How to provide pitch feedback to unsuccessful agencies

One of the things that constantly amazes me is the response I get when presenting pitch feedback to agencies following a tender. It seems, from the reactions to our debriefing report and process, that this is an area that is often overlooked or at least handled badly by marketers and apparently by many other consultants.

I was heavily involved in new business pitches in my fifteen years as a copywriter and creative director in agencies, especially the last five years at JWT. I remember how vague the feedback often was post-pitch. Terms like “your strategy / creative was not strong,” and when you probed to understand, the responses became even less clear and less helpful in understanding and improving how we work.

My experience since founding TrinityP3 thirteen years ago is that agency pitch feedback is pretty much the same today.

The purpose of providing pitch feedback

If an agency is willing to participate in your selection process, then the least you should do is be open, honest and thorough in providing feedback if they are unsuccessful.

The purpose of providing this feedback is to:

  1. Help the agency understand why they were not successful
  2. Give them an understanding of how they performed compared to the other agencies
  3. Provide them with advice and direction on areas they can improve

This requires a more rigorous and detailed feedback session than simply ‘having a chat’.

Why providing feedback can be difficult

When managing reviews and pitches, many marketers will ask us to give the agency feedback on their behalf. I prefer to have the marketer there during this process so they can provide any input and also see how we do this. Many people find providing feedback to unsuccessful agencies as confronting as it requires them to justify or rationalise their decisions.

This fear of confrontation with unsuccessful agencies means that marketers will often look for ‘tangible’ points, such as creative quality or strategic skills, even when the reason the agency was unsuccessful was more intangible, such as chemistry or simply if they liked you enough.

Yet, suppose these are the reasons the agency was unsuccessful. In that case, you must be honest rather than misdirecting them to potentially make changes in areas where no changes are required and are simply an excuse to compensate for a lack of courage.

When to provide feedback

When you inform an agency that they are unsuccessful in the process (credentials, chemistry, workshop, presentation or the final negotiation), you should offer to provide feedback at a time that suits them. This can be by telephone, but it is better provided face to face.

The reason for not providing feedback at the time of informing them they have been unsuccessful is that they are often processing the news and are not open to taking in the feedback if they do ask why during that conversation, it is important to have one or two points to explain that you can then elaborate on later in the feedback session.

How to provide pitch feedback

The feedback session can occur at the agency or the marketers’ offices. The critical point is to have an agenda for the feedback you want. This can be structured in several ways, but there must be a structure. The problem with the way many people provide feedback is that, being unprepared and unstructured, they often provide feedback ‘off the top of the head’.

TrinityP3 has developed a feedback process that takes the agencies through each stage of the process and shares with them the scores they were given against the assessment criteria and, more importantly, compares this with the average score given to all of the agencies in the process. This allows the agency to see where they scored low and how this compared to the average of the agencies they were competing against.

This then becomes the basis of the discussion with the agency. We present the scores for each stage the agency participated in and provide insight into any scores where the agency was above or below the average. The agency will invariably have questions, so we answer these as openly and honestly as possible, considering any sensitive issues.

I have had to tell an agency CEO that the client did not trust him because he sweated and fidgeted nervously, the strategy planner with the strong halitosis or the creepy senior account guy who kept looking the client in the chest. Being honest and sensitive in these situations is important because the alternative is to deflect the agency from the real issues. And if handled correctly, you will find the agency will thank you.

Steps to providing valuable feedback

  1. Implement a scorecard process with commentary for each step to ensure you have a detailed record of the agency’s performance.
  2. When you inform an agency that they are unsuccessful, offer to provide more detailed feedback at a time that suits them.
  3. Structure the feedback around the scores given to the agency at each stage of the process and provide a comparison to the average given for each.
  4. Be open, honest and thorough in providing feedback, but also be sensitive to the feelings of the agency individuals.

Things you should never do in providing feedback

  1. Avoid abdicating responsibility for giving feedback to someone else not involved in the process.
  2. Never make comparisons between individual agencies. Always make comparisons to the average.
  3. Never share information provided by other agencies, even through demonstration, as this breaches commercial confidentiality.
  4. Don’t avoid issues or questions that you find confronting. It is better to be honest and sensitive than to lie or deceive.

What do you think about agency feedback? Is it a challenge or something you want to avoid? Or do you have a better way of providing constructive feedback? Let me know by leaving a comment here.

You will find more information and advice on managing a successful agency search and selection process here.

4 thoughts on “How to provide pitch feedback to unsuccessful agencies

  1. Really useful 'how to ' here Darren. This applies to suppliers who are not successful along the chain too I feel.

    I think your integrity around this is evident in this post.

  2. This is useful. Wish you had gone a bit deeper into the what metrics to use during the 'scorecard' process – as I have been requested to be a judge (aka: MKTG Director) to whom a few PR teams will pitch the same ideas to. Thus doing some homework. THanks anyways, this was helpful enough.

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