I don't often receive delightful mail at work, but I did recently. It was from a client asking me to send her an invoice for our agency's participation in a pitch. It was the second such letter I'd received in three months.
So does that spell the end of free pitching? Sadly not. The convention within our industry is still to ask agencies to give away ideas for free. And in recessionary periods, if that's what we're in, such practices tend to get sharper.
I have designer and architect friends who refuse to pitch for free on the grounds that to do so would devalue their professions. Direct marketing agencies do it because we learned it from our above-the-line cousins who used to make most of their money from media, so a little creative time was viewed as a sensible investment.
But nowadays we principally do it because most clients ask for it, and most agencies are afraid to say no. Agencies know that if they all say no together, the practice might change. But 'game theory' says that someone will always say yes, and so the practice of free pitching continues.
Don't get me wrong. I like pitching, and our working lives would be duller without the thrill, discipline and focus they bring. Yet full strategy and creative pitches are also fraught with problems. They're unrealistic - predicated as they are on the client issuing a brief and then the agency appearing weeks later with an answer, devoid of any significant client input. They're often rushed - without allowing adequate time for the right strategic and planning work to be conducted prior to the commencement of creative work. And they're beauty parades - forcing agencies to focus on presentational devices and creative work they think will win the pitch, rather than on work that is necessarily right for the consumer, or on work that will ever see the light of day.
However, just as democracy may be the least worst system of selecting a government yet invented, maybe pitches are the least worst system for selecting an agency.
Even so, there are better and worse ways to do it.
The next time you're holding a pitch, consider this. Meet those on your long list, and verify credentials, costs and chemistry. Then pick your shortlist. Work closely with these agencies, and give them plenty of access to your organisation and senior people.
And consider offering them a fee. They'll certainly value it, and maybe you will value them more, too.
This column originally appeared in Marketing Direct