Last week, when Confused.com decided to pay some of the losing agencies in its pitch process for the ideas that they came up with, the company was roundly applauded by the PR industry. "At last," people cried, "a recognition that creative ideas are valuable." Fair enough. Clive at Bite wants to know how you put a price on a great idea, rightly pointing out that the value of a brilliant piece of creative will likely outstrip the two minutes in the shower it took to come up with it. I know for a fact, for instance, that Marmite's 'Love it or hate it' strapline was the result of a five minute stationery cupboard meeting between an advertising executive and a 22-year old intern (that's a complete lie, by the way).
Of course, it might have been nice for Confused.com's Kelly Davies to offer to pay agencies before the pitches took place, but then of course she wouldn't have known whether they'd come up with any decent ideas would she? And you know agencies…lazy buggers would have gone through the motions and just picked up the cash.
If nothing else, the novelty of Confused.com's action serves to highlight how happy the PR industry still is to give away what should be its most valuable assets: creative and strategic thinking. It really should stop, but when even the biggest, most successful firms haven't got the bollocks to change things, it won't.
Imagine this scenario (hypothetical, before Kevin McCloud gets all excited). I want to get a new house built, so I'll need an architect. I do some research online…talk to people who've had houses built…maybe even get in touch with the Royal Institute of British Architects (or, more likely, the Conseil National de l'Ordre des Architectes). Having done that, I'll have a list of a handful that I'll meet. At those meetings they'll show me some of the houses that they've built previously, give me some references, show me their professional qualifications and I'll tell them a bit about what I'm after.
Now, what do you think will happen if, after these meetings, I pick my three favourite architects (let's call this my 'shortlist') and ask them all to come back in, oooh, 10 days' time and show me the plans for my new house? That's right, the fully worked up and costed plans…plus a timeline that they'll commit to. I imagine my brief would have been OK…I'd like four bedrooms, big kitchen, double-garage, playroom for the kids and an en-suite…so I'd have thought any architect worth her salt would be able to hit the nail on the head first time, wouldn't she?
No? Sir Norman Foster said what?! What sort of language is that for a Knight of the Realm to use..?
The thing is or course, I wouldn't expect that to happen because I'm bright enough to know that to get the plans I want…to get the house of my dreams…is going to take a while longer.
And yet this is what clients ask PR agencies to do all the time. And before we all happily sit back and point the finger at those unreasonable clients, they do it because PR agencies are happy to respond. This merry dance takes two.
Funny thing is, how many times have you heard an existing client say, "we should start next year's planning as early as possible…give ourselves the time to get the strategy right, define the positioning, come up with some really strong creative…"?
Yes, we should. So why when we pitched for this account did you force us to do the same job in a week and a half?
Pitches can be incredibly distracting and stressful for the people involved. So, Mr Client, when we win your business through a stressful and distracting process, will you be happy when your new account team becomes equally stressed and distracted when the next pitch comes along? Thought not.
Pitches should be banned. Agencies should get much better at presenting credentials and references and have the confidence to decline to pitch valuable creative ideas that in the main (and even if you win, for crying out loud!) you're almost certain not to get paid for.
If a client can't decide on which agency to use based on reputation, experience, previous work, references, team…without needing to know exactly 'what you would do for us'…then they're an idiot, frankly, and shouldn't be in the job.