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Agency selection: Going Beyond the Process
Although large parts of our industry work with change as the only constant – technology, data, customer and user experience, the vagaries of a world growing more complicated by the day – the process of agency selection remains curiously impervious to alteration.
The fundamental building blocks have not changed significantly in over 50 years. In addition to which, many criticize the effort and expense that agencies put into the process, the focus pitching takes away from day to day business, the strain it puts on employees and the sometimes unsatisfactory or short lived agency-advertiser relationships that can be the result.
And yet, in our industry, where human IP and personality is fused into the majority of what an agency does, and where the end output cannot fully be measured in units, the agency selection or pitch process remains the yardstick of choice for the large majority.
TrinityP3 has operated as an agency pitch consultant for over 20 years. Agency selection has always been a fundamental part of our marketing consultancy offering and we have operated with a strong set of values and beliefs about the role of pitching and of the pitch consultant, refined with time and experience.
It has always been challenging. A lot of complaint is levelled at the chunks of process involved and the effort required on the part of agencies to win business.
However, TrinityP3 believes that the chunks of process are not necessarily the biggest problem.
We believe there are deeper challenges that undermine both industry perception and the reality of the agency pitch process.
In no particular order, such challenges include a weak rationale or purpose, insufficient market awareness, inaccurate calibration of what the advertiser needs with the type of agencies selected, a general lack of integrity in the agency selection process, conflicting agendas obscuring a clear view, misinterpretation or misunderstanding of what an agency is or could be, and over-focus on inputs (such as cost) rather than outputs or potential outcomes.
This document is not simply intended as a simple ‘how to’. It’s a broader exploration of pitching as a discipline, and of the nuances involved in pitch consultancy.
We have interlaced our approach with our beliefs as agency review consultants and our experience-based opinions and observations, the sum total of which represents our philosophy of what pitching should be and what it could be.
These observations are set alongside a range of insights designed to provide inspiration and help guide and shape your next agency selection project.
We have written primarily for organizational stakeholders – marketers, procurement professionals and general management personnel – involved in agency roster management and agency selection.
If you’re an agency person, this document will provide a greater depth of understanding behind how we view pitching, beyond the process building blocks, and often what we will be counselling our clients, behind the scenes of the big milestone pitch meetings that you work so hard to deliver.
The Definition of Successful Agency Selection
This chapter is about how we at TrinityP3 define a successful agency selection process (commonly known as a pitch).
If we care about doing the right thing – which we do, and we believe advertisers should too – this definition is important.
The Toll of the Agency Selection Process
An agency will typically spend between $100,000 and $250,000 dollars on a full-on pitch – costs incurred in resource, in research, in the application of systems and tools, in pitch theatre, travel disbursements, production and in development of various other exercises.
Furthermore, pitches push agency staffers to the point of exhaustion. Very late nights or weekends in the office, time spent away from families, and juggling with day jobs are commonplace.
Stress and frustration at a pitch lost, or a pitch perceived as unfair, is real and can have an impact on the professional and mental health of those involved.
Agencies simply do not have significant dedicated pitch resources and even if they did, it wouldn’t work – in most cases, the advertiser typically wants to see their ‘agency team’ in the room.
So from a professional ethics perspective, if nothing else, it’s important to define what exactly represents successful agency selection and adhere to its tenets.
It’s important also because there is so much that can obstruct the cause.
How do Others define Success in Agency Selection?
Before we get to what we think, it is worth considering the broader conversation. Because as pitch consultants, we recognize that the definition of a successful pitch depends on who you talk to.
For the agency, the definition of a successful pitch is one it wins, on good terms.
For a procurement team it might be an agency selection process that generates a cost saving for the business versus the current supplier arrangement, helping them to hit their procurement cost target.
For a marketer it might be about a result that ensures the removal of the current below par agency, or one that improves media inventory rates, or one that brings in a ‘famous name’ agency to transform brand advertising beyond recognition.
For some it may be process driven – the successful pitch being one that replicates real-world as closely as possible, to determine the best fit.
For others, something that yields a new relationship or set of relationships full of confidence and warmth and hope may be defined as the best possible pitch result.
Of course, these definitions are not mutually exclusive. The extent to which they intertwine depends on how subjective the evaluation or assessment is.
Going Beyond ‘Process’: The Role of the Pitch consultant in Building Successful Outcomes
Subjectivity in a pitch process is a given. And it’s human nature. An advertiser wants what it wants, and every organization is different.
It follows that there is bound to be a degree of subjectivity or distortion towards one criteria over another.
And, if that subjectivity is communicated with the agency (for example, via a weighted evaluation metric) then agencies will know where they stand.
Where this becomes problematic is when such subjectivity or distortion occurs excessively (to the point where it leads an entire decision-making process, drowns out other relevant considerations, or renders the process ineffective and meaningless); or, where it’s there for the wrong reasons.
It may be that the owner of the pitch has a particular bias towards a certain agency that creates a fundamentally skewed playing field, on which the outcome is pre-determined.
Or, that internal power struggles between marketing and procurement teams place too much emphasis on unit cost, or perhaps not enough.
Possibly, there are politics, agendas, circumstances or backroom conversations at C-Suite level, or within a pitch team, that some or all of the agencies are not aware of.
The agency may be denied the opportunity to understand exactly how the pitch is being evaluated at all.
The natural cynicism of a pitch panel may be set so high as to essentially make a pitch an exercise in trying to trip an agency up, rather than let it shine – choosing the ‘least-worst’ option, instead of the best option.
Conversely, the advertiser may become fixated on one agency team or individual to the exclusion of all others, clouding objective assessment beyond reasonable boundaries.
Possibly, the pitch is simply a compliance requirement, a hoop-jumping exercise in which the cards are stacked, and where only certain boxes need to be ticked – meaning that 90% of the agencies involved may as well have not applied.
There may be too many competing opinions about what’s needed in an agency, with the result that the evaluation criteria end up as an impossibly long laundry list of items, one that no agency is able to fully answer.
Or, the team may simply have selected the wrong agencies to participate, ones which are not designed to fulfil the dominant needs of the organization.
