Why agency pitches should be a test drive and not a beauty parade


The industry trade media regularly carry stories about the significant problems posed by the pitch process. These stories refer to the pitch as if there is only one-way marketers select agencies. But in our own experience, there are many ways to run a pitch to select a new agency. Sure, most pitches appear to fall into one of two categories. Either it is the wasteful beauty parade, requiring the agencies to do speculative creative work. Or it is the dreaded tender process, also known as death-by-RFP.

Both approaches have their benefits and obvious drawbacks, but they are also not the only way advertisers can select the best-fit agency for their business. In fact, across the various approaches we have used, we have found several other methodologies that provide a better outcome, with significantly fewer issues. The first step is to consider what the priorities are in selecting an agency and how best to test these. Experience has shown that RFPs and creative beauty parades cannot beat taking the agencies for a test drive, even within the constraints of a pitch process.

Defining the purpose of the pitch

This may be as obvious as appointing a new agency of some description. But that really does not cut it, as rarely is the pitch process as straightforward. Instead, it can range from: ‘we need an idea for a campaign’ (a favourite of those who love running competitive agency panels) to ‘we are simply testing the incumbent against the market’ (a flawed favourite of procurement). But if you are truly wanting to select a new agency, then what would be the agency selection criteria you would use and how would this impact the selection process?

The problem with the RFP approach is that it is – cynically – more likely to test the agencies’ ability to complete an RFP than it is their ability to work with the client team to create strategies and executions for achieving the marketing objectives for which they were appointed. Likewise, the beauty parade only tests the ability of the agencies to respond to a specific brief, largely in isolation and under quite competitively stressful circumstances that are not conducive to great work.

Experience has shown that many advertisers struggle to read through the numerous RFP documents and therefore find it difficult to make an informed decision based on the content presented. But similarly, while being presented with speculative work is interesting and even entertaining, astute marketers will often question how the work was developed and if the agency could deliver the same or better time after time. No one wants to end up appointing a one-hit-wonder.

Taking the agency for a test drive

If you wanted to select an agency that you can work with to produce the calibre of the work required repeatedly, then the obvious approach is to take the agency for a test drive. Some in the industry, particularly on the agency side, have suggested that rather than running a tender, advertisers should select an agency and appoint them to undertake a paid project. The issue here is that this approach still requires the selection of the agency in the first place, which could be by RFP or a beauty parade approach requiring speculative creative. It also can be incredibly prolonged and disruptive if the selection process is flawed in any way.

Instead, we have found that within the pitch process, it is possible to create a methodology that allows the advertisers to spend time with a selection of agencies to really get under the hood (to extend the automotive metaphor) and experience what it is like working with the agency. Of course, this is not undertaken with many agencies, but instead requires a process of casting a wider selection of suitable agencies for credentials and chemistry sessions to shortlist a handful, not more than three or four, to work collaboratively with the advertiser on a specific brief.

Requires a change in approach to selecting agencies

Unlike the traditional pitch process, where the interactions between the advertiser and the agencies are carefully limited and controlled, the test drive requires planning a significant number of opportunities for each of the agencies to work with the advertiser in a similar way to how they would were they the appointed agency. Instead of presentations, the whole process is designed around interactive workshops. Advertisers are encouraged to engage and challenge the agency, and the agency is encouraged to quiz and challenge the advertiser.

And unlike the traditional tender or RFP process, where all participants share in all information provided, while the brief or task is the same for each agency, each agency is managed as a separate and distinct process. The agency can engage the advertiser in the process of their choice within the structure of the workshops, but information and practices undertaken with one agency are never shared with the others. This ensures the advertiser experiences the agency without it being commoditised or diminished by the process.

Of course, some advertisers are concerned, at the outset, that rather than being observers in many ways they must instead become active participants in the process. But without exception, the experience and the outcome more than compensates for the extra effort required.

Provides significant benefits to both advertiser and agency

Both advertisers and agencies (even the unsuccessful ones) report a higher level of satisfaction with the test drive approach. While the advertisers are required to invest additional time with each agency, they report being able better to assess the capabilities and align the culture of each agency. The process is also often shorter in duration, as it eliminates the time that is often given to the agencies for developing strategic and creative responses in relative isolation, with the corresponding second-guessing and rework.

The reliance on interactive workshops also means that the agencies are more likely to include the actual people who fulfil the specialist roles day-to-day. Rather than using the pitch team who are high on persuasive presenting, the workshop is more focused on capabilities and performance. One of the great disappointments for many advertisers is that often the pitch team that presents for the traditional beauty parade then only turns up for the annual review.

Finally, the real measure of success is the fact that this process is inclined to create more enduring relationships, with many lasting more than a decade (about the length of time we have been practising this approach).

For further reading, we have created the pitch consultants’ definitive guide to agency selection which you can download and read at your leisure.