Coca-Cola’s holiday pitch leaves a bad taste in agency land

By Leah Power, EVP Strategic Operations Consultant at the Institute of Communication Agencies (ICA).

The holidays are coming, just not for the agency sector. The big news that Coca-Cola is reviewing its global advertising and media agency relationships emerged just as hard-pressed agency folk are preparing for some well-earned rest after a testing year. “Enjoy your holiday season worrying if you’re about to lose your biggest account,” is essentially what Coca-Cola just said to the agency sector across the globe.

Coke’s not the worst offender here. There are so many horror stories of agencies being required to drop everything – friends and family included – to work on agency searches over the holiday season. But it’s time we came to the realization that pitching in December is just plain wrong, and here’s why.

Let’s look at the people who are initiating these pitches. Are they up on the news, are they human, looking out a window, do they understand business, are they talking to their friends? They are completely blind to the environment in which they are launching their pitch.

That’s mainly down to pandemic fatigue. People are tired, worried, stressed, fighting for their careers, working from home, overworked. There is no slack in agencies and that’s taking its toll. Even before the pandemic, the ICA’s Talent Census in early 2020 showed that a staggering 41% of agency people were struggling with “emotional, psychological or mental health issues” – an increase from the 36% in 2018. We can only imagine how that’s been exacerbated by nine months of a pandemic.

So, you’ve got to wonder how some of these big brands, that assume they have relationships with consumers, expect agencies to turnaround pitches at the drop of a hat during a time when they should be restoring their creative energies. The whole pitch process itself is bad enough, even without the context of a pandemic. The three main issues that send agency searches to Pitch Watch are:

1. Spec

Since the goal of a selection process is to select the most qualified agency – not to have dozens of agencies begin the problem-solving process – there is no reason to request free consulting in an agency search. When a business asks an agency to begin solving a problem as part of the selection process, they are asking the agency for free consulting. So, either they will do the bare minimum possible to keep their costs down or they will do a tremendous amount of work for free in an attempt to win the project.
This means that whichever agency does the most work for free will likely have the most substantial proposal. The irony of requesting free consulting is that this is usually accompanied by a statement that restricts the contact with suppliers during the process. And, without meaningful and appropriate access to clients and their information, there is no way that any agency can formulate a meaningful solution to a business challenge. Asking agencies to create strategy and creative solutions to your business problems is a waste of resources and will never give a brand what it’s looking for.

2. Timing

At the ICA, we’ve worked to formulate a fairer approach to agency selection called Qualification Based Selection (QBS). One of the first items for consideration on the QBS templates is the timing of the search. It’s imperative to consider this in order to ensure that the client team has the resources necessary to review the agency submissions effectively and that the dates take into consideration civic and statutory holidays. This involves understanding and researching the different markets in which the agency search is taking place.

3. Irrelevant paperwork

Too many procurement-led searches are cumbersome with a very tight turn-around. Many contain legal disclaimers, some of which may be unenforceable, not permitted, or unethical. Request for Proposal (RFP) documents often have no meaningful scoring rubric – just weightings of the various evaluated criteria with too many irrelevant factors being evaluated. The asks are often not properly categorized between mandatory and evaluated criteria, and too frequently there is not enough emphasis placed on the expertise of the firm. This means that the evaluation risks being neither accurate nor objective.

The consistent messaging from brands over the past few months is that “we’re all in this together.” But judging from their responses to these three big selection issues, are we really? It’s fine for Coca-Cola to Tweet “share some love” and use the hashtag #TogetherTastesBetter but then it must walk the walk in its partnerships with agencies and other businesses.  

No one wants to pitch your business in December. A more thoughtful and considerate way to start a new relationship and partnership is to be purposeful from the off because it sets the tone for the entire relationship. And, let’s face it, calling a pitch during the holiday season is a terrible way to begin.

So, I’d say to Coca-Cola, stop putting your agencies on notice in December. Please stay true to your belief that “our people create a culture of inclusion, curiosity and diversity — at work and in our communities” and allow your staff and partners to celebrate Christmas, Hannukah and other festivals, enjoy some much-needed rest and, as you say, “refresh the world.”

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