In our time as agency pitch consultants, we’ve seen all of these distortions, and more. The most important part of what we do, in our view, lies in helping the agency selection team navigate around the often multiple ‘rough edges’ in perception, approach and beliefs.
Without this kind of consultative navigation, the pitch can essentially become a waste of time, effort and money for all concerned.
Much of what we do behind-scenes of a pitch, away from the big milestone process meetings, is to advise our clients regarding balance – balance of People, of Purpose and of Process (capitalized here as they refer to the 3 P’s implicit in our name).
These three critical elements to balance – People, Purpose and Process – exist across many different types of marketing management project, and none more so than in agency selection.
As agency pitch consultants our definition of a successful process is rooted in our 3P framework.
A successful agency selection process is one in which People, Purpose and Process are applied in balance to create an optimal partnership opportunity for both advertiser and agency.
It is run constructively, and leads to the development of a long lasting, evolutionary and trust-based relationship that delivers positive commercial outcomes for all.
What needs to happen to fulfil this definition? Breaking it down is best done via the 3 P lens.
The 3P Guide to Successful Agency Selection
|1. People Composition – functional, gender, age, cultural and seniority diversity to reflect the organization and what it stands for||1. Purpose Clarity – all People have a clear understanding and are working towards an over-arching Purpose supporting the Process||1. Process Efficiency – the Process is designed to deliver the best results, in context of Purpose|
|2. People Consistency – the same panel operating throughout all steps of the Process, with no undue influence from other stakeholders at any point in the Process||2. Purpose Integrity – the Purpose is free of distortion that could render the exercise meaningless for one or more agencies||2. Process Integrity – each agency is selected with care and is rigorously tested within a sensible, reasonable and constructive framework that mitigates against excessive or over-complicated requirements. All stages carry genuine weight in assessment and decision making|
|3. People Transparency – in communication and necessary disclosures internally, with agency and with the consultant, as applicable. Personal agendas are minimized in consideration of the common Purpose||3. Purpose Effectiveness – the context behind the Purpose has been explored objectively. Other options have been considered; the Process is properly assessed as the best solution in delivery of Purpose||3. Process Effectiveness – an aligned and communicated adherence to a set of principles governing the Process, alongside a set of weighted assessment and evaluation criteria, calibrated to Purpose and other requirements|
As you may expect, the ability of organizations to fully live up to our definition is not completely consistent.
And of course, the rule of averages applies. Our experience as pitch consultants suggests that a relatively small proportion of organizations sit at the top of the curve with well-designed, well intentioned and well-driven agency selection processes; a small proportion sit at the bottom of the curve with ill-advised or badly driven processes; and the majority fill the middle of the curve, with what we would term semi-successful efforts.
Our aim is to improve the marketing outcome of every client we work with. Such success depends not just on us as pitch consultants, but on the organization itself; and this applies particularly to pitching.
We believe that we successfully improve all pitches we work on versus where they would be without us; but we are not always able to create a completely successful pitch by our own definition.
If even one agency selection process is improved by someone reading this document and applying our ideas, we would consider it a victory.
Agency Selection Beginnings: Choosing the Candidates
In a highly competitive industry, with literally hundreds if not thousands of choices, how do you define a candidate list for your agency selection process?
Of course, one way is to utilize the experience of a pitch consultant. When organizations come to us for help in this area they’ve generally made an initial attempt themselves before realizing the complexity of the landscape.
It is often extremely hard to differentiate one agency from another. Candidate selection rationale can often come down to personal relationships, perception of ‘big names’ or ‘independents’, a desire to work with famous faces in the industry, and the perceived level of category or sector experience an agency has.
These reasons can all be valid in the right circumstances. But it’s worth considering a more structured approach to selection by taking a broader view of candidate selection rationale, and the relative weight of importance in each.
Developing a Candidate Rationale
The various criteria that make a candidate rationale, and the weighting of it, are of course personal to an organization.
The critical point is that by having a structured rationale at all, the chance of selecting the highest-potential agency candidates to pitch is significantly increased.
Below, in no particular order, is a list of criteria, some or all of which could be used, and if necessary weighted for importance, to form a candidate rationale.
- Geographical strength and/or diversity – locally, nationally, regionally, globally
- Previous direct experience of working with the agency
- Direct fit strength – experience in category or with particular skillsets of direct relevance
- Indirect fit strength – experience in other categories or skillsets that may provide fresh perspective
- The work – are there examples of agency work that excites or demonstrates strong potential
- Awards – is there a strong track record in awards that are pertinent to requirements (e.g. effectiveness awards)
- Tenure of clients – can the agency demonstrate long-term relationships with clients, indicative of trust and consistency
- Future proofing – does the agency positioning, capability or approach fit with not just what we need now, but what we need for the future
- Key individuals – via knowledge, agency website, Linked In profiles or similar, understand the experience and expertise of individuals at the agency that may be advantageous (for example, a strategy lead who in his previous agency role worked with a big competitor)
- Agency reputation in market, based on trusted advisors, or objective sources of information
- Size and scale fit – is the agency the right size for the organization and vice-versa
- Roster alignment fit – is the agency a sister company of another agency vendor on the current roster and are there partnership synergies to leverage
- Ethical alignment to corporate values – any stated agency commitment or certification in ethical matters (environmental sustainability, hiring diversity, workplace rights, corporate philanthropy or similar) that fit with the values of the organization. It has long been recognized that our industry, and corporate culture in general, needs to improve. In addition to various global organizations focused more directly on ensuring a high adherence to corporate values, we are seeing more agencies hiring people, culture and diversity directors, openly embracing the rights of staff members who identify as LBGTQI, driving programs to improve the opportunities offered to indigenous people, or to people from disadvantaged backgrounds, ensuring that inappropriate conduct is properly addressed, and acquiring B-Corp status. TrinityP3’s agency register database now includes fields for agencies to explain their corporate value positioning and we believe that the corporate values of an agency and the demonstrable strength of their commitments should become a more important selection criteria over time.
Having shaped a candidate selection rationale to ensure that the right agencies are being invited to a pitch, it follows that the related challenge is to ensure that these agencies are assessed correctly.
