There is a scene in the TV series The Wire where the detectives are investigating the murder of a man who had robbed an illegal street gambling game. They are questioning a witness who explains that the dead man took part in the game every week and that he always robbed it but they always got the money back, he was a local guy and simply couldn’t help himself. The police, slightly baffled, ask why they let the man play every week if they knew he was going to rob them, to which the witness replied incredulously ‘we got to let him play, this is America!’ I was reminded of that scene when I read about the current ad agency strike in Belgium.
The thought of advertising agencies going on strike is something that could only happen in Belgium, or maybe France. They didn’t actually go on strike as I understand the word, they didn’t put on donkey jackets and stand outside around a burning brazier or march on parliament, no, they took their websites down and put up a message to clients explaining their annoyance at the current pitching process in Belgium. It’s not the second coming of Marx, but still, it was a brave or foolish thing to do depending on your standpoint.
The pitch process has always been a sore point in our industry and when you examine it it’s a very unusual way of working. I don’t imagine clients ask many other professional service providers to go through what most agencies will. The thought that 3 accountancy firms would do part of your audit free of charge in the hope of getting your business is laughable. And I’d love to see the response from 3 law firms if they were asked to provide some free conveyancing or court time as part of their pitch for your business. Yet that’s what we do, we spend a lot of time and effort producing work that we are fully aware we might never even be thanked for far less paid; it’s mad but it just seems to be how this business is.
I’ve met and listened to speeches from industry experts who give a very strong argument for refusing to take part in non-compensated pitches. They claim an agency will win out in the end if it sticks to its guns on this and they might be right I’ve just never had the guts to try it; and I don’t believe I know anyone else who has either. The issue the Belgians are complaining about is a valid one, clearly some of their clients are taking advantage of the economic situation and that isn’t fair, the least a competent client should do is be able to draw up a shortlist if they can’t decide on one agency based on meeting them and hearing about their business and services.
The concept of striking is anathema in our industry, we’re the capitalist storm troopers, we’ll help you sell anything to anyone and we’ll even show you our best ideas without charging you first. I wonder if as an industry we decided to stop creating work we weren’t guaranteed to be paid for how it would change our industry. Would our work be valued more, would more care be taken in the briefing process or would the agency spend less time making sure it was right? We’ll never know because it’ll never happen. Even though I know there is a good chance someone is going to run away with the pot before I’ve won my hand I’ll still ask them to play anyway because this week I might just win big.