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How to improve the agency pitch process: Stop pitching!

Agency Pitch Process
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This post is by Rod Curtis, Managing Director of the T20 Group. He has been involved in the Australian advertising and marketing industry for over 40 years. T20 Group, established in 2003, has Consulting, Creative Services and New Technology divisions.

The roller-coaster life of advertising agencies is never more exaggerated than when The Pitch is on.

Firstly, you celebrate because you got on the (long or short) list in the first place. The troops are fired up. Every utterance by the client and/or their consultant, the media and pub gossip is examined in minutiae.

Then you have the guys in the agency who aren’t working on The Pitch and have to keep the rest of the business humming along when resources are being allocated to The Pitch.

Of course, if you are the new business client, this is not your concern. Until you become a client and then it is your concern because you will worry that your agency is chasing business and not doing your work.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to explain to incredulous new business clients that we don’t actually have people sitting around waiting for their pitch opportunity to walk in the door. Or, perhaps the agency then relies on freelancers to do The Pitch. Or worse still, do the work of your existing clients.

Maybe you work for a holding company agency group and you have a Pitch Budget and really, we all know about those sort of budgets… use it or lose it.

The inevitable result of all this is that the industry seems to understand that when an agency loses business, people follow. Does it stand to reason therefore that when you win business, you put people on? The answer, of course, is all about revenue.  

I’ve known agencies who have hired some of the team from the losing agency to work on the same piece of business at the new agency. Go figure.

OK… back to The Pitch.

Clients, do you really want a new agency? Agencies, do you really want the business?

Hopefully you have established as a first step what we call “Intent”. Are we serious here with this pitch? Does the client really want a new agency? And remember that major piece of business this year which took 6 months to decide to leave it with the incumbent? See my previous piece on The Incumbent

The biggie for me here is the absolutely ridiculous situation where many clients give you a few weeks to sort their entire communication strategy and messaging for all their stakeholder targets. On the basis that “we just want to see how you think” That’s not intent people. That’s contempt. And maybe, just maybe, we deserve it.

And you, the oh so professional agency business manager, do you really want this piece of business? I mean, really want it.

If you are running one of the holding agencies you will have no choice. Your growth targets will dictate that you have to pitch on everything that moves to have any chance of reaching those double digit targets. All this in an industry with single figure growth outlook (Average 4.8% over the next 5 years in Australia).

Flaws in the agency pitch process

As an industry, we all know that the pitch process is notoriously flawed. Ridiculously short lead times or mind numbing long lead times, pitch lists as long as your arm, layers of client management consensus needed to select the new agency, meaningless paperwork for RFPs.

Then there’s the lack of access to decision makers.  My mantra is that she or he who has the power to approve, MUST brief. There is nothing more debilitating than dealing with people who have the authority to only say “maybe” . Add in cost pressure to do creative work for nix, coughing up your IP. The list goes on and on.

But, my friends we have no-one to blame but ourselves. We are stuck in what De Bono calls “repetition and routine” which he alarmingly describes as “the kiss of death” for business. And he is right.  

We put up with the lack of what I call “Pitch Etiquette”. Poor briefs, no timetable or structure, short presentation times, un-returned emails/phone calls, key decision makers cancelling out of presentations at the last moment, dis-courteous handling of news to the unsuccessful agencies.

Clients take the creative pitch route because they know there is any number of willing suckers out there in agency land ready to roll over and say… “Of course we’ll pitch! We are delighted to spend $$$ on your business over the next 6 weeks, rush through expensive research, make huge strategic calls on your brand, and push our people and our existing clients.”

And when we win, do it all again because now we are going to get the real brief because the CXO was away during the pitch and she/he is not happy with the outcome. Yep, love to pitch!” (I apologise for that moment of petulance).

Change is needed

It’s time for change and we have to consider other methods. I say “we” because clients are not going to change overnight. It’s up to us provide some leadership here.

Here’s the earth shattering point: The fundamental reason for a successful client and agency relationship is… people. I know, it’s a hard concept to grasp, but there it is.