Agency Assessment, from Start to Finish
With the application of a strong candidate rationale, there should be approximately six agencies ready to be assessed – all of whom, in theory, could do an outstanding job on your business.
And all of whom will be saying the same thing – we are the best fit for the job. In this regard, an agency selection process is essentially a journey from ‘rhetoric’ (six agencies saying the same thing about being the best fit) to ‘substance’ (one agency ultimately proving it).
Differentiating between agencies via robust assessment is therefore critically important. And, as with the candidate rationale, it should be tailored or weighted to your specific needs, requirements or other considerations.
It is also important to ensure consistency of assessment through each stage of a pitch, and to carry over learnings right through to the final round, so as to maximize the robustness of the final selection.
The 4C Assessment Model
Our experience suggests that, however the assessment is weighted or defined, it should cover four broad elements:
The agency is already a candidate based on initial consideration of capabilities. In a pitch, capabilities need to be road-tested in various ways.
- Interrogating existing work/case studies. Looking on the agency website for examples is one thing; having the agency describe the process it went through and asking tough questions can really illuminate and bring to life the level of capability inherent in the agency.
- Talking to client references involved in the case studies to gain their perspective not just on the end result, but the journey to get there.
- Road-testing the agency via an ‘as-live’ brief response. This is the traditional heart of most agency pitch processes but not all processes are created equal. Is the brief true to life, and presented in the same way as it would be in a ‘real world’ environment? Are the agencies being given enough time and information to prepare a response? Does the brief allow the agency to bring its process to life/demonstrate its process in the right way? Does the brief give the agency enough room to be truly creative?
As a part of agency selection, ‘Chemistry’ is often seriously under-rated. There are numerous common mistakes made when considering chemistry.
The first and most important mistake often made is to take a myopic definition of what ‘chemistry’ means in a pitch and apply it to the process.
Mostly, chemistry is used as a catch-all term for the strength of relationship fit and rapport – do we get on, on first impressions?
This is correct as far as it goes – but it certainly shouldn’t be the end of the story. Chemistry is also about broader cultural fit, considering the strength in depth and balance of the agency team, and starting to get under the skin of agency rhetoric by assessing substance. The objective being to build an initial view, pending further examination, that there is the potential to build a strong relationship with the agency.
The resultant issues caused by a myopic view of chemistry include:
- Under-valuing the chemistry session as the first opportunity to connect face to face with the agency – and, crucially, for the agency to connect with the organization. If a chemistry session is badly structured or briefed, there won’t be much insight beyond ‘do we get on’, and there will be a resultant flatness in results that make it more difficult to assess and compare each agency participant. At the end of the day, being able to get on with each other in an initial meeting is important, but it is also a table-stake.
- Limiting consideration of ‘chemistry’ to ‘the chemistry session’. The sense of chemistry should be applied throughout the process. How does the agency team interact with each other? What’s the level of challenge to my team, and theirs? How adaptable are they in each session? How do they deal with difficult questions? Is the contribution of individuals balanced, or skewed to one dominant voice? Is the person who won’t be dealing with us day to day (e.g. the CEO) doing too much talking? Is the agency taking true ownership for the work they’re building with us, or is it going through the motions? Is there linkage between what the agency said it stood for in the chemistry session, and what we’re seeing later in the process?
3) Creative Access
Road-testing the capability of an agency should not be done on a speculative basis. In other words, handing an agency a brief, walking away and expecting a ‘silver bullet’ presentation is not the way to run a pitch.
First, in a pitch scenario, the agency is coming from a relatively low base of knowledge. It pays to ensure that the agency is being properly supported.
Second, in real-world almost all marketing teams would work in a co-creational environment with their agencies – talking, discussing, challenging different iterations. Asking an agency to work in a vacuum does not bring the best out of it, or out of the pitch process.
Third, by running a pitch this way, the marketing team misses vital chances to further gauge chemistry.
Fourth, briefing in this way is not constructive pitching; it is not designed to give the agency a chance to put ‘best foot forward’ – rather, it is more likely to try and trip the agency up. The end agency selection is based on ‘least worst’ rather than ‘outright best’.
Fifth, the likelihood of a ‘silver bullet’ or perfect response is unlikely even in real-world, more so in a pitch environment. Agencies and marketing teams need to check in and validate work in progress to avoid going off course.
The solution is simple process design, but it does require a degree of commitment from the assessment panel or team.
Are there built in tissue sessions, strategy workshops or Q&A meetings to ensure that the agencies are not working in a vacuum? When the agencies do ask questions, particularly in writing, is the panel taking the time to properly answer them? Have you been clear on exactly what level of detail is required in response (e.g. in media plans, creative concept work, strategic positioning)?
Last but certainly not least are commercial considerations. The selected agency should have the best commercial model to deliver value and successful outcomes. This applies not just to remuneration, but to the way in which resource is calibrated to deliver against specific requirements.
The important caveat is that ‘the best commercial model’ does not equal ‘the cheapest cost’. Organizations should consider the value of cost, and the cost of value, when commercially assessing an agency partner.
Cost should be considered as subset of value, not the other way around.
‘Cost’ (the agency compensation, rates or other associated financial items) is one of a number of levers engaged in ensuring that the agency delivers the end goal of Value to the organization it works with.
Value is measured in both the effectiveness with which the outputs of an agency are recommended and created, and the commercial outcomes generated by the agency’s work.
To deliver the best outcomes, the agency must, via a commensurate commercial model, be fully equipped, and unfettered by financial constraints that hamper its ability to objectively recommend the best solutions.
If the commercial worth of the agency is measured purely in cost-input terms, the result is often a commercially unsustainable agreement.
A commercially unsustainable agreement generates a relationship where the agency is not making money, is continuously having to make downward tweaks in account resourcing and offers a level of service that the marketing team becomes ever-more frustrated with.
In addition, an agency is often required to skew recommendations to deliver against commercial KPIs that may result in cheap outputs but deliver sub-optimal outcomes.
In summary, the commercial agreement with an agency is a bedrock enabler of value delivery.
