A view from Marcus Brown: Winning new business doesn’t have to be at the expense of mental wellbeing

There are ways that agencies can run pitches that don't lead to burnout of staff.

As the year draws to a close, it is natural for us all to reflect on how the torrent of worldwide socio-economic and political events that have defined 2020 have impacted our industry.

The coronavirus pandemic, of course, has been a catalyst for many things, including new ways of working. The myopic “must be in the office before everyone else” types have finally seen the light in that the office is not the only place to be productive. So, might the industry now have the chance to reflect and put into place better pitching practices that respect employees’ wellbeing too?

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Over recent years, the communications industry has taken great strides in increasing awareness and opening up conversations around mental health. Both the IPA and Nabs offer agencies practical guidelines to assist them in promoting workplace wellbeing and most agencies have made tremendous strides in awareness and improved work practices and genuine care for their people.

However, when it comes to the vital activity of new business, how strong is the industry at preserving good working practices that promote work/life balance?

I have the immense privilege of working with some of the best people and agencies around the world. There are some agencies that follow best practice on pitches, including: no weekend work, time off to recuperate after a pitch, defined working hours and mental health check-ins. However, at other agencies, including some we have worked within the UK, all those good intentions go out of the window in the white heat of a pitch.

There’s a huge degree of hypocrisy when leaders talk about how important mental health is, with many championing Mental Health Week only to then subject their teams to poor pitch practices that can invoke burnout and other mental-health repercussions.

Winning new business doesn’t have to come at the expense of mental wellbeing. Following a disciplined pitch process that respects the welfare of the individual and the team is a critical element of a more professional approach to business development.

A good example of an agency adopting the best business practice in pitching is Wavemaker UK. Chief growth officer Mu Ali is leading by example. “We believe that the best-quality work doesn’t have to come at the expense of people’s health,” he says.

“On top of other company initiatives, we have instituted a pitch care programme, which helps people who are working on pitches with backfill support, along with time off and setting reasonable deadlines to deliver work within normal working hours”.

Given there is often just a hair’s breadth between winning and losing, professional pitchers know the importance of the mental wellbeing of their team is a key element of success. I always find the analogy of an Olympian preparing to win useful. Every moment from the last race to the next is utilised in a way that is optimum to their performance. Mental wellbeing and the state of mind are critical to success. I don’t think Tom Daley slips down to the aquatic centre and practises through the night in the run-up to an important competition.

Nor should agencies be asking their people to do the pitching equivalent. It’s something Ed Palmer, managing director at St Luke’s, agrees with: “We’ve had a particularly busy new-business run recently, but we’ll always try to mitigate the impact on wellbeing.

“Our process allows us to spread the pitching workload across different teams; we regularly survey our staff to see how they are feeling; we give weekly updates to the agency on-pitch progress, and we’ve turned down opportunities when things have become too stretched.

“We don’t always get it right, but we’re constantly looking for more ways to improve staff wellbeing.”

There are three simple behaviour changes agencies can adopt to uphold healthy pitching practises.

Set the tone at the start of the pitch

The core senior team need to agree on, and communicate to everyone involved, the importance of mental wellbeing to pitch delivery. In your kick-off meeting, dedicate five minutes to outlining the pitch “rules of play” that your team should follow, whether it’s no weekend work or scheduled lunch breaks. Ask your most senior team member to relay the expectations.

Schedule regular check-ins

Asking your pitch teams how they are coping and whether they need help on a regular basis will reassure them that there are avenues of
support in place, as well as inspire openness among teams. These do not need to take long and will boost team morale.

Hold each other accountable

Group consensus is required for healthy ways of working to maintain. If one outlier demands their teamwork late, this will drive impetus for others to do the same. It’s a slippery slope. Pitch teams must support and hold one another accountable to the rules outlined at the beginning of the process. Empower your teams with the ability to do, no matter their job title.

We should all take the opportunity to build back better, so let’s make sure wellbeing for our teams is front and centre as we do so – even when it comes to new-business pitching.

Marcus Brown is founder and chief executive of The Great Pitch Company
Picture: Getty Images