It’s people who get each other, who get the brand, who get the business. Who build rapport, establish credibility and reduce the risk. Think about it. Most clients, in the superficial world of the creative pitch are looking to make the lowest risk decision. And numbers aside, that is an emotional decision.

Please do not be confused here. B2B decisions are fundamentally made emotionally. The client is thinking “what will this appointment say about me to my colleagues and my management?” The client is concerned with things like loss of credibility or budget blow outs or even losing their jobs. They want to be seen to be doing good for their company, being admired and having a feeling of accomplishment.

And the big, winning pitch creative idea can do that, right? Wrong. I know it, you know it, we all know it and yet we still conduct this masquerade with embarrassing regularity in the pitch bubble.

At the end of the day, it’s all about people

Go ask any client why they would move a piece of business from their agency. My bet is the answer most of the time, is because of people. People who leave, got moved off their account, lose their drive and passion. Ads are not created by robots (yet) they’re created by people.

When a client is looking for a new agency, what they’re really looking for is new people who can demonstrate that they get them, their business and their brand.

You have to discover if there is any chemistry between you. And it’s chemistry which fuels creativity. The wonderful (sadly, recently departed) advertising legend, David Abbott said “Put yourself into your work. Use your life to animate your copy. If something moves you, chances are, it will touch someone else too”.

Why not select your agency the same way you would select new senior management? Agency selection is like an executive recruitment job for your business. You want people at your new agency who are going nail it with your management or board. Who get you and demonstrate they could be passionate about your business. Whom you have some chemistry with.

Create an interview process and explore values

Instead of having pitching agencies spend ridiculous hours developing The Big Idea that might never be used – or worse yet, might be very ineffective – clients should have the actual agency working team commit to intense interviewing by them and their consultants.

Sound out the agency principals. Find out what they believe in. What are they in the business for? I loved the CMO of Audi earlier this year saying that a major reason for selecting their new agency was that they had shared values.

What is the agency’s vision? Who are the newest people it’s been hiring? Why did they join your agency?  Get them to show examples of innovation? What do their current clients say about them?  The client should be seeing if their stories match. Ultimately a client should be looking for people who might present something you won’t like, not just something they will.

You want people who can sell themselves, not just the idea.

Get Procurement onboard

It’s timely at this point to bring up the elephant in the room… the Procurement Department.

Pretty hard to have a relationship with someone who doesn’t want to have one with you. And the people you need to have a relationship with aren’t even in the room. Procurement has been around for years and don’t look like going away, so let’s stop grizzling about them. Get the numbers and transparency right so that when you do get to meet the actual client that stuff has been well and truly ticked off.

With the standard MO where credentials/capabilities are done first with the long list and then creative with the short list, a large percentage of the buying decision is made during those initial meetings. I can remember being told 20 years ago in a Y&R workshop that 80% of client decisions were made in those first meetings. I suspect nothing has changed.

The easiest thing in our business is to give a client want they want… but they are hiring you to give them a view on what they need. Remember, you sell your Agency by addressing what the client wants. You solve a client’s real problem by addressing their needs.

If a client really wants to see if you can walk the talk, the agency should be set the task of working on an actual paid assignment. This will weed out a poor candidate sooner than any long winded, hoop jumping and tick the box agency pitch process.

Over to you

I make no apology for not pulling any punches with this piece. Darren asked for my views and it would be disrespectful not to give it straight. I am certainly not the most successful person in our industry. Far from it. But I do have perspective from many decades in the business.

I also know only too well that the full blown creative pitch will probably never go away because some agency’s business models are set up to serve this concept. And some clients can’t see beyond it.  I’ve won and lost in this lottery.

But, maybe, just maybe, there are a few clients out there who might agree that there is a better way worth trying.

It’s easy to buy an idea. Try buying people. I guarantee you’ll get more out of the relationship.

Thanks for Reading.

TrinityP3’s comprehensive Search & Selection process provides extensive market knowledge, tightly defined process and detailed evaluation and assessment, to help you find the right agency supplier. Learn more here

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Rod is Managing Director of the T20 Group. He has been involved in the Australian advertising and marketing industry for over 40 years. T20 Group, established in 2003, has Consulting, Creative Services and New Technology divisions.

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