As agency pitch consultants, when we deliver commercial assessments in pitches we will look at the following:
- Agency resource levels against scope of work delivered
- Agency resource mix by function
- Agency resource mix within each function
- Agency resources costs (salaries)
- Agency remuneration fundamentals including billable hours, overhead and profit multiples
- Non-retained rates
- Production costs on projects
- Any other incidental costs (e.g. media ad-serving)
- Overall agency profitability on the account
Critically, our assessment is made in context of market benchmark norms (which delivers the most competitive agency in sustainable market commensurate terms), not in direct comparison between participating agencies (which delivers the cheapest agency within the confines of the pitch).
It is also completely objective. If we believe that an agency commercial submission in a pitch is too low (in resource, in remuneration or in any other area) we will highlight it via comparison with our market benchmarks.
Pitching Pitches, Debunked by the Pitch consultants
As a marketing consultancy best known for our work as pitch consultants, we’ve – well, we’ve run a lot of pitches.
However, we have many discussions with clients who come to us thinking that they want to run an agency selection process, only for us to recommend, once we properly understand the context, that it may not be the best option at the current time.
Sometimes, we work in other ways with such clients to solve challenges with their current agencies.
Clients are often surprised when we question their decision or desire to go to pitch. We do so partly because pitching is disruptive and costly, and as such should be given serious consideration.
We question also because we’ve experienced a number of what we’ll refer to here as ‘pitch myths’ – expectations or perceptions that sit behind the decision to go to market, rather than to work with a current agency partner, or with themselves, on issues resolvable without the need for tender.
Here are eight pitch myths that we’ve come across as pitch consultants over the years. Some are agency related, some are advertiser related, all are common traps to fall into.
1. A pitch will reduce the cost of my agency.
Well – no, not necessarily. If the agency has been with the advertiser for a number of years it’s possible, if not likely, that the remuneration, resource and scope outlined in the original contract have not changed for years and are now misaligned to what is actually required.
Agency-advertiser relationships are notorious for the occurrence of scope creep, without contractual change to accommodate it. You may well find that what you need now will cost ‘more’ than what you’re currently paying.
In these cases, we generally recommend that the advertiser gains full understanding of current scope versus the scope the agency is paid for.
We also ask the advertiser to consider the cost involved in agency tender and transition and the loss of IP and experience from the current agency.
Furthermore, we will always suggest that the advertiser considers the value generated by the agency. Cost should be a lever of overall value – value should not be driven by cost.
2. The incumbent agency has a good chance to win the pitch – they have all the knowledge.
This myth falls down on many levels. Research suggests that an incumbent’s chance of successfully defending an account is between 10-20%.
The exception to this rule is where an agency selection process is initiated for purely political reasons – to tick a box and ensure the incumbent is being held true to the best cost in market.
This is, of course, a wrong reason to call a pitch. But, assuming that the pitch is genuine, the incumbent faces many challenges.
- The alluring promise of ‘bright, shiny and new’ from other agency competitors
- Cynicism around an incumbent’s own ‘bright, shiny and new’ – the presentation of which can lead to the question ‘why are we only seeing this now?’
- Cynicism around an incumbent’s reduced cost – ‘won’t that reduce the level of service even further and anyway, does this mean they’ve been ripping us off all these years?’
- The need for a fresh approach being hindered by application of ‘knowledge’ – other agencies are more able to adopt a more blue sky approach creatively, or with resource, or structure, or operational approach, which can be very appealing
Other circumstansial obstacles – for example, a personal or long-standing professional relationship between a member of the panel and one of the competing agency. Or, the pitch being called by a new marketing director, intent on making her mark and bringing in ‘her own people’.
3. ‘The Best Agency’ always wins the pitch.
If you paid attention in Chapter 1, you’ll already know that this isn’t true. Agency selection processes run with unshakeable integrity and balance between People, Purpose and Process are disappointingly non-standard in our market.
The norm is for some of this balance to be contaminated by circumstance, agenda or other factors, meaning that the best agency may not always emerge victorious.
There is no easy way for an agency to deal with such challenges, many of which are unseen. But, the pitch skill of ‘reading the play’ and dialing up or down parts of a response accordingly, is a valuable one in pitching, and something that can be developed with experience and conscious effort.
4. An agency that brings in all the bigwigs always has more chance of winning.
Bring in the C-Suite, let them dazzle, show the client how important it is to the agency – that will always impress, right? Wrong. Certainly not always – and possibly, not even that often.
The role of the agency lead in a pitch is a delicate one. He or she must demonstrate ownership of what’s being presented, whilst letting the team who actually did the work, do the talking.
The best agency leads in our experience tend to have a ‘light hand on the rudder’ – steering the ship without rowing the oars.
It is a common complaint, once the agency leaves the room that ‘I wish the CEO would have stayed quieter – I don’t want to hear from someone I won’t be working with’.
5. An agency that has the business in other parts of the world always has more chance of winning.
We have seen more than one pitch where a competing agency felt that pushing the weight of its international incumbency onto the local marketing team was a sure-fire way to win.
This is certainly not guaranteed. Much depends on the politics and relationships within the advertiser’s organization.
On one particular pitch run by TrinityP3, the agency flew in its top international executives, and spent much of the meeting talking to how wonderful its creative execution was in other markets, how well-connected it was with global marketing leads, and how it would successfully bring the same approach to Australia.
Perhaps the over-confidence of the people in the room didn’t help, but the approach taken by this agency resulted in an embarrassing exit at the Chemistry Meeting stage.
First, the local marketing team did not appreciate the way in which the agency bosses implied a leverage of global power would win them the business in Australia.Second, the last thing this marketing team wanted was greater scrutiny from its own global team, whom it considered knew nothing about the Australian market.
This is a classic example of an agency fundamentally misreading the context of the pitch and launching into an approach without bothering to get to know the local team.
6. The agency who has a direct line to the advertiser CEO, and is able to circumvent the process, will always win the pitch.
The CEO may be the highest-level executive in many organizations, but in our experience, CEOs are rarely decision makers in agency selection processes.
