O Captain, My Captain! An Open Letter to the 5 Advertising Chiefs.

Dear Sir Martin, John, Maurice, Michael, and Ishii-san

I don’t know any of you personally, and you certainly don’t know me. But as our industry’s leading captains, I am calling on you to lead. Because something in ad land has to change, and you have to take the responsibility to do something.

Now, there are a lot of things we could talk about; how we’ve not really managed to get integration working because of silos (I know you’re restructuring, Maurice. Let’s see how you go first before we conclude), or how our industry has been too slow in truly incorporating technology platforms into communications services, how most ad agency people see their role as purely creating marketing and not solving business issues or how a global approach often comes off as arrogant and old fashioned. But I’m not going to do that. In fact, criticising the big holding companies is neither my job, nor is it relevant – who cares what a small agency MD in Singapore has to say anyway, right? You are doing a stellar job for your clients, your shareholders and your employees (I’ve been one of yours for 15 years, Michael). And I have deep admiration for each of your companies and the long lasting client relationships that you’ve nurtured over the years.

So what I really want to talk about, is how we as an industry offer up our services for free. Every single day, around the globe, thousands of man hours are given away in pitch situations, in a desperate fight to win business. You do it, and we small agency guys do it. The clients have come to expect it, and even if one agency says they’re not going to partake, there’s always a dozen others who are ready to show their ideas in exchange for a chance of winning the business. If a company is looking for a new marketing platform or a campaign, all they have to do is put out a pitch, no matter how small the final scope is. If they see something they like, they can enter into a relationship with an agency, but quite often something changes, and they don’t even choose anyone. I’ve seen it on small clients, on government clients and on large global clients. And every time there is a pitch, hundreds of hours are wasted. This is time that we won’t get back, and even if we win the pitch, clients don’t usually pay for the pitch work (and most of the time, they would want us to rework based on their feedback anyway).

Of course, one could say that this is just a problem for the losers, not for the winners. But we all win and lose at times. And this is not just a problem for the agencies and our profit margin, this is a problem for other clients (who get less attention when we are pitching for new clients and indirectly pay for the time spent on pitches). It is certainly a problem for our employees, who work overtime to deliver pitch work. And because of wasted energy and resources, it is a problem for the economy and the environment. Inefficiency kills agencies, it kills creativity, it makes our services more expensive than they should be and it is demotivating to the “products” we sell – our talents and their ideas.

So it’s time to do something. The problem is, that I can’t start it. The small agencies cannot be the ones standing up to an age old system of free pitching. It has to come from the five of you (and we can throw Havas and Hakuhodo into the mix as well). You, the big guys, have to say “enough is enough”. Put an end to it. Tell the clients that they have to find other ways to select their marketing partners. Tell them that our services are not free, and we as an industry can’t afford to work on unpaid pitches. Tell them that for every pitch, five (or more agencies) put in hundreds of hours to win the business. Even for smaller pitches, we are talking about a lot of time wasted. Tell them that they will get better work by understanding that our industry can’t survive without a change. I know I’m not the first too bring this up, but nothing seems to work. We’ve conditioned the marketing community to think that ideas have no value.

I get it, though. We (the little guys) will probably die from this before you do. And that means more business for you, right? The thing is that you are as reliant on us as we are on you. We need you to show how marketing adds value across the globe, how clients can build brands at a large scale and how to create a stable environment for brands to thrive in. And you need us to push the boundaries, be agile and creative, be at the forefront of digital transformation so that you can change your old ways over time. We will all have to make changes, but I (together with thousands of other small agency leaders) will be looking to you to make the first move. Of course, you don’t want to block free competition, so I get that you can’t make a joint statement. But maybe Sir Martin can go first, and then the rest of you can follow by order of size. And in June, when you’re in Cannes to swoop up awards, mingle with global clients and motivate your people, you might want to get together with your agency CEOs over a glass of rosé, and make a pledge. Say it loud and clear “we are putting an end to free pitching”. We’ll be right behind you.

Your friend,


Erik Ingvoldstad is the Founder & CEO of Acoustic.
Follow Erik on Twitter @ingvoldSTAR, follow Acoustic at @AcousticGroupSG
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[Collage by the author]