‘Content’: To pitch or not to pitch

How does a client choose between a script they can read, and a collaborative response that can’t be completed in time?

When marketers decide they need something different to their traditional advertising but don’t know exactly what, they’ll often refer to it as content.

Perhaps they want to diversify their target audience. Maybe they’ve got NPD that requires a new approach. Perhaps they’ve got a specific objective that their expensive telly ad isn’t achieving. Or maybe their CEO wants to see something radical and brave.

They’ve often got a finite amount of time and budget to launch it. And so, they run a content pitch.

Usually the content pitch will comprise the brand’s roster agencies – the creative agency, the PR agency, the social agency, the media agency etc.

Sometimes it will include a new set of specialist agencies, lining up to get their foot in the door for bigger opportunities down the line.

So far, so ordinary. This happens a lot.

In any pitch, the marketing team in question is inevitably going to want to see an idea. They want to compare one agency’s idea, with another agency’s idea. They’re going to want to choose their favourite, make their decision; and get on with making it.

And here’s where the problem starts.

For example, what if the brief is to target a younger audience, and an editorial partnership with a specialist media brand that the audience loves is clearly a better route than the interruptive ad campaign that this younger audience will probably block? The agency recommending the former (more often than not the media agency, I may as well point out, given I work in one) has got to select potential media partners, they’ve got to collaborate with those media partners to develop a suitable execution that works for both the media partner’s audience and for the brand’s audience, and that’ll involve multiple conversations not just with the commercial team, but with editorial too.

A lot of people have basically got a lot of work to do.

Similarly, what if the best approach is to create a TV show and then use the IP and talent from the TV show in the amplification activity? After all, the client didn’t want a traditional advertising route; they wanted something different. You can’t just come up with a TV show idea and pitch it to the client. Not in the UK, at least. You’ve got to work with a broadcaster and their commissioner. You’ve got to allow time for a brief to go out to production companies, for them to respond, and for the commissioner to say which, if any, they’re happy to air, and when.

A lot of people have basically got a lot of work to do.

Developing an audience-first response

These are both approaches we might refer to as ‘audience first’. To develop an audience-first response, you need to do a lot more development work, bring a lot more expertise to the table, and perhaps pull a lot more favours, than if you simply write an ad that you could still be tweaking the night before the pitch.

However, within the necessary confines of many content pitches, there’s not enough time or budget available for any of that development work. And so, the agency wanting to pitch what is quite possibly the right approach, is left with a dilemma. Can they get away with not pitching an idea – but pitching a way of working?

Unfortunately, probably not.

For a client, it’s easier to buy something they can see than it is to buy something they can only imagine.

A client can read a treatment or a script. They know how their brand will be represented. They know what the end line will be. They know what they’re getting.

How can they possibly buy a way of working, when they simply won’t know what the end result will look like? This is a pitch. They haven’t got time for that.

And so, the result is often that every agency pitching ends up writing a concept that they know can be delivered. It won’t be audience-first – it will be ‘brand-first’. The client will buy one of those concepts and it will be made into something.

And because the client didn’t want traditional advertising, they won’t put it on TV, because it’ll be too long for TV anyway. They’ll put it on social media. But everyone involved will call it ‘content’ (and yet they’ll have to pay for people to watch it).

Pitching content isn’t the way to get to the best solution.

The best solution is for agencies to work together. Not to a definitive pitch deadline, but with enough time to develop the right approach.

The best solution is for those agencies to be open about the need to bring in different thinking, and therefore different partners, and ensure everyone understands that there is enough time to do so.

The best solution is to set aside development budget to cover the time, effort and expertise of those external partners, not assume that because it’s called a pitch everyone will happily work for free.

And if an agency isn’t willing to collaborate with the other agencies, or with an external partner that knows the audience a lot better than them, then perhaps they’re not the right agency to be working with in the first place.

Time for a pitch. Just not a content one.

Tom Curtis

Tom Curtis is the Executive Creative Director at MediaCom and part of the UK leadership of the newly formed Creative Systems division. A MediaCom veteran with over 21 years at the WPP agency, Tom works across many of the UK’s biggest advertisers, particularly in areas such as publisher partnerships, branded entertainment, and influencer marketing. He’s also the dad behind Instagram’s Webby nominated Things I Have Drawn.

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