It is important for assessment panels and pitch consultants to stand firm against excessive attempts by a participating agency to circumvent a pitch process to its own advantage.
The irony is that time and again, we’ve seen this approach fail. The agency assumes that the CEO will have sway in the outcome; but often, the CEO has little interest in taking this approach, preferring to delegate to the people actually running the process.
Indeed, attempts by an agency to go over the head of a marketing team simply causes distrust and irritation, before the pitch is even complete.
7. The cheapest agency always wins the pitch.
If an agency selection process is run properly, it is not a given that the cheapest agency will win it. In fact, there is good reason to be concerned by an agency willing to ‘buy the business’ with a very low-ball compensation offer.
Our experience suggests that such offers are unsustainable in the medium to long term, which of course simply leads to future problems.
If the sole KPI of a pitch is to appoint the cheapest agency, then much of the agency pitch process is useless. The advertiser is better advised to issue a spreadsheet to each agency for completion, do the maths and appoint accordingly.
We strongly advocate that in a properly run process, the correct agency to appoint is the agency most suitable for the job.
Whilst cost will always be one consideration, it is just that – one consideration of many in a properly assessed process.
Furthermore, we advocate for fair and commensurate agency compensation at all times. Fair and commensurate compensation, benchmarked against market norms, will not always be the cheapest. But it is the most sensible and sustainable way to apply cost as a lever in an agency pitch.
8. When I go to pitch, I must consider only agencies with experience in my own category.
There is a lot to be said for transferable skills. There’s more to be said about the benefits of a fresh approach to a category from creative minds.
As pitch consultants we often find that marketing teams get overly-fixated on the appeal of ‘category experience’ in a prospective agency, rejecting those who cannot show concrete evidence of in-category work.
Aside from this approach ignoring the fact that agencies may have individuals who have had experience in roles, it is also myopic.
The account, strategic and creative skills sitting in an agency are very transferable across category.
The agency that has worked with a large grocery FMCG player can apply portfolio management and retail marketing experience to the beauty category.
The agency with auto experience navigating the various challenges and channels between dealer principals and head office is well placed to apply itself to any franchised retail model.
It is always better to open the field in a pitch via consideration of how an agency may challenge the norm via transferrable experience or fresh approach, than it is to insist on rigid lines of experience up front.
What do you Really Want? When Pitching is, or is Not the Answer
The irony central to TrinityP3’s approach is that despite being well known as pitch consultants, our approach generally adheres to pitching as an option of last resort.
This may mean that we receive less pitch business than we would otherwise. However, it allows us to maintain integrity and objectivity, and it offers us opportunities to work with our clients in many different ways, to deliver an improved marketing outcome.
Sometimes, initiating an agency selection process is the only answer.
A relationship may have deteriorated to the point of no return, despite all due diligence efforts made trying to right the ship.
An agency may be literally unfit for purpose – unable through lack of offering to deliver on new or evolved requirements.
An agency may have broken the terms of its contract, may be about to enter insolvency, may not have operations in the geographical market the advertiser is about to move to, or move into. An agency may even have given an ultimatum on an unreasonable fee demand.
Or the advertiser may not yet have an agency. Or, rare but possible, the agency may have fired the advertiser.
Of course, in some circumstances, pitching is warranted. But other than a direct, incontrovertible truth that leads logically to ‘pitch’ on any decision tree, our advice always will be to consider all available options before committing.
A Pitch Consultant’s Definition of the Ideal Agency Partner
Whatever your situation, ‘what you want’ in any agency partner should be distilled to the following:
A well-resourced and appropriately compensated agency you can trust, tailored to fit with the right capability, culture and approach for your requirements, working optimally with other agencies in your roster, enabled and motivated to do everything it can to work with you in delivery of value to your business.
This ideal can be achieved in many ways. There are common reasons for a ‘let’s jump to a pitch’ decision; but in many cases, such a decision can be incorrect or unwarranted, and it can set things back, rather than moving them forward.
Here are some of the most common ‘jump to pitch’ models.
1. Compliance Pitchers – Pitching When the Contract is Up for Renewal.
Pressure to run a mandatory contract renewal pitch often comes via procurement or compliance teams. There may be obligations to ensure ‘best value’ at regular intervals, dictated by contract roll-over and achieved via testing the market.
Unless the organization uses public funds to execute marketing, there is no real need to pitch purely because the contract needs renewal. And even where public money is concerned, there are other ways.
And there is argument to suggest that in the case of public money, running a pitch to renew a contract in the name of ‘best value’ is self-defeating. Consider the on-costs involved in a pitch – hundreds of hours of resource, much of it senior-level, are poured into a pitch process; hundreds more are then devoted to transitioning a new agency, on-boarding and re-teaching a fresh agency team.
The available options here are to use either internal expertise or a third party consultant to objectively review the contract, the compensation model and the compensation values, and calibrate it against current scope – which, of course, is often different to the scope signed at the start of the agreement.
The results of this review are then used to discuss and agree new terms with the agency, without the need to tender.
We are often called in as pitch consultants, but after discussion with the advertiser, end up running this kind of assessment project.
If due diligence has been maintained throughout the preceding contract period – regular relationship and output reviews set against agreed KPIs, prompt problem resolution, clear terms of engagement, adherence to scope or mid-contract adjustments where necessary – there should be nothing else required for review.
2. MEP Pitchers – Pitching to Gain a ‘More Exciting Partnership’
It’s a well-known cliché, often repeated: agency-advertiser relationships are like marriages. You spend a lot of time with each other, the relationship can suffer ups and downs but is fundamentally driven by an element of trust built up over time.
And, of course, relationships can become staid, dull, predictable or mundane, problematic and fraught with disappointment.
An advertiser, with the help of a well-timed approach, can be ‘seduced’ by the ‘bright, shiny and new’ promise of another agency.
But the simple truth is the success or failure of an advertiser-agency relationship has as much to do with the advertiser as it does the agency.
Before a marketing lead leaps to a pitch as the route to success, they should take a long look at their internal operations.
