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Professional ghosting: A haunted tale

The ghosting phenomena glided through the walls of popular parlance around 2006, before permanently haunting the Collins English Dictionary in 2015. According to Psychology Today, 50% of Americans have experienced some form of ghosting, most commonly on the dating scene. But now this phenomenon is seeping into our professional lives through the lack of brand communication.

The pitch process is hard enough, and like dating, it can be fraught with issues. Sadly, in today’s fickle market, you would be hard-pressed to find an agency that hasn’t experienced ‘post-pitch ghosting.’ The RFI is followed by the RFP, followed by chemistry meetings and presentations – but then sometimes the prospect stops answering your calls and emails – and the “courtship” comes to an abrupt end.

This silent treatment renders the agency feeling powerless and can leave you wildly assessing all the things you consider post first date. What went wrong? Was it something I said? Did they meet someone else? Are they still interested in starting a new relationship? Ambiguity is the real dagger, and it hurts.      

Agencies can pretend like it doesn’t happen to them, and brands can act as though they have never ghosted a partner, but deep down we know the scenario is all too prominent. As an example, remember the infamous letter from agency Elvis addressing Rolls-Royce, after never hearing back post pitch? They had poured their hearts and souls into winning this dream account and the process stalled (pun intended), resulting in a very public shaming of the prestigious brand.

Lyft recently held a media review with multiple agencies over the course of three months and the potential partners are still speculating as to why Lyft has now gone radio silent. This type of process is a morale killer, and burns deep holes in agency pockets. So, why is it happening?

With our world relying so heavily on technology, rather than person-to-person contact, it’s becoming easier to just disappear and dodge difficult conversations. We all know what it’s like to suffer from IRSD (Inbox-Related Stress Disorder) – but this can’t excuse bad behaviour.

Perhaps this trend is the result of clients not having an understanding of what it takes for an agency to pitch a piece of business, where billable time is spent on non-billable work that is prioritised. Maybe it is based on a client mentality that their brand is one that agencies would be “lucky” to work with?

Regardless of the motives, it’s safe to say that ghosting is becoming a problematic industry trend. In the recent words of 4A’s President and CEO, Marla Kaplowitz, “it represents a misunderstanding of agencies’ role as close business partners and of the strategy and creativity they deliver. These shouldn’t be difficult conversations, especially as reputation matters, and the marketing industry should lead by example on the right way to resolve unfinished business.” 

Like in the world of dating, a solid client-agency relationship relies on communication, trust, and understanding. With all relationships come challenges – but ghosting shouldn’t be one of them, whether it be in your personal or professional life.

Agencies are often versed in how to avoid these dead-end situations, from very detailed Q&A sessions before committing to pitch participation, disqualifying prospects with bad reputations, and setting the internal bar high to instil etiquette. But, some brands have work to do to be better or good brands.

Here is our advice for brands:

  • Make sure that you and your business are committed to finding an agency partner at the end of the process – and it isn’t just a chance to go “window-shopping.”
  • Be clear and direct on what you’re looking for upfront. Don’t mislead with false promises or unrealistic hopes.
  • Keep agencies informed. If there is an internal change of direction during the process, let the teams know – and ideally, pay for any time wasted.
  • Offer honest and constructive feedback. Rejection can be kind and compassionate in its delivery – and no great agency is going to turn down an opportunity to improve.
  • Responding late is better than never. If there are ghosts in your closet, then it’s not too late to confront them.
  • If all else fails, try “caspering” instead. Send a kind email reply of, “thanks but no thanks”, ideally with some constructive rationale, then you can make your exit.

Avoiding this unpleasant modern trend would certainly make the industry a much better place, and who could say “boo” to that?

Hayley James is Group Account Director at Sense New York.

This article first appeared in Campaign US magazine.