It’s the debate that never goes away. Should agencies engage in free pitching? As a marketing manager, should you expect them to?

It’s always been quite common (in Australia, at least) for agencies to be required to pitch for, say, a 3-year creative account. But it seems to be increasingly common for them to be required to pitch for individual projects too.

So where is the line? What’s acceptable and what’s pushing it too far?

It’s always been a classic power struggle – established agencies often think their name/reputation/portfolio should have clients beating a path to their door (or at least not wanting to walk out the door if they’re already on-board); established brands think that agencies should be climbing over each other to get their brand on their books instead. There is plenty of historical behaviour to support both points of view.

But tightening budgets, an increased focus on direct and measurable ROI, and the ever more fragmented (and competitive) agency landscape has swung the balance even more in favour of brands recently. The result? An apparent willingness to ask more agencies to pitch more regularly.

While this should mean good things for brands and their marketing managers, I suspect the long-term effects won’t be as positive.

Why? Because it immediately creates the wrong atmosphere between two parties that should be working alongside, not against, each other. A relationship based on unequal power – where one wields power that over the other in order to coerce behaviour – is not a good relationship for either party.

It also moves the goalposts. Think of it like politics: considerably more would get done if politicians focused on the actual business of governing rather than the business of getting re-elected. And while one would naturally assume the two approaches should lead to exactly the same outcome (i.e. good policy and execution leads to re-election), observation tells a different story. Most governments spend far too much time on spin and media games because they understand the importance of it to winning another term in office.

The same applies in Brandland. Do you want your agency focused on what they should be focused on – your work – or on making sure that they position themselves to get ‘re-elected’ at the next pitch? I’d argue that your results will be much better if it’s the former.

And if it sounds like I’m just bitching about pitching, then you may have heard me wrong. I’m definitely not against pitching for accounts, or even one-off projects of a suitable size. In fact, as a small agency, I love pitching – it gives us the opportunity to show off our work against some of The Big Guys and prove our mettle.

But I am against the idea of pitching for every project with an existing client, because I don’t think that’s a good basis for any relationship. Think of it like a romantic one – it’s ok to ask plenty of questions on a first date, but constantly ‘interviewing’ your partner going forward won’t make for happy times. Likewise, your partner should never get so comfortable they feel they can stop wooing you and making you feel special. A good relationship will always have that sense of excitement and adventure.

If we can start looking at agency/brand relationships like personal ones – looking for openness, communication, shared values and a mutual sense of purpose – then we’ll move beyond the constant pitching and moaning towards a balance that works in the interest of both parties.