How to fix the pitch—advice and lessons learned from 40 years at P&G

At Worldwide Partners Inc.’s twice-a-year summit, the independent agency network brings together member executives and leaders from around the world to share their problems and challenges, suggest solutions, and explore ways they can work together to grow their businesses.

WPI also brings in world-class speakers covering a wide range of issues and topics that are top-of-mind for agency leaders. At the recent summit in Montreal, former Nike top marketer Greg Hoffman explained how to infuse brands with emotion, Cossette’s Chris Bergeron spoke about building inclusive cultures (and being trans in advertising), and John Deschner explained the formula for success at Maximum Effort (aside from Ryan Reynolds).

But one of the event’s most anticipated speakers was Pete Carter. A 40-year P&G marketer, Carter (right in top photo) was there to talk about what’s wrong with the agency selection process, while sharing some stories and offering some advice on how it can be better.

Carter spent his first 10 years at P&G in brand management, but the last 30 with an internal consulting group that worked across the P&G portfolio to help their brands create better advertising. Toward the end of his tenure, he was given a special assignment by chief brand officer Marc Pritchard. It had become apparent that there were flaws in the way P&G marketers were picking their agencies, and the work was suffering because of it. Carter was tasked with trying to fix the process.

While the “ditch-the-pitch” model they developed—and which Carter continues to use in his own consulting practice Creative Haystack—was created by and for the world’s biggest marketer, it was a reaction to problems in standard agency search practices (and RFPs) that are nearly universal.

One of the biggest problems, said Carter, is an overemphasis on selecting agencies based on capability and the “creativity of the day.” At the same time, a lot of marketers aren’t great at assessing an agency’s capabilities. The solution for P&G was to effectively centralize that part of the process, with Carter and his team evaluating and pre-selecting a large pool of agencies based on their capabilities.

“The first capability was, can they create a big idea? Do they know what a big idea is, [and] can they separate ideas versus execution,” he said.

But beyond that, and perhaps most importantly, the process puts as much emphasis on character or chemistry. At P&G, once Carter’s team chose a handful of agencies with capabilities that matched the needs of the brand, they would visit the agency.

“The visit is really important,” he said. “They need to see if these are the kind of people they want to be around. If these are the kinds of people that share their values. And these are the kinds of people that will understand their consumer the way they understand their consumer. And I think the current pitch process doesn’t put enough emphasis there.”

In an on-stage Q&A with WPI president and CEO John Harris (left in photo) and in an separate interview with The Message, Carter talked at length at about what he learned about agency selection during his time at P&G, why the process is so painful for so many today, and what both clients and agencies can do to make it better.

Why the process feels so broken and what can be done about it: “There are several reasons why it is the way it is… I’ll always start with the client,” Carter told the WPI attendees.

“I tell people, ‘You get the advertising you deserve.’ I’ve seen great agencies do great work for people. And I’ve seen that same agency do really crappy work because the client didn’t know how to work with them, didn’t understand what they were doing, wasn’t clear, all of those things.”

In some cases, it’s because the top marketer on the brand simply doesn’t have the ability to see what they need from their agency. “There are just some people that are not very good at the advertising piece,” said Carter. “I would always tell those people ‘Let your brand manager lead the way because they’ve got more skill there.'”

On the tension between clients and agencies: One of the biggest problems today is that clients think they have more power, and that agencies are easily replaceable, Carter told The Message. “When I started at Procter & Gamble many, many years ago, you would never insult an agency, because they had an impact on your career,” he said.

“I think that there’s this general feeling that agencies are interchangeable. And that’s not the way I was brought up. That’s not the way I think about agencies. When you’ve got people that you believe in, you work with those people through the hard times as well as through the good times.

“I don’t know if [clients] didn’t have power before, but they were looking for partners. And today they’re looking for suppliers. One of the basic tenets that I tried to bring back to P&G was we need to treat them like partners, not like suppliers, because they can save your ass when they are your partner.

“I’ve had people at agencies that have turned businesses around when the brand lost its way because they were devoted to understanding that brand.”

Agencies need to say no: It’s not easy, but the process only gets better when agencies stand their ground and refuse to take part in pitches with unreasonable expectations and demands for spec work, for example. Ideally, clients would stop doing this—Marc Pritchard has already said P&G won’t ask for spec work or at least will pay for it,  but Carter has asked him to call on the industry to follow suit—but until then, agencies need to say no.

“That’s very difficult, because you’re all trying to build your business. Sometimes you need the money directly to cover some overhead, and then it’s like, ‘Okay, well, this will allow us to do that,’” he said.

“One of the pieces of advice I can give you is know who you are as an agency. What is your superpower? If you understand that, you will have more leverage to be able to say no… but you can only say no if you know who you are, and who you really need to go after [for work], versus who comes to your door knocking.”

What is your super power: Your super power is the thing your agency does better than anything else, and better than most other agencies your size or in your market, said Carter. “Too often agencies say to me, ‘Well, we have really great people.’ Okay, but other agencies have really great people, too. That’s not a superpower.”

“Or they say to me—I love this one—they’re an agency of 12 people, and they give me a litany of ‘We can do everything, we can do package design, we can do media buying, we can do this, we can do that,’ and I just sit there going, ‘No you can’t.'”

What if your superpower isn’t trendy: It’s important to be honest with yourself about what you are, and don’t claim to have a superpower just because that’s what everyone is talking about, said Carter. But it’s also important to remember that what’s trendy isn’t the same as what’s good for a brand.

At P&G, he was constantly approached by agencies talking about purpose, because former CMO Jim Stengel and Mark Pritchard were talking about purpose.

“Well, you know what? I don’t need a purpose agency. Some clients do. But I was never looking for a purpose agency. I was looking for an agency that could sell shit,” he said.

“Everybody’s off on the purpose bandwagon. And every time I would visit an agency and they’d give me the whole spiel about ‘We can do purpose work. And here’s a lot of our purpose work,’ and I’d say ‘Well, can you show me something where someone actually had to take out their wallet and buy something, because I really need that.’

“I think that’s the number one issue with agencies today, is that they have lost sight of the fact that unless they help a client sell shit, they are an expense as opposed to a value. And when you are an expense, then the purchasing people nickel and dime you to death. You’re fighting for every penny.

“When you are a value—because you are adding value to the brand—you are bringing consumers to the brand. Then the pocketbooks open up. And I think a lot of agencies have forgotten that today.”

David Brown