from the Office for National Statistics in 2021 revealed that depression rates have doubled since the pandemic began. Particularly concerning is that those in more precarious economic positions or burdened by existing inequalities – young people, women, clinically vulnerable adults, people with a disability – have been disproportionately affected.

A survey from The Drum last year found that workers across the marketing industry were under severe strain with heavy workloads to blame, with 75% of respondents claiming their mental health had gotten worse since the beginning of the pandemic.

As government advice changes around working from home, it remains to be seen whether the return to the office will make matters better or worse. A 2021 Nabs survey showed 61% of employees said they felt a return to the workplace would be unsafe or increase their anxiety.

In response, we have seen agencies across the board redouble efforts around wellbeing and looking after their workforces. While hugely important and worthwhile, these efforts are focused on the symptoms rather than the root causes.

And one of the areas where the problem is at its most acute is the agency selection process. That is why at Renew, the IPA and Isba announced a new cross-industry initiative to fix the broken pitching system with the Pitch Positive Pledge, which will launch in Mental Health Awareness Week in May 2022.

Pitched battles

Pitching can be brilliant. For advertisers, it is the opportunity to source the best advice and new capabilities. It is the opportunity to augment, replace or renew existing relationships, to fulfil governance requirements and, of course, to procure services at the best value. For agencies, it is the opportunity to win new projects and new clients, to compete, to be our best and showcase our capabilities. It is the chance for individuals to flourish and for teams to build camaraderie and, often, long-lasting bonds. A big win can also be agency defining.

But pitching can also be bad. Pitching has become the default option, often for smaller projects that previously would not have warranted a pitch process. In short, there are a lot of unnecessary pitches taking place and, even among those that are necessary, there is a lot of unnecessary work taking place. This represents wastage we should look to reduce. Pitches have become more frequent, more complex and more costly. More costly to the agency and advertiser, to the individuals involved and to the environment.

Due to its competitive nature, there is inherent wastage in the process. Largely unfunded, it demands significant investment in time and money for agencies and clients alike, neither of which have good people sitting on the bench. With the added complications of working remotely and the associated changes this brings, we are seeing an increase in burnout and mental health ramifications at the individual level. At the industry level, we are seeing a talent exodus from advertising.

Taking action

Pitching can be positive, but the current system is broken. The need for change is real and the time to act is now.

There have been many efforts to fix pitching over the years, but little has changed. I am confident of success this time due to the increased awareness of the issues and the collaborative approach we are taking. Today, many companies have ESG commitments including wastage reduction and promoting diversity and wellbeing in their supply chain. The pitch process as it stands represents a challenge to these commitments.

The plan is to launch the Pitch Positive Pledge in May 2022 during Mental Health Awareness week. The pledge is a commitment from advertisers, agencies and partners to be more intentional, accountable and responsible in pitching. The desired outcomes are better mental health, less wastage, fewer costs and better, more effective work.

The IPA and Isba are hosting a series of workshops to hammer through exactly what we are asking agencies and advertisers to commit to and so achieve our goals. Thanks to those individuals from agencies, to advertisers that have already made fantastic contributions, and a big shout out to Ingenuity London, which has played a key role since the outset of this initiative.

If you are interested in getting involved, please consider this an invitation to join in this collaborative effort to finally fix the pitch process. You can get in touch with us at sylvia@ipa.co.uk.

I write this as an agency that pitches a lot, and wins a lot. I think you might question my motive if at VCCP we didn’t win. This initiative is not necessarily about results. I’ve had negative experiences of pitches we have won and positive experiences of pitches where we weren’t successful. It’s about the need for a new model and approach – one that will renew and rebuild. By this time next year, I hope there will have been fewer unnecessary pitches take place. And even if we can’t win on quantity, let’s make absolutely sure the pitching experience is a positive one for everyone involved.

Julian Douglas is president of the IPA and international chairman of VCCP

Pitching can be positive, but the current system is broken. The need for change is real and the time to act is now. Julian Douglas is president of the IPA and international chairman of VCCP