(response to Jeff Hilimire's excellent article)
The answer is "lots." But knowing this is not all that helpful. Jeff does a great job of describing the situation from the agency perspective, and I agree with his assessment completely. From the client side, the issues are somewhat different, however.
The Pitch Process
This dog & pony show is not something that clients enjoy either. We don't like to read the initial proposals, the actual presentations are merely a timesink, and all we hope for is that one or more of the presenting agencies show us a gem that makes us think. Every firm has the same capabilities, the same logo-drenched slide of Fortune 100 brands, and the same bios. In an established client company, most agencies also have some direct experience delivering for that company that they can reference, demonstrating an understanding of the industry. In the end, the pitch boils down to the creative concepts that are shared and how compelling these are. This is entirely the wrong way to make a choice.
Creativity is critical. It is also the most fun part of the process. Even so, it is way easier to find an agency with good creative talent than one which can really assess the client's underlying goals and propose real strategies and tactics to achieve them. The pitch process does not generally emphasize this point, and I am not sure anyone from the client team would show up for the meeting if they focused on processes and methodologies without the eye candy of a creative concept to review.
Agencies Sell what Sells
Clients cannot possibly keep up with the constant change in media, consumer behavior, and the waves of disruption caused by emerging and refined technologies. We count on agencies and strategy firms to do this for us. Even so, we read articles, news reports, and memos from our CEOs about cool new things that some firm we admire is using. Thanks to the corporate lemming effect, we take this kind of buzz as tacit endorsement of the tactic and begin to overweight anything that may include this in the pursuit of our broader goals. The digital marketing world is littered with once-shiny objects that became rites of passage for mega-marketers - flash intro pages, 3D universes, podcasts, Facebook apps, etc. Nothing wrong with these things per se - a smart marketer should have tried them all - cheaply and quickly. But anchoring a major effort on one of these media or tactics is nuts - and we do it all the time. I once asked an agency friend why he was still pitching flash intro pages long after practicioners dismissed them as foolish, bandwidth and time-hogging distractions. His answer was honest and simple, "because clients keep buying them." This is hard to fault.
The good thing is that client's memories are pretty short, so when a shiny object fails to perform (assuming we measured it), political self-interest kicks in (so no one hears about it), and 6 months later no one remembers. The bad thing is that our memories are also pretty short about successes, so the pitch process is likely to be renewed often even when we have been pretty happy with the outcomes generated.
I did not like changing agencies. Instead, I sought teams of people that I trusted, admired, and with whom we worked well. We strove to be brutally honest about our interests, competencies, and outcomes and to accept feedback from our agencies. Having a go-to partner who has the permission to stumble (provided that they only make new mistakes) is incredibly liberating. If the agency knows that the business is "theirs to lose," they should behave much more like partners than vendors. If things go south, no one will be surprised when the relationship ends. It happens.
Of course, sometimes agencies are changed because the "hand of God" kicks in, as was the case when a former employer decided that all business needed to be done with one mega-agency for the sake of scale economies. This made sense from a procurement standpoint but wreaked havoc among teams which had been doing pretty well. I have no answer to this other than to suggest that all marketing leaders develop a thick skin and a good sense of humor.
The constancy of change means that there is always room to maneuver, and agencies who fail to land a client once will certainly have a shot again in the future. Whether an agency is chosen or not, its ability to build and maintain relationships will determine its success. OK, maybe this is cold comfort for the up-and-comers who just poured their souls into a brilliant pitch that was discarded in favor of a "safe" big agency, but at least it is something. In addition, the friction between agencies and clients also creates ceaseless opportunity for change and growth, and in the current and foreseeable environment this will come in very handy.