Nine kinds of agency pitch process and counting

TrinityP3 manages all kinds of reviews for clients. In the last year alone we’ve helped clients find agency partners in digital, search, media buying, advertising, direct, shopper, event, media planning, post-production, PR, research, social media and call handling. No doubt we’ll add more to that list this year.

Such diversity means that it’s not just vital to remember the basic objectives of any review. It’s also important to tailor the process itself, to make sure the big things remain the big things. It’s about that constant imperative in any pitch – making sure content matters more than form.

So, what are the main structural options for an agency review, to ensure that form drives content and not the other way round. And how do they stack up against each other?

1. Full Creative Review

Typical Process – a shortlist of agencies is asked to submit credentials, then a shorter list of agencies is asked to attend a ‘chemistry’ meeting for an hour with the client team. From these meetings a small number of agencies are selected to run a strategic workshop with the client team, and also to provide a financial and resource proposal for a defined scope of work which is benchmarked and – if required – negotiated. The final stage is a creative presentation.

When to use it – searching for a lead agency or creative partner agency.

Why it works – clients and candidate agencies get to know each other very well, and a natural best-fit option usually becomes clear to everyone (although often only right at the end of the process)

What can go wrong – clients can focus on who presents best or who has produced the most research-friendly creative work, instead of which agency gives them the greatest confidence and offers the most raw potential as a partner.

2. Short Form Creative Review

Typical Process – like the Full Creative Review, except with no creative presentation stage.

When to use it – when the translation of strategic thinking into creative work is not practical, not relevant or not an overriding concern (eg some digital agency and search agency reviews, when an agency refuses on principle to pitch with creative work, when a client is feeling confident in the candidate agencies’ abilities and track records)

Why it works – focuses on strategic thinking, encourages innovation and collaboration in the developing client/agency teams

What can go wrong – sometimes a creative agency has trouble taking that final step to creating something – and the client won’t know until it’s too late. And sometimes a client can be open-minded and collaborative until it comes to developing and buying creative work – and the agency won’t know until it’s too late.

3. Media Partner Review

Typical Process – like the Short Form Creative Review, but with a trading exercise added in using the client’s typical current spend levels, the results of which are benchmarked and analysed.

When to use it – to identify a full-service media agency partner

Why it works – as with the Full Creative Review, there’s nowhere to hide during a review as full as this – and that goes for client as well as agency. At least at the end of this process, no-one can say they didn’t know.

What can go wrong – the weighting between the different elements needs to be agreed by the client team upfront. Otherwise two teams that fundamentally hate each other can end up trying to work together just because the buying numbers look good. (Oh – and if the teams hate each other, then the buying won’t be any good anyway after a year.)

4. Media Buying Review

Typical Process – like the Media Partner Review, but without the strategic workshop stage.

When to use it – to identify a media buying partner when planning is being handled elsewhere in the roster

Why it works – it cuts straight to the chase, and allows a buying agency to show what it’s good at and where it can excel.

What can go wrong – agencies can promise the world to get the business, and clients can believe everything they hear. Then it’s usually a disaster waiting to happen, and the disaster never waits more than a year.

5. Media Planning Review

Typical Process – the same overall process as the Short Form Creative Review, but usually involves working alongside other roster agencies during the pitch process.

When to use it – to find an agency to shape or lead communications strategy.

Why it works – collaboration skills are core to the success of this role in most client rosters, and this process examines the candidates’ collaborative abilities as an essential part of the review process.

What can go wrong – the appointment of the new agency sparks a turf war for leadership of the roster, with predictable effects.

6. Specialist Partner Review

Typical Process – includes the normal credentials and financial proposal and benchmarking stages, but also involves site visits and specialist technical assessments of the capabilities being proposed.

When to use it – when searching for a technical agency partner such as a call centre, digital build specialist, print supplier, mail house, post-production house, etc.

Why it works – the review is all about the technical abilities of the candidates, and so those abilities are assessed and compared by industry experts as part of the process, and held up against the financials to identify value.

What can go wrong – it’s always tempting for an agency to claim the technical solution is the best, whereas the ‘best’ solution will always depend on the brief. If the client team loses focus on this, things can get expensive and useless fast.

7.  Project Partner Review

Typical Process – a client team gives a creative briefing on the side to a couple of agencies (even though the incumbent is still working away).

When to use it – when your current agency relationship isn’t working, but the client team doesn’t have the courage to end it or the imagination to work at fixing it.

Why it works – it works in the same way as a marital affair. (In other words, it hardly ever works.)

What can go wrong – how long have you got? No-one wins, usually. The incumbent agency feels betrayed and demoralised, the new entrant gets a one-project-stand and little else afterwards, and the client’s reputation starts gently disappearing down the gurgler. Oh, and the brand gets a one-off campaign of no lasting value. At least no-one gets killed.

8. Procurement Tender

Typical Process – a client procurement team generates an RFP bigger than a Tolstoy novel, includes a brain-dump of all research material and a prescriptive creative brief, and then invites all the competing agencies to a collective Q&A session. The agency team gets a meeting slot at the end of the process to try and win the business from a client team they hardly know.

When to use it – when you want a supplier rather than an agency, when you want to waste lots of people’s time and effort.

Why it works – the clients feel very powerful and important.

What can go wrong – sometimes the client team doesn’t actually get the agency it deserves.

Look. It’s a blog, obviously. So I’m being a little facetious with those last points. We help and advise with a lot of procurement-led reviews, and they can often work brilliantly and are run in a really professional and fair way.

It’s just that as an agency new business director I remember exactly what it was like to have to complete a 90-page tender document in 3 days all because the MD thinks it’s a ‘really big opportunity’ (even if it’s been sent to another 15 agencies).

Now, if you’re an agency person reading this you might be forgiven for thinking all of these processes fall into the ‘busy work’ category. And if you’re a client, you might be rolling your eyes at the time commitment required. Which is why TrinityP3 is also working with this last process…

9. The One Day pitch

Typical Process – a very tight shortlist of agencies is invited to answer some quick credentials questions. Then a single day is set up where each agency works with the client team on a business problem, with the aim of solving it within that day (maybe with creative work, maybe not). Once the financials are agreed, then the business is awarded.

When to use it – when the client team is focused, empowered and clear about what it wants from an agency partner of any description.

Why it works – it condenses weeks of preparation for the agencies and hours of meetings for the client team into a short, intense session where each side finds out how it thinks. And it’s great fun.

What can go wrong – it’s a higher risk approach, certainly. But that usually concentrates the minds on both sides. And if the shortlist is anything less than up-to-date and properly informed, then there is a danger that the process yields no suitable solutions at all.

So, which process is the one for you? Well, I guess you have to ask yourself, do you feel lucky?  So, do you?

Let us know what you think with a comment. Share any common processes we’ve left out?

2 thoughts on “Nine kinds of agency pitch process and counting

  1. We started at the tender process end (3 agencies, creative pitch blah blah) and after you advised us, we used the one day pitch to a shortlist. It worked beautifully for us because creative, while important, wasn't the most important.
    It was intensive, but I think both sides got more out of it. Certainly it gives the agencies a better understanding of the business and who we were. It also gave us an insight in how agencies work. Without a doubt we got the best agency in the end, and the best work. Check out

    1. Hey Andy. Good to hear from you. It's always important to make the pitch about the partnership and not just the work on the day – and always really hard at the same time. The one day pitch is a great way to ensure the right things stay important.

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