An Open Letter to Clients Considering an Ad Agency Review: Part 2

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Michael Fanuele, chief creative officers at General Mills, has some ideas crafting a kinder, gentler pitch process.
Michael Fanuele, chief creative officers at General Mills, has some ideas crafting a kinder, gentler pitch process. Credit: General Mills via YouTube

Part two of a two-part column. Read part one here.

Dear Client Considering A Review, here's the real rub of a pitch that'll certainly haunt me for a long time: it's brutal. The time demanded, on top of the pressure exerted, on top of the very real jobs at risk -- especially in the case of a large and complex multi-brand assignment -- is literally life-altering for those participating. One agency friend told me that weeks into our review his kids stopped setting a place for him at the dinner table, knowing he'd not be home to join them. Agencies give a pitch everything they've got -- and I'm now wondering if that weekend-stealing, stomach-ache-inducing effort is simply too much for us clients to ask.

Some will protest: yes, a pitch is a lot of work, but it is what it is, still the most efficient way of identifying the very best partners. Nobody entered advertising with the naïve belief it was going to be easy work. Suck it up and win.

Nah, that plucky acceptance of a hard and hardened process doesn't feel right to me. In fact, I wonder if brutal pitches might be partially responsible for creating agency cultures that favor those who can more easily shirk some of their non-professional obligations. Could it be that there's a relationship between brutal pitches and a lack of diversity at our agencies? Is it possible that the burden of a big pitch falls harder on the shoulders of working moms who still carry the cultural expectation that they not miss a mommy-ing beat at home? I don't know, but I find it hard to believe that a process that rips parents away from their kids and people away from their friends for such long stretches of time is really the right way to generate insights and ideas that are deeply human.

And then so many others will agree with my worry and argue for abandoning pitches altogether. Jeff Goodby, co-founder and co-chairman of Goodby Silverstein & Partners, made this case convincingly a couple years ago in a Forbes column. With time in such short supply, get to know an agency, look at their work, talk to their clients, have a conversation, but then just take a chance and give them a project.

I'm very partial to this approach, as it feels wise and humane, and yet I've also come to appreciate the very act of a review itself has some inherent value to a client's organization. It's a moment to reflect and soul-search and order priorities and express values. It's a chance to bring a vast and varied culture together, to give many constituencies a sense of ownership over a company's marketing efforts. A pitch can unite and galvanize.

Crafting a kinder, gentler pitch

But if you do call a pitch, Client, let's at least agree to reduce the brutality. We tried our best to run a process that was kind and humane and rewarded instincts and leaps, not long hours and polished commercials. I was very proud of our effort, and yet even our process still had agencies producing unreasonable amounts of work. If it's true that a pitch isn't an exercise in finding the "right" work but in identifying the "right" partner, here are a few principles that might be worth practicing:

Spend a ridiculous amount of time getting to know an agency and its work before you even contact them. Use a wise consultant, one who introduces you to new agencies and demands you learn all you can about them. Look at their work, their results. Figure out what you love or hate about them. Imagine what they could do for you. And do all of this yourself.

Streamline the traditional process. A raft of RFIs, chemistry meetings, workshops, tissue sessions, check-ins, and final presentations is overkill. Maybe three well-arranged meetings is really all you need:

  1. Set-up "chemistry" sessions (at the agencies) -- and let the agencies determine how they want to share themselves with you. That'll give you a sense of their priorities and values much more so than any canned case studies.
  2. Then host a "briefing" that's really an honest conversation about your heartaches and hopes. Invite a cross-section of your company to give these prospective partners an angle on your business beyond the one shared by marketers alone. And leave them with a question, one searing question to consider for the next couple of weeks.
  3. Then have a "creative discussion" that gives the agency an opportunity to answer that question. Set aside a few hours. Sure, many agencies will come to that meeting with "work" and solutions. That's ok. But it's also ok if they come with questions or concerns or inklings -- any expressions of imagination.

And finally, keep an open-line to yourself throughout the pitch. This will likely drive consultants mad, but I think the in-between interactions are as telling as what happens in the meetings themselves. Texts, calls, meals – all provide an opportunity to get some sense of how a team works. And yes, this means that your pitch is your full-time job for its duration.

Make it all last a month. At most. Maybe.

So, Client, think long and hard before pulling that pitch trigger. Must you? Must you really? It'll be as brutal for you as it will be for the agencies. It's rightfully hard work – and surprisingly, especially emotionally taxing. This review, for example, cost me more friends than I imagined it would, both the kind I'd worked alongside for years and those I got to know in the springtime promise of the pitch itself. And that's all on top of the legitimate pressure of what could very well be one of the most important decisions your company makes in half a century.

But if you do make the call for a pitch and eventually make the decision on a new partner, try to do the only thing that feels right for me at this moment: know there were other equally-awesome alternatives, know there were other agencies that could've crushed it for your company, but throw your arms around the agency you've chosen and hold on tight. It's an awesome moment.

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