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September 5, 2019

How pitches uphold the patriarchy (and hurt your brand)


Originally published in CampaignUS

Dear brands,

When you ask agencies to pitch, you’re upholding the patriarchy. Why does that matter? Beyond the patriarchy simply being bad (for society, for progress, the list goes on…), the patriarchy is bad for business. Your business and your bottom line.

Agencies have resented pitches as long as there have been pitches; there’s a reason Zulu Alpha Kilo hit a nerve with their “Say No To Spec” video a few years’ back. And yet, neither brands nor agencies seem to be able to quit the outdated model of winning and soliciting business. 

For agencies, it’s an expensive bad habit: According to the AMA it costs, on average, an agency $15,000 to participate in an RFP, with agencies making it to the finals incurring up to $45,000 more in costs. To pitch, agencies must be able to afford that loss with no guarantee of a positive outcome. 

It is, by all means, an incredibly bad way to run a business—and an incredibly effective way to keep up-and-coming competition at bay.

Indeed, pitching propagates an unequal playing field that puts larger, well-funded agencies at a distinct advantage versus smaller, leaner, and newer agencies. And those larger agencies? They’re almost always founded and led by white males. More often than not, women- and minority-owned agencies fall into the latter camp. That’s because they generally haven’t been around as long (only 0.1 percent of the ad agencies in the U.S. with national or international accounts are owned by women), and don’t have nearly as much financial support (female founders receive just 2.2% of all venture capital in the U.S.). Pitching requires resources many minority and women-led agencies simply don’t have.  

There’s quite a parallel with unpaid internships here. It’s well known that unpaid internships further inequality in the workforce and society at large because they can only be filled by people who can afford to be paid zero dollars an hour. So, if it’s not acceptable to not pay interns, why is it acceptable to not pay… experts?

From a brand perspective pitching may feel like it’s only upsides. For example, when brands receive pitch concepts, they get a head start on a project, or may get something cogent and usable. But it’s also creative put together on the fly with no substantial investment in the brand or the deep collaboration that should go into a creative process.

Ultimately, brands who demand work up front without pay end up overlooking highly talented (albeit perhaps smaller and more resource-conscious) teams of creatives—teams that can’t necessarily bite $45,000, but that have won awards for their work and have a hundred killer ideas on the other side of that contract. Brands lose the perspective they would get from inherently diverse agencies. Diversity in perspective and experience and thinking—things that are directly contrary to the patriarchy—quite simply improves brand reputation and revenue. And the opposite of that? Well… Pepsi.

We’re in a new era of brand building, one where consumers expect the companies they buy from to walk the talk. Throwing in a line about “needing culturally ambiguous casting” into a creative brief (in other words, every creative brief written in 2019) just doesn’t cut it anymore. No–brands must evaluate their business practices, which includes vendor and supply chain management, and decide whether their calls for “diversity” and “authenticity” extend to the way they choose to engage with agencies. By soliciting pitches, brands go against the very values they claim to hold dear: inclusivity, diversity and equality.

As someone five years in at a pitch-free agency, allow me to share the good news: The future of advertising has arrived, and pitching (and the patriarchy) has no place here.