Without wanting to stretch the analogy to breaking point, the consideration set here should be as much about what could be lost, as what could be gained – and whether the honeymoon with a new agency could be short lived.
In professional terms, this means the following:
- Talking openly to the agency leader about the problems – and, crucially, allowing the agency leader the chance to reciprocated.
- Working together to tweak or build on current operating practices to better effect – setting up a new planning group, adjusting the KPIs, committing to regular reviews, social events, or anything else that may improve the positivity and quality of the relationship, and subsequently, the outputs of the agency and the outcomes to the business.
- Being honest in internal review. As well as taking the agency commentary on board, take a critical look at how the teams are interacting, the level of information being provided to the agency, the quality of the briefs, the extent of the courage to truly innovate, the willingness to test, evolve, fail, learn and improve.
- Consideration of ‘net loss’ involved in changing provider. How much IP is built up in the agency, what would be lost, how long would it take to regain with a new partner?
3. Piecemeal Pitchers – Pitching Every Time a ‘New Skillset’ is Required.
As we’ve mentioned, sometimes an agency simply doesn’t possess a capability required, leaving a pitch as the only option.
However, the required capability, whatever it is, should be critical in nature and central to requirements.
And, of course, the agency should at least be consulted. It is surprising how many times we come across an organization wanting to pitch a new skillset – SEO, for example, or Trade Marketing – without full understanding of what its current agency or roster of agencies is capable of or connected to.
Where we are asked to run roster alignment projects for our clients, the effects of piecemeal pitching can often be seen – an unfeasible or unnecessary patchwork of siloed specialist agencies, working in their own swim-lanes, at different speeds, and with a corresponding lack of both efficiency (duplicated fees, more time spent in agency management) and effectiveness (diluted strategy, lack of cohesion).
This is not to say that sometimes, more than one agency is required. But we do always advice a degree of discovery and due diligence before commitment to a pitch.
The answer here, in addition to mining your own contacts for referrals, is both to talk to your agency, and put an agency roster strategy in place.
An agency roster strategy considers the shape of your current roster – the number and type of agencies, whether you have a panel or a AOR arrangement, the commercial effectiveness, and the roster hierarchy – which agency ‘leads’. There are various models that can be considered, based on circumstance and requirements.
Some or all of what you have may not be optimal. In which case, it is better to envision the correct model, before taking decisions about which discipline or agency needs to be pitched.
As for talking to your own agency or agencies – in addition to ensuring that you have an up to date understanding what they can do in the required area (agencies evolve themselves all the time and this is not always fully communicated), consider the extended reach of your agency – via other agencies in its network, via other agencies that it works well with for other clients, via referral partnerships or contacts.
Agency people tend to know a lot of agency people. If you trust your agency lead, there may well be opportunity to engage a specialist, on a trial, a project or a more extended basis, on the strength of recommendation.
4. The Make Your Mark Pitchers – Pitching the incumbent agency on arrival in the organization.
This is often cited as a reason for a pitch being called – a new marketing leader, wanting to shake things up, make her mark, bring in his ‘own people’,
This approach is not particularly fair on an agency that may have been performing well. More importantly, it can have negative effects on your team.
Like many big actions taken early in a new role, the person taking them can’t possibly have a full understanding of the nuances, history, politics, strength of relationships or working practices involved.
With an agency relationship, it pays to take proper stock internally, before even considering a pitch, to ensure that it doesn’t backfire.
And, of course, you can talk to the agency and explain changes you’d like to make and work with them to execute over time.
5. The On Your Toes Pitchers – Pitching to ‘Rejunvenate the Incumbency Relationship’
Advertisers that run a pitch with the sole purpose of keeping the incumbent agency on its toes have seriously flawed reasoning.
First, the professional ethics of running a pitch with a pre-determined winner are dubious to say the least. At least 5 other agencies will blindly put huge effort into a project they have no chance of winning.
Furthermore, this approach is flawed operationally and from a relationship perspective.
The effort involved in a pitch will take agency focus away from the day to day, leading to dropped balls, drop-off in response and quality. This is lose-lose for both parties.
Putting your agency to pitch will also cause stress in the relationship, especially if there’s no good reason for it. The agency will rightly ask itself why; and there will be an erosion of trust and goodwill.
It is far easier, cheaper and more ethical to have proper feedback loops, communication cadence and review processes in place to keep a relationship on track, fresh and motivated. Initiating an agency selection process in this case is never the answer.
Picking the Common Threads
You may have noticed that there are common threads running through the solutions to all four scenarios presented in this chapter. None of them are mutually exclusive.
Whatever your situation, it is advisable to consider these questions before committing to an agency selection process:
- Has there been a proper due diligence process undertaken to understand the nuances of relationship, performance, circumstance and capability?
- Where there are gaps or challenges, has there been thorough communication with the affected agency partner, including attempts to resolve?
- Is there full understanding of other options (to pitching) that could achieve the same result more effectively?
- Is there true objectivity in the decision-making process?
- Has our own organization and set-up been scrutinized, as well as that of the agency?
The Pitch consultant’s Answer to BHPQs – ‘Big Hairy Pitch Questions’
Pitching and issues surrounding the practice of agency selection generally get a lot of attention in the trade media.
It’s hardly surprising, given the importance of new business to any agency, the general challenges and sometimes controversies involved in pitching, and the highly competitive nature of the beast.
And, of course, everyone likes to read about a juicy account win, or loss.
Attention gives voice to opinions, and many people are very opinionated about agency selection.
In the course of our work as pitch consultants, or via our podcasts, or in the trade media, we often get asked ‘big hairy pitch questions’, many of which cause considerable tension and angst amongst agencies and marketers alike.
This chapter is all about those questions, and our answers.
QUESTION 1: How Many Agencies should I include in my pitch?
We strongly believe that any agency selection process should be:
- Limited to agencies with a theoretically strong chance of winning
- Limited to agencies who satisfy a rigorous candidate rationale (see Chapter 2)
- Limited to the number of agencies an assessment panel can meaningfully choose between
Too many agencies in a pitch is unfair to the agencies involved – lesser chance of winning, lesser consideration given to agency fit, less available time for the panel team to consider and significantly higher risk of confusion in the panel as details or nuances between each agency are not captured, lost or forgotten in the avalanche of detail.
