Robert Senior On Advertising: Can adland change its unhealthy competitive pitching? Yes it can!

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The Independent Online

Change is the new black. Change is cool. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the run-up to the US Presidential elections.

Well actually, all we really know is that people like talking about change, and especially like hearing Barack Obama talking about change. A question raised by some political commentators is whether, come election day, it turns out to be all talk and no action. Will the American electorate play "change tease" having merrily clapped along to "Yes we can" only to answer a depressing "No we can't" in November?

Competitive pitches in adland by definition signal change. It is a resetting of a brand's destination, a repurposing, a new true north. The pitch is the alleged locomotive force of the ad business: agency set against agency and may the best idea win! After all, creative greatness is now a well-documented must-have for any brand with ambitious plans for the future, particularly brands looking to change their direction.

Current wisdom states that we live in an era of pull, not push; that our fragmented media landscape demands that we create "fields of dreams" – build it and the audiences will come. That's the pull bit. This contrasts heavily with the push of yesteryear – the out-shout strategy of attrition, boring viewers into submission.

And yet, this required creative greatness is still an item of rarity. Typically owing to committees on both sides (agency and client), work can be undermined by cowardice, caution, and a subconscious preference for the familiar. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the creative pitch.

Recent evidence suggests that some of our larger brands call a pitch to demonstrate due diligence, paying lip service to a change agenda. The real agenda is at best some mild curiosity – asking "What if?" – and at worst some idle window-shopping and wilful box-ticking.

Two of the biggest pitches of the year – as far as the real world is concerned, the two biggest – were for Lotto and Halifax, which have both embarked on allegedly change-orientated reviews this year. Weeks after the pitches, both had reappointed the incumbent agencies that they were supposedly so desperate to look beyond. Explanations abound for this strange set of affairs: agency A disappointing; agency B too risky; and least likely of all, the winners actually having the best idea.

But pitches are no more a guarantee of a great idea than is the patient and constructive collaboration of agency and client, undistracted by pitch hysteria. There is, in fact, very little to show that this old-fashioned selection process results in the procurement of better ideas.

Most pitch work either never runs or disappoints. Perhaps it's no surprise. As soon as a pitch is called, the imaginative talents of competing agencies are not just stimulated but also fatally compromised. Brains that should be dedicated to the imaginative leap become corroded by the dark forces of competition: "Will this win?" displaces "Will this work?" as agencies jockey for business. The creative voice is sacrificed at the altar of agency growth.

Just to add to the madness, an industry has been created that conspires to send its best talent into competition (because no one fields their B team) rather than dedicate it to the services of existing clients. A pitch with four agencies, of whom there can be only one winner, by definition trashes the efforts and diminishes the morale of 75 per cent of the individuals involved, with knock-on effects on the retained clients they should really be attending to.

Of course, all of this can be dismissed as the time-worn bleating of a service industry with ideas above its station. But in an era when the quality of the idea is more important than ever and when the best ideas are increasingly the result of collaboration and teamwork, it's alarming how few examples there are of new approaches to agency selection. Pitches, like democracy, have been described as the "least worst". But that shouldn't stop us trying to find a better way.

An easy way to avoid change-tease would be if agencies simply refused to pitch if the incumbent is involved. The client/agency relationship requires work from both sides. Clients should be discouraged from hopping into bed with other agencies in order to bring the incumbent back into line. Ideally, both parties would work tirelessly to make the relationship work; if, and only if, their differences prove irreconcilable, then a pitch would be called without the incumbent. At least that's a commitment by the client to change. It just requires agencies to say no. Come on, in the interest of our creative dignity, say it with me: Yes we can.

while on the nebulous subject of creativity, it's timely to view it through an economic lens. After all, we're told by the Institute of Directors that creativity is one of Britain's most highly valued exports. And like everything else, it's susceptible to the health of the global economy.

In simple terms, recessions apply eye-watering pressure on a company's return on investment (ROI), with special scrutiny on the marketing budgets, as they are the easiest to cut with minimal immediate fallout. But in the world of creativity, the real ROI is not the return on investment but the return on imagination. The Cadbury sales results behind the now famous drumming gorilla had little to do with the financial investment and everything to do with its creative investment, aided and abetted by 14 million online viewings.

When companies take a long, hard look at their cost base, slashing the marketing budgets along the way, they invariably do not balance it out with reduced forecasts of performance – as this would, among other details, affect their individual bonuses.

Last week Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, L'Oréal and Unilever were all reported to have significantly reduced their media spend in the US in response to rising commodity costs. These are major players, in a major market, not to be ignored. But you can be fairly sure they will be expecting more for less from their advertising.

Logically, then, the level of creativity in this situation will have to increase in order to accelerate its effect. So, in a curious way, a recession should be a force for good, improving advertising's creative output – necessity quite literally being the mother of invention.

How odd and depressing, then, that the knee-jerk reaction to an economic downturn by agencies and clients alike is to produce "low-risk creative", a euphemism for boring (read pointless) advertising. What can be riskier than spending the little money you have on something guaranteed to encourage the viewer to click, look or zap away?

Good news for Sky+ I suppose, but, alas, bad news for viewers, not to mention the health of one of Britain's most valued exports.

Robert Senior is UK chief executive of SSF Group, which oversees the Saatchi & Saatchi and Fallon agencies.