How to start a relationship on the basis of manipulation

I’ve always been fascinated by the well-established ritual of creative pitching in advertising. It’s the standard way in which clients start relationships with agencies.

How it works is this. The client decides to appoint a new agency for some project. He identifies three or four candidates he likes the look of. Then he gives each a brief on his project. They all go away for a few weeks and try to come up with a creative solution to the problem. Then there’s a series of presentations and the client chooses the people with what he thinks is the best answer.

That all sounds fine, but in practice it sets everyone up for a value-destroying untrusting dysfunctional relationship.

1 Agencies are forced to develop proposals under intense time-pressure. This inevitably reduces the time for reflection which immediately reduces perspective. Creativity and wisdom both depend on viewing problems from multiple perspectives. The view that time pressure supports creativity is debunked by Robert Weisburg in his book Creativity: Genius and other Myths. He says “The more ones knows about the criteria a solution must meet, and the greater role these criteria play in the actual generation of solutions, the better the solution will be.” Such an approach is not supported by the manic race of a creative pitch.

2 Pitching supports what I call the Big Idea fallacy. Whatever may be said by all concerned, client and agencies long for someone to present a brilliant idea to unlock their market. In a competition, agencies convince themselves they must have a Big Idea to win a pitch; and easily convince themselves that a Big Idea is what works best. This is a context in which half-solutions and tentative lines of enquiry are going to be scotched. The whole process contributes to the extraordinary degree of simplistic branding we see in the world.

3 There is huge financial pressure on agencies. Pitching is expensive in resources. The more work an agency does, the harder it becomes to countenance losing. Failure becomes terrifying. (Ironically, the ability to tolerate failure and learn from it is the key to a more humane model of creativity). Clients love to tell agencies they hate sycophancy; yet the financial pressures created by a pitch are virtually guaranteed to turn a right thinking agency into a smarmy flatterer.

4 The client pays a hidden price. There is a big downside for clients in this too. They may think that a competitive pitch gives them the creative ideas of several agencies for nothing but there is always a price! For one thing, the process means briefing maybe 30 intelligent and creative people on your intimate problems and challenges – and then burning perhaps 25 of them. How smart is that? Secondly, creative pitching means agencies adopt a business model in which they do a lot of unpaid speculative work

3 thoughts on “How to start a relationship on the basis of manipulation

  1. johnmoore (unitedstates)

    John, I agree with your comments — right on.

    Now, I would like to add that while the traditional pitch process may prove to be a dysfunctional way to start a client/agency relationship … a positive for the client is that they have the opportunity to hear different views on the state of their brand.

    I’ve always learned something new about my company every time I’ve been involved with these pitch contests.

    On the downside, I’ve also had to endure a slew of bad “big ideas” expoused by ad execs that think they know when in reality, they have no idea.

  2. Johnnie Moore

    Thanks John, always great to hear the client-side John Moore!

    I totally agree that pitches are great for clients to get multiple perspectives. And that’s their payoff for this process – and largely why it continues. As I say, there are hidden downsides, because this “free” advice is not really free, it gets paid for somewhere in the business model of agencies.

    I think there’s a tendency in business to value ideas ahead of relationships; I find that my most creative thinking takes place in trusting relationships and I would favour an approach to agency selection that focuses more on: what is it actually like to work together? One client I heard of got his prospective agencies to work with his teams on a problem not directly related to the client business, so as to put attention the the quality of collaboration, rather than purely on the big idea…

    Thanks for jumping in, I think this is rich territory for debate.

  3. Designing for Civil Society

    How to start an unsatisfactory engagement

    John Moore neatly encapsulates How to start a relationship on the basis of manipulation by describing the way advertising agencies get their work. The creatives have to compete in pitching a ‘big idea’ to clients, spending a great deal and


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