Last month, I wrote a piece about the Taza Chocolate brand and how its chief marketing officer, Barb Reilly, was holding an innovative pitch not with traditional ad agencies, but with established freelance teams (“Advertising’s Newest Enemy Is The Legion Of Freelancers The Agencies Laid Off”). Well, the pitch is over and a winner was awarded, so, curious, I followed up with Barb this week with a battery of questions to see how it went.
What came out was interesting insight into this pitch process, commentary on traditional pitch consultants, the creative strength of freelancers, the importance of the “big idea,” and much more.
Will Burns: Catch us up. What’s happened since the RFP stage?
Barb Reilly: We issued the 11 question RFB (“Request For Bold”) along with criteria of what we were looking for. We received 20 submissions on time — and we’ve received about 10 emails/submissions after the fact asking to be considered for any additional work.
Reilly: We reviewed the submissions, and found four great teams to pay to play.
The four teams were invited in for a Factory Tour led by our CEO and cofounder Alex Whitmore, followed by a creative briefing. Each got a chance to talk with both Kathleen Fulton (cofounder and CDO) and Alex, try the product, ask questions. Each was encouraged to call anytime they had questions (and they did). Full access throughout. Then each had 2-plus weeks and came back for one presentation, sharing a brand platform and ways to bring that platform to life. In a nutshell, answer 11 questions, come to a briefing, present work. Three steps and each got paid for that.
The presentations were 90 minutes. Each one was brimming with big fun ideas, lots of laughs and great discussion. Three of the four teams put some really provocative bold work on the table. One played it much safer than we were expecting given the push for bold (they must not have believed us) but even in that body of work there was work we felt great about. It was really an embarrassment of riches; so much so, we wanted to hire three of them! We picked the one that had the strongest creative strategy, delivered work that was almost ready to run (though we were not expecting that in one round) and yes, was bold. We are asking them to refine slightly to be more provocative in a few areas, because we gravitated to the work that was a bit over the edge.
We selected one. They have come in for a debrief and we are off and running creating work to run in September. They will get paid for a defined scope of work.
Burns: Compared to pitches with full-service agencies, were there any noticeable sacrifices in only including freelancers?
Reilly: I have sat through my fair share of pitch presentations (mostly as a member of an agency team and a few on client side) and I was looking for gaps and sacrifices. The area I most expected to feel a loss was in the type of talent/specialists sitting around the table. I figured with a low fee, there would be no robust team and we’d notice the lack of disciplines at the table. But we didn’t. The seasoned creatives talked strategy, could discuss pretty much everything from strategy to execution to platform selection.
One team brought a creative/digital strategist and it was clear how much of a difference it was having a third person on the team — the set up was part business strategy/part creative strategy. Another brought a designer who did some packaging design ideas that we may actually bring back to use. For some we didn’t have in the final four, they offered other skills we didn’t think were right yet but will be soon.
There were more gains than sacrifices: It was faster, more collaborative, less showy, no credentials set up that talked all about them. It was all about the work. And the work was great. The presentations were comfortable and casual and it was fun.
Creative should be fun.
Burns: Would you do it again?
Reilly: Yes. but I am not sure I’ll need to do it again with Taza. We got such a great roster of teams now to pick from for additional assignments. As I mentioned above, we were introduced to some other teams with skills we will need in the future. There were no drawbacks. Only wins. I’d definitely do it again for another brand. But I’m not going anywhere. This is a dream job.
Burns: What would you do differently if you were to do it again?
Reilly: I would publicize it more. When I think about the way review consultants do it, they have a depth of experience with agencies they have known for a while and have a lot to draw from. Conversely, there are so many freelance teams we probably don’t even know about and I am sure we only scratched the surface. I would absolutely want more time to promote it properly and give more time to teams to consider joining in.
Judging from those who reached out after and asked to be considered — I realized we could have cast a wider net. But our small net didn’t hurt us. We are happy with the results.
Burns: Do you think this “freelance pitch” concept is right for only certain kinds of businesses or could you see any businesses using it?
Reilly: I am not anti-agency. And I am certainly not intending to bash any agency including my former employer. I have a lot of respect for many and would recommend many to the right company.
Here’s what I think it boils down to — agencies lost some of their perceived value in their quest to figure out holding company duplications and complexities, the impact of technology on their offerings, and struggled to figure out what they stood for in this crazy new world. Clients got tired of paying huge fees while the agencies figured it out, and other businesses could offer services faster, cheaper and sometimes (not always) better. Many seasoned and respected agency people who never would go client-side are now inside corporate marketing teams due to agency downsizing.
At Taza, like many large companies with in-house agencies, I do not need all the services, bells and whistles. I do not have the money to pay for that kind of overhead and duplication of talent.
However, the importance of a big creative idea will never ever be lost. In fact I think it’s more valuable today than ever. Much of that top creative talent is not excited about working at large agencies anymore and so many are out freelancing. For Taza, at this time, with our budgets, this made the most sense. For others it might not.
I’ve had several CMOs ask me about our freelance “Tazathon” and it’s clear to me they are not happy with the agency model. I recently was asked by one if they should they do a Tazathon like pitch and I told them no, they should work with their current agency and if they want more creative talent, talk to the creative director about hiring freelance teams. They really need the structure that an agency provides as their team internally isn’t set up to manage a pool of outside teams. Again I am not anti-agency.
As I got to thinking about this, the business that may need to be rethought is review consultancies. I’m not 100% sure how much has changed there with all the change going on with agencies.
Burns: And the winner was…
Reilly: The winning team was io3 Creative, made up of two local (Boston) creatives, Rick Frisiello and Chuck Matzker. They’ve worked with CPG and other fledgling companies, understanding the David vs Goliath situation. As I mentioned two other teams were close. And we may tap into them. But Rick and Chuck brought fully baked design and work that will get noticed. Their platform for Taza will make consumers rethink chocolate. No one even realizes they need to rethink that sweet confection they’ve grown up with. Their creative idea will change perception and set Taza apart.
Burns: What advice would you give a CMO out there thinking about doing a “freelance pitch”?
Reilly: In addition to the above which gets at this, have someone on your team who is an ex-agency person be on point.
Burns: You saw a lot of negative comments about “abusing creative freelancers” because Taza didn’t have a lot of money to pay the teams. Now that you see the teams that came to the table — what would you say to those naysayers?
Reilly: First thing I’d say is — I am sorry they felt that way. I don’t think they know me. Or Taza. This was a budget thing not a “let me see if I can screw people” thing. Either people wanted a shot or they didn’t. No one had to participate. My goal is to keep to scope tight and bring more fee for more work as we need it and do good work so the team feels this was all worth it.
Second, does paying less mean we value it less or we are abusing someone? No. It means we start where we can and go from there and hope people help create the opportunity that will benefit us all. For those that saw it that way too, my heartfelt thanks. We’ve already started talking about additional work we want to do that will come with additional fee. We are grateful these teams were interested in the long game.
Third, I know there were some naysayers on Facebook saying we’d get what we deserved for paying so little, “college students or hungry entry level creatives” — but the caliber of teams that submitted was humbling. A former top TBWA creative team, senior-level teams with experience on top brands and at top agencies…. most all of the teams that reached out were among the group of former agency staffers who had decided freelance was a more viable option for them. They were all talented, nice, fun, smart. Loved them all. Anyone wanting names — I am happy to recommend them!