Will adland ditch the pitch? Part 2: Setting fire to burn out culture

A month ago, Mat Baxter asked the industry to join him in ditching the pitch. In this series, Mumbrella's Brittney Rigby takes that challenge to a range of media agency bosses. Part 2 sees industry leaders look inwards: is pitching contributing to their agency's burn and churn rates?

Media agencies are being confronted by an increasing volume of client demands that are also increasingly unreasonable, according to Mat Baxter. And those demands include the expectation that pitches will run over holiday periods, which, says Initiative’s global CEO, “adds to the culture-killing nature of working in agencies and increases the churn rate because people get burned out and feel that they don’t get the time to rest and recharge”.

Then there’s the sheer manpower required to pull off a pitch, the intensity, the pressure to go above and beyond to outshine competitors and ensure the resource drain results in actually winning the account.

“So again, it impacts clients negatively because clients constantly have staff churn on their accounts because the culture of the agency is getting impacted,” Baxter claims.

Baxter delivering his keynote, which highlighted the impact pitching has on both staff and clients

Back in 2016, Peter Horgan, in his role as MFA chairperson, blamed a significant spike in pitches for  the churn rate hitting 34.5% that year, stating that “non-stop pitching as a perceived solution to trust issues exacerbates the problem”. Churn currently sits at 27.9%, according to the MFA’s 2019 census, with 15.3% of that figure leaving the industry altogether. The vacancy rate (jobs that go unfilled) sits at 6.8%.

But do fellow CEOs agree that pitching is impacting on their media agency’s churn rate and culture?

“You can get into a cycle where you end up on a pitch treadmill, which can cause burn out in your people,” says OMD’s Aimee Buchanan.

Buchanan says agencies need to have “tough conversations” when teams are stretched thin in pitches

“As an agency, we’ve been quite vocal on our past learnings. Today we believe it is less about the volume of pitching that is causing churn and more about managing the pressures and demands of running complex client businesses.

“There are times where teams are under pressure to deliver. It is then up to the management to have the tough conversations on resourcing and expectations, which agencies often avoid.”

UM CEO Fiona Johnston adds that it “depends on how you position it”.

“It is the nature of any business to fund its services and as a professional business a ‘bid pursuit’ (what we call a pitch) is standard practice. I think us trying to normalise or avoid it creates the tension,” she says.

“Making it work for us is where we need to land. We take the view that a pitch should ‘incubate talent and innovate product’.”

Johnston explains that UM will “continue to try and simply what we do, without dumbing it down” so that pitching has less wear on teams, provides clarity to clients and cuts through the noise to showcase genuinely good work and ideas.

UM CEO Fiona Johnston

Willie Pang focuses on the benefits of pitching to team members and clients, pushing the “product development engine into overdrive”.

“From that perspective? The energy and visceral experience of pitching is an incredible culture builder,” the Mediacom CEO says.

“The challenge is for agencies to be able to share this ‘small group’ experience with the wider agency.”

Mark Lollback, CEO of Mediacom’s holding group, Group M, agrees that “the energy around a good pitch, that’s running smoothly and with the promise of a fun, engaging and respectful client and good work can contribute to a thriving culture”, but acknowledges that “pitching can create a relentless drain on your people”.

Baxter says the resulting burnout impacts not just agencies, but existing clients

“Some of the demands in pitching are eye-watering. RFP documents that run past 300 pages are not uncommon,” Lollback says.

“I think that when clients are pitching, they should be reasonable about the scale of the required responses and be mindful of the number of agencies that they invite into the process. Any more than three agencies is too many and creates a lot of wastage across the industry.”

‘Some of the demands in pitching are eye-watering’: Lollback

Clients can underestimate this reality, Lollback explains.

“Agencies put heart and soul into winning a pitch, and the toll on resources can be huge,” he says.

“Pitching is an exciting part of the agency world and many of the people involved do really love it – we just need to remember sometimes that it is all done over and above the team’s day jobs.”

Independents Nunn Media and Hatched Media are more adamant that pitching is negatively impacting the industry.

“I do not think it is any coincidence that those agencies with positive cultures and healthy churn rates tend to take a good, considered approach to pitching and are successful at it,” says Nunn’s Chris Walton.

And Jack Byrne, CEO at Hatched, says the industry “absolutely” has a problem, and it’s part of the reason why his agency avoids pitching altogether.

“Our experience over the last few years has been less (almost zero) pitching, and more a focus on relationship building and capability demonstration over time which has tended to end up in clients moving to us without a competitive pitch process,” he explains.

“That means we managed to balance growth (both fiscal and developmental) with resource. In fact, resource is the number one thing we talk about in our business. We know that we have the best culture and one of the lowest churn rates in Melbourne because of this.”

Havas Media CEO Mike Wilson says that pitches are “exhilarating” and “exhausting”, an experience that has the potential to be “challenging, draining, all-consuming”.

“Striking the correct balance between pitch work, and day-to-day client work, can be very taxing and it’s easy to get wrong,” he says.

Havas’ Mike Wilson

But the flip side is the “immense satisfaction” of winning.

“Most agency professionals cite winning pitches as defining career moments, and a source of immense professional pride,” he says.

“However, there are watch-outs. The adrenaline-fuel, the lack of sleep, can be downright debilitating, and can adversely affect morale, especially if you go a while without a win.

“As always, this is a test of management acumen … And it’s another reason why agencies need to continue to refuse to work on pitches for clients with unfavourable terms. It’s good to see agencies taking a stand, and I think clients are listening.”

In Part 3, Mumbrella asks Mat Baxter’s most pointed question: will your agency consider ditching the pitch?



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