As digital transformation continues to disrupt most industries and organisations, it is depressing to see the extension of the ‘pitch’ process to the selection of agencies and suppliers for product development. Depressing, because the process inevitably rewards those least likely to ever develop something of any value.
Anyone familiar with Mad Men knows that advertising sells dreams and ambitions; always the experience of owning (or using) the product, never the actual product itself. Using this evaluation method to find partners for product development overlooks the critical distinction between a campaign and a product.
Campaigns are short-lived and designed to communicate a specific message for a marketing department on behalf of a business – their goals and measures of success are entirely financial.
A product has longevity and is typically the end-result of a long and methodical process of identifying, then addressing, unresolved problems or unmet needs in the marketplace. In other words, they are vehicles for delivering small chunks of value to customers. Digital assets created to support campaigns (even brand campaigns) are not products by this definition – they are something else entirely.
A process designed to find the best supplier to deliver a campaign is not the right process for finding the most credible supplier of digital products. The voice that advocates identifying customer problems, solving them and delivering incremental improvements to the overall customer experience will always be drowned out by the voice that claims it will revolutionise your business and make you the next Google/Facebook/WhatsApp/Whatever. The head nods when hearing the first voice but the heart leaps when hearing the second. Especially if marketing is the main sponsor.
Successful digital brands started out solving discrete problems in an effective, focussed manner. When they prove their solution scales, the combination of investment dollars and media hype gives them the platform to exaggerate their achievements onto a global plane.
Facebook is a great example: originally a vehicle for Harvard students to gossip about the opposite sex, it now makes grandiose claims to “give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” Snapchat addresses teenagers’ desire to sext without getting caught. No doubt in the future it will talk about its mission to encourage global spontaneity and “carpe diem thinking.”
Pitching works counter to this trajectory. It rewards those that sell the dream, not the utility. As a result it seems all but inevitable that the successful candidates will be the ones that promise the most and will deliver the least over the long term.
A smart product strategy focuses on delivering a continuous flow of customer value, measuring the progress methodically along the way. As Ovid once observed: “Add little to little and you have a big pile.” How many pitches climax with a pragmatic and informed statement like that?