Mike Abel. Picture: SUPPLIED
Mike Abel. Picture: SUPPLIED

Standard Bank’s move to a new ad agency has reignited the debate about how to win big pitches in an environment where brands are demanding more for a whole lot less.

After almost 30 years the bank has parted ways with TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris and has moved the majority of its business to M&C Saatchi Abel.

While Hunt is putting on a brave face, saying it remains committed to a smooth transition, insiders tell the FM the agency is gutted and there is corridor talk of a headcount reduction. Hunts decided not to participate in the pitch, ostensibly for cost reasons, and that opened the door for M&C Saatchi to scoop one of the biggest accounts in local advertising.

So how do agencies win pitches these days? That informed a conversation with M&C Saatchi founder Mike Abel, who says: "Critical to winning any pitch is ‘fit’. I think agencies and clients are much more focused on hard results they believe the agency will deliver for them.

"In the past there may have been a greater focus on the softer stuff like chemistry (which is essential), but today it is equally — and possibly even more — important for a large client to know you have the proven experience, skills and capability in its specific industry."

According to Abel, marketing is being held more accountable internally for delivering growth as there are better measures for tracking results and return on investment.

He says times are tough globally and domestically, so marketing investment needs to be spent judiciously, and agencies today need to demonstrate their ability to think beyond "ads" as a sole solution. But agencies still need to present a powerful and tangible cut-through idea in the pitch.

So against that backdrop, is winning a pitch more difficult?

"Procurement plays a greater role in the selection process. The relevant and important hard measures — the financial stability of the agency, the level of transformation in staff, leadership and ownership, payment terms and periods — these are sometimes very onerous, especially for a smaller or younger agency.

"So, yes, it is harder, as there is pressure on measurable results in a tough economy."

Abel says his agency group brought a specific collegial strategy to the Standard Bank pitch.

"Our agency ethos is ‘brutal simplicity of thought’. So we apply this process and rigour in getting to the nub of the brief and related issues. We also have our unique partner model of being deliberately top-heavy, so we have the most experienced minds in the agency, including all the senior executives, in the actual problem-solving and idea generation.

"We also believe strongly in diversity of thought, so we bring in a number of diverse people to solve the problem and conceptualise from a number of different angles and approaches."

Be that as it may, Abel is still sitting with a huge challenge.

Financial services advertising has become muddied, with nimble new entrants in the market challenging Standard and the other big banks.

Abel says: "These new entrants and innovation in the category are driving a much deeper interrogation of the customer value proposition. Consumers are seeking greater clarity of benefits and more tangible proof points. The days of financial services work merely mirroring a customer mindset — the ‘we understand you’ type of big brand work we’ve seen historically — are over.

"Whether it’s pricing, technology or better service, the modern-day financial services brand proposition requires robust proof points to convince an increasingly fickle market that is spoilt for choice."

In addition to M&C Saatchi Abel’s appointment, Ogilvy SA has been named Standard Bank’s brand agency, and subsidiary Superunion will work on that side of the business.

Clockwork Media will be handling the bank’s consumer public relations business, and Edelman its corporate reputation management.