From the perspective of an assessment panel typically containing a relatively large number of stakeholders, the more agencies involved, the harder it becomes to define an outright winner – an agency who clearly beats all other agencies.
The more agencies there are, the more personal opinions and preferences there are for an assessment panel to deal with, which clouds the ability to make a clean judgement.
As a rule of thumb, we as pitch consultants use the following process:
- 10 agencies are selected on a ‘long-list’ based on candidate selection criteria.
- Of those 10 agencies, and after a period of discussion, no more than 6 are invited to pitch, starting with full credentials and a chemistry session
- A further 3-4 agencies are excluded at Chemistry stage, leaving 2-3 to respond to strategic, creative and financial briefs
- Financial negotiation (based on response to financial brief) typically takes place with one preferred agency only
Over many years we have found that this approach represents the right balance between providing enough of a representative selection of what’s available in the market, tied to ‘right fit’ agencies, without inhibiting the rigour of assessment and selection.
QUESTION 2: Should Agencies Pay to Pitch?
Every so often, an organization initiates an agency selection process with a stated request for agencies to pay a ‘pitch fee’ to participate, or win.
A famous case in 2010 saw Thomas Cook, a travel operator in the UK, cause outrage when it was reported that its procurement team was asking agencies for a ‘signing on fee’ approaching UKP1m to secure the business.
Less challenging financially but still contentious was World Vision in Australia asking agencies to pay a ‘submission fee’ to register and receive initial pitching documentation.
So, should agencies pay to pitch? Organizations (particularly procurement teams) would argue that it costs them a significant amount to run an agency pitch process and that this cost should be shared.
Some may also argue that they are simply working to the market dynamic – they know that at least some agencies will cave in and pay, so the agencies are asked to pay.
However, our answer to the question is, quite simply, no. We do not believe that any situation justifies an agency having to pay a pitch fee, for the following reasons.
- Agencies already do enough to share the cost of a pitch. As mentioned in chapter 1, a significant pitch effort can cost an agency anything from $100,000 to $250,000 and upwards.
- If the pitch fee is significant, it automatically excludes agencies below a certain size, who do not have the resource. Which, if an organization wants to see a true representation of what’s out there, is self-defeating.
- Also self-defeating is the fact that the payment of a fee by an agency comes from its revenue, revenue which is paid for by – yes, the advertisers. The agency that has to pay an upfront fee, which effectively means ‘first year (or similar time period) free’ ultimately needs to recover the fee through increased overhead, or any range of non-transparent claw-backs that already give the industry a bad name.
- Pay to play pitch models do a great deal to further damage an already unbalanced market power dynamic in favour of organizations who financially squeeze agencies into unprofitable engagements and/or force them into alternative revenue streams that compromise their own integrity and that of the industry.
QUESTION 3: Should Agencies be Paid to Pitch?
Having talked through Pay to Pitch, let’s examine the other side of the coin and ask if agencies should be compensated for pitching efforts.
The answer is – in principle yes, depending on the extent of the process, and the intention of the advertiser.
The bottom line is that an advertiser should consider paying pitch fees if:
- The advertiser wants to buy the rights to all concepts, not just the winning concept
- The process requires the agencies to prepare materials and incur external costs beyond what would be considered standard
- The advertiser engages a large number of agencies in the strategy / creative stage of the process.
It should be recognized that in pitches, agencies are generally required to deliver their actual product (strategic and creative outputs, media outputs, answers to key questions) in advance of any guarantee of success.
Not many other industries work in this way. The advertiser benefits from a huge amount of IP, which it is more often than not free to utilize.
In this context, agencies should be paid for their efforts, but agency payments are extremely rare because of the natural dynamic in the market. It is simply not an option put on to the table.
When agency payments do happen it is generally done on principle (the ethics of the advertiser involved) and is a relatively token amount, in context of what the agency actually provides.
Better than nothing? Well, yes. But for an agency to be properly compensated for the IP provided in a pitch, the payment would need to be far larger than most advertisers would countenance.
Simply paying out of pocket expenses to an agency in a pitch could be in the region of $10,000 – $25,000 per agency.
To purchase their intellectual property rights, the commercial value is easily $100,000 +.
A solution is that the pitch process as we know it needs to shift completely away from a ‘real-life exercise’ format – which is challenging for many reasons.
In addition to which, too often the actual pitch is not the problem – it has more to do with either advertisers or agencies abusing the process or not setting out and respecting basic rules of engagement.
Or, if there is no payment, then the IP of the agency – the ideas provided in a pitch – should at least be protected from use, if the agency is not successful.
Alternatively, to protect the advertiser from multiple advance IP payments to agencies a payment agreement could be made in advance, in the event that a losing agency’s idea is used by the advertiser.
As with so much in agency selection, decisions boil down to market dynamics, and the integrity or approach of the advertiser involved.
We have a long way to go in this space.
QUESTION 4: Should Pitch Consultants be Incentivized in Exchange for Cost Savings?
We sometimes get asked by potential clients if we are prepared to work with a performance incentivized model, in which we as pitch consultants receive a bonus, or put part of our fee at risk, against securing a ‘cost saving’ – normally, a ‘cheaper’ agency arrangement than the one in place before the pitch.
Our answer is always no. We work on a fixed project fee basis covering our hours, expertise, IP and objective advice and we never work on an incentivized basis.
There are numerous reasons:
- As pitch consultants, we can never be objective in the process if we are driven to recommend the engagement of an agency based on cost alone.
- As you will have seen in the preceding chapters, we fundamentally disagree with an agency selection process that places unit cost at the top of a value hierarchy. For us to accept an incentive arrangement based on cost would completely undermine our own approach.
- If unit cost is the only deciding factor, it negates the rest of the agency selection Why put the agencies through 12 weeks of strategic and creative demonstration if these capabilities have no real bearing on outcome?
QUESTION 5: Should an Incumbent Agency Always Be Included In a Pitch to Provide a ‘Known Benchmark’ Against the Other Competing Agencies?
