The five universal principles of successful pitch management

Managing pitches is not the main thing we do at TrinityP3. It’s only around 20% in fact. But it’s the part with the highest profile, because everyone likes to talk about it.

Looking back at the last financial year, one of the most striking things is the sheer diversity of the pitches we’ve managed. We’ve helped clients find agency partners in digital, search, media buying, advertising, direct, shopper, event, media planning, PR, research, social media and call handling.

Naturally, we don’t use the same methodology in each sector. After all, you wouldn’t expect to identify an effective agency partner in media buying in the same way as you might, for instance, find one in research or call handling.

And of course, even each agency discipline has distinct subsets – we wouldn’t set up a technical-led digital agency review in the same way as we might a design-led one, or a communications-led one. Add in the fact that most client briefs sits across several disciplines and subsets, and the fact that most agencies are moving towards providing as many services as they possibly can anyway, and you can see how pitching life could get a little complicated.

So it’s lucky we like to keep things as simple as possible. And it’s not so hard to do that when you remember that there are some core, universal principles of pitch management that every successful pitch process has to deliver against – whatever the sector, client, brand, brief or category.

Things must be put under pressure

Every agency worth its salt can give ‘good meeting’ for half an hour. It’s easy – like small talk at a barbecue.

Much more telling is what the agency and client partnership is like when things are tougher. Do people start to shift blame, get defensive or become hostile when difficult questions come up?

How do things pan out during a whole day of strategic work?

Do things become personal quickly?

If so, best both sides know that now, before contracts are signed and money starts passing hands. I’ve lost count of the number of client/potential agency encounters where everything seemed to be going swimmingly until one critical issue or challenging question arose, and then the whole game changed.

We pretty much insist on situations where these things come up these days. This is not a barbecue, after all. It’s a pitch.

The financial deal must be a win-win

In any successful relationship, the agency makes a decent profit and the client gets the appropriate resources and commitment required to make a difference to the clients’ business. Anything else usually means – in the end – that the relationship is not successful.

You’re probably nodding along with this – it feels self-evident. But believe me, it can sometimes be very tough to make happen, because client and agency perceptions of ‘decent profit’ and ‘appropriate resources’ are usually worlds apart.

That’s why we start by benchmarking the financial agreement in every pitch we run – an independent, external perspective that takes the heat and nonsense out of the financial discussion, and stops the testosterone taking over.

The process must use a minimum of agency resources

To get the best responses, the RFP (or whatever terrible procurement acronym has been chosen) should pass the following simple tests:

1)    Can it be read in under three minutes?

2)    Can a full response be written using no more than one day of a reasonably senior person’s time?

3)    Will the response be a motivating picture of the agency’s abilities and potential (rather than a prescription for solving the client’s specific and current problems)?

The team must be the team

Pitch teams.

You can spot them a mile off.

They’re great presenters (well, mostly), usually have all the answers and often convince you nothing is impossible. Then, eventually, they have to hand over to the people who might actually run the account, and suddenly things don’t feel quite so smooth and assured.

And it’s really hard to avoid making mistakes from this point in, because humans are all wired the same way – we tend to make decisions based on our emotional reactions.

Form over content, in other words. It is far better to structure the process to place content over form from the outset, whenever possible. The real team please, warts and all, from the get-go. That way the pitch is less of a beauty contest, and a much more appropriate meeting of minds.

And yes, of course things will be better if the day-to-day team can present itself effectively. But this isn’t Mad Men. It’s real.

There must be a time limit

At the start of a pitch things are often said to be terribly urgent. Candidate agencies are asked to work to incredibly tight deadlines for complex documents, strategic presentations and creative work as if the future of the client’s business depends on it.

Then suddenly – right after the final presentation usually – everything stops.

No decision.

Instead, maybe three to four weeks of deliberation and some time-consuming supplementary questions. All often for the best reasons when you look at it from an internal perspective, but poison to the agencies who have just put their best people and efforts into winning an account.

We say if you set a deadline then you should do everything to stick to it. It’s the least agencies should expect of a client, because clients certainly expect it of agencies.

What do you think? Are there other universal principles we should include? Let us know with a comment.

2 thoughts on “The five universal principles of successful pitch management

  1. Here's another one for you, Darren – don't assume that the only way to run a pitch is to see full blown creative campaigns from every participating agency. Pitches are VERY expensive for any agency to participate in, and your chances of winning aren't worth the expense. If you're the client ask yourself why, if you've chosen an agency candidate who has done great creative work for other clients, do you have doubts about whether they can do it for you? And if you're the agency, don't assume that pitches are a necessary cost of doing business. Assess your competition for each pitch. Assess the likelihood of winning. And ask yourself if this is a client for whom you truly believe you can do our best work. And don't be afraid to just say no.

  2. Hi Debra, you are absolutely right. The idea of taking all agencies through a full creative pitch process is simply a waste of everyones time, effort and money. You might then be interested in Nathan's follow up post on the pitch process where he identifies nine different approaches we use.… I am sure you can add to this.

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