Speaking generally, incumbent agencies generally have a lower chance of successfully retaining an account once it goes to pitch.
In some cases, the incumbent agency has literally no chance at all – maybe because of a large error, a relationship breakdown, a contractual breach or similar – but is still included in the pitch, so as to give the advertiser a ‘known benchmark’.
It is simply unethical to put any agency through a pitch process on false grounds.
The answer to the question is no; the incumbent agency should not always be included in a pitch defense.
If the agency expresses a desire to be included but the advertiser knows there is no hope, the right thing for that advertiser to do is talk to the agency with an honest explanation of why it will not be included in the process.
With regard to ‘known benchmarks’ – a well-run pitch should include consistent metrics enabling each participant to be accurately assessed. The prior experience of the team in dealing with the incumbent can always be used as an input.
And, if necessary, pitch consultants such as TrinityP3, with IP grounded in market-wide benchmarks, can be engaged to help with the process.
All of these options are favorable to putting the incumbent agency through the stress of what is to that agency a useless endeavor.
QUESTION 6: How do I pitch remotely in a post-COVID world?
There’s no single answer to this question. However, we believe there are some operating principles that can be applied, based on life-lessons across 2020.
First, ensure VC-related etiquette is communicated and observed.
The key points of etiquette specific to video calls include participants always having camera screens on and muting when not talking.
Additionally, there are a number of etiquette points common to pitches that need more focus than usual when working online.
These include ensuring that there’s still an introduction period at the start to relax participants; that all call participants feel included by naming people in the ‘room’; allowing for rest breaks (staring at screens can be more exhausting than being in room with people); allowing ample time and space for questions, ensuring that people get a chance to be heard; and providing constructive feedback – agencies find it even more difficult to read the room when the room is completely virtual.
Second, ensure expectations of a pitch presentation are managed.
Traditionally, a strong pitch presentation is often laced with a degree of ‘showmanship’ – powerful presentation style or theatrics.
In a virtual scenario much of this ability is taken from the agency. So, it is best to consider a focus on what could be described as more meaningful interactions – more time for conversation, discussion or questions.
The VC medium allows less for showmanship but more for a ‘meeting of minds’. Try briefing your agency accordingly, for a more productive virtual outcome.
QUESTION 7: Should the Industry Ditch the Pitch?
Anyone who reads the trade media will have seen a rallying cry from a high-profile agency leader to ‘ditch the pitch’.
The answer is no, not completely. But there certainly could be fewer pitches in the market.
Pitching is not obsolete, but there are too many pitches called for the wrong reasons, and/or badly executed.
There are situations, explained in previous chapters, where pitching is not the answer. And from an agency’s perspective it will always be better to win business without a pitch.
There are also many ways to improve the integrity and nuance of the process.
But as a way of determining the right partner, for a complex relationship and service offering, in an extremely competitive and broad industry sector, where the purchaser often has little in depth knowledge of the players involved – a thorough agency selection process will likely be necessary, if it is performed with integrity, fairness and respect for all parties.
We should also always consider that a pitch is, or at least should be, as much about the agency ensuring that the advertiser is the right fit, as it is the other way around.
Summary – The Integrity of the Pitch Consultant
The thrust of this document and of TrinityP3’s position is not ‘anti pitch’ or ‘pro pitch’.
It is this: pitch when it’s right to pitch, and when you do pitch, pitch right.
We are well aware that there is an element of cynicism directed at pitch consultants and the potential conflicts of interest involved in what we do.
We believe that not all pitch consultants are created equal. We also recognize that we, as any other, are not perfect.
What we can say with confidence is that our commitment to integrity in agency selection and the application of our best efforts to make every pitch a constructive one remains unshaken.
In making this assertion we are validated by 21 years of practice; by our writing, podcasts, webinars and industry profile on the topic; and by the numerous testimonials, public and private, offered by our clients and the agencies we work with.
Agency selection, by definition, can never leave everybody happy. But our approach as pitch consultants, where we get it right, can do much to mitigate against the inevitable disappointment of loss.
Pitching right involves everything we’ve talked about in this document. It involves respect and integrity from both advertiser and agency.
Too often, agency pitching is not given the respect it deserves and part of our involvement in any pitch project is always to challenge this position wherever we find it.
If we return to our organizing thought about what constitutes a successful pitch, it is clear that playing fair and playing by a set of operating principles is essential.
A successful pitch is one in which People, Purpose and Process are applied in balance to create an optimal partnership opportunity for both advertiser and agency.
A successful pitch leads to the development of a long lasting, evolutionary and trust-based relationship that delivers positive commercial outcomes for all.
The summary rules of engagement for advertisers are as follows:
1. Pitch with the right People, Purpose and Process.
Use the 3P model articulated in Chapter 1. Be aware of the common pitching myths debunked in Chapter 2. And avoid ad of the pitching types described in Chapter 3.
2. Pitch constructively (wanting the best agency, not the least-worst agency) and with a ‘two way street’ mentality.
An agency selection process is as much about agencies getting to know you as it is you getting to know the agencies – so let them!
Furthermore, a process set up to grind the agencies down or try to expose their flaws helps no-one.
The best problem to have at the end of a process is three motivated agencies who’ve been given the chance to shine, who genuinely want to work with you and have made selection extremely difficult.
3. Make the pitch a priority, not an afterthought.
If your agencies sense a lack of respect for the process – your people not turning up for meetings, people looking at phones in the presentation, shoddy assessment – then they won’t respect you or the pitch.
The investment by all parties involved should make this project a priority.
4. Take intentions expressed into the pitch into the winning agency and bring them to life in reality.
Apply the 3P model with genuine intent at the start of the process and follow it up in real life with your winning agency.
If you don’t (for example, wanting an agency to ‘challenge and innovate’ in a pitch before reverting back to tradition after the pitch is over), you significantly improve the likelihood of appointing the wrong agency, and needing to pitch again sooner than later.
We hope you’ve found this exploration of agency selection and pitch consultancy useful.
Should you have any questions or points you’d like to raise, please don’t hesitate to contact us here.