How do you pitch when you’re the incumbent agency?

It sounds like the toughest gig in town. Your client has called a review of your agency – despite your best efforts – and you’ve been asked if you want to take part. You’re angry, scared and pumped in equal measure. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

What have you got to say that’s new? And if you do concoct something genuinely new, then how do you explain why you didn’t do all this new stuff before the pitch was called? Why are you in this pitch anyway?

Retaining business in a competitive pitch is a tricky balancing act. I know, because at TrinityP3 we watch agencies trying to do it all the time, and in my agency career I had to do it three times myself. Yet there’s usually at least one point, even in the best-run review processes, when the client looks at the list of suitors and thinks: ‘I wish I’d never started this, but I suppose I have to choose one…’ This is fertile ground for an incumbent.

So here are four of the biggest mistakes incumbents can make, and five top tips for maximising the chances of retaining the business.

If some of them sound obvious I make no apologies – in fact I’m glad if you think they are.

I write them down because I’ve seen each and every mistake committed and each top tip ignored more times than I care to remember even in the last year alone. Clearly, in the red mist of a pitch, there are times when nothing at all seems obvious.

Mistake One – Blame the client

Rapport is everything.

People don’t want to work with people who think they’re doing a bad job. If you look like you’re going to come in and whinge about things, or make the client look bad, then you’ve played right into the biggest advantage your competitors can offer – a honeymoon period where everyone gets along well and plays nicely.

In a digital review we managed a while back, the owner of the incumbent agency took the floor in one meeting and harangued the client for 45 minutes on the subject of how utterly wonderful his agency was and how terribly it had been treated by the client team – with an irrational, aggressive tirade.

From his perspective, this was a passionate defence of his agency – one he thought would save the business. From everyone else’s perspective, including his team’s, it was squirmingly embarrassing. The clients couldn’t wait for him to leave the room.

Mistake Two – Assume everything needs to be changed

Lots of incumbents embark on the pitch process assuming they need to change everything about themselves.

Now this well might be a good response – if you have the evidence. But if it’s based on assumption then it’s almost certain to fail.

I’ve watched an incumbent agency try to transform itself by proposing new account service, planning and creative leadership – only to deliver two documents quite a bit later than the deadline. The client’s reaction was: ‘Jeez, look at all these new people we’ve got to teach about our business, and still they can’t get the basics right’.

The agency had unilaterally given up its main advantage whilst failing to fix the one thing that might say more powerfully than anything else that they’d changed for the better.

Mistake Three – Assume it’s all over before it’s begun

Lots of incumbents just assume their time is up when a pitch is called.

The resulting half-hearted, ill-thought-out pitch approach usually guarantees that it is. Although it sounds like something an MD tells the new business director, it’s true that you just never know.

It’s your business as the agency team to find out properly, not just assume the worst. Our experience tells us that the incumbent always – always – has a chance. Everything depends on what the incumbent team makes of that chance.

Mistake Four – Gloss over the challenges and live in the past

While it’s always good to lean into positives, a completely veneered view of the relationship to date doesn’t work. Generally, pitches are called for reasons. If the incumbent walks in to a pitch room with a pair of rose tinted glasses for each client to wear while the agency team takes them on a trip down memory lane, it comes off as disingenuous, and it can feel like the agency is ‘padding’ and lacking in vision.

In one recent pitch, the incumbent agency spent 20 minutes of a precious hour talking about the past, without once referring to challenges, or to the future. If nothing else – it was boring. The agency didn’t make it to the second round.

Be honest about both high points and challenges and – more importantly – come with the mentality that a pitch is a perfect opportunity for a reset. Propose realistic solutions to challenges as you see them and communicate a vision for evolution and more success in the future.

Mistake Five – Rely too heavily on one star attraction

It’s common, particularly when the incumbency has been a long one, for the agency to rest on the shoulders of a ‘star attraction’ – normally an account lead – who has a close and long standing relationship with the client. ‘Don’t worry – I’m still here’, goes the subtext of the proposal. ‘I’m still here, with all my knowledge and understanding of your business – something that no-one else has – and I’ll continue to work with you’.

Of course this person is an important part of the pitch, but don’t rely too heavily on them, either in your own preparation (leaning too blindly on the authority of your star to frame the responses) or in your pitch proposal to the client.

The client may simply be after a change or a fresh perspective; they may, with all due respect to the agency star, be feeling the strain of an individual relationship that has become too one-sided, myopic or repetitive.

Try to read the play in briefing, off record communication, past reviews, whatever the source, to gauge just how much of a card your ‘star’ is to deal. And never forget that it’s a team pursuit. If the client likes your star that much, they’ll simply poach her to the winning agency once the dust has settled.

Enough of the mistakes. What do we see that works?

Top Tip One

Find out why you are on the shortlist, really.

Is the client feeling sorry for you? Are they too cowardly to fire you on the spot? Are they trying to keep you ‘motivated’ for the run-up to transition? Does your participation make the politics of moving easier to handle for the client?

Or is it genuine? Is there a difference of opinion in the team on your performance? Is it a personnel thing?

Whatever you find out you’ll be able to use in your pitch strategy – dust off your Cialdini influence principles – and will help you work out what your approach should be. Guess about this and you’re flying blind.

Top Tip Two

Get right under the bonnet of what has happened here to bring about a pitch.

You have the relationship with the client, so use it to get to the truth, and then be unswervingly honest with your agency team.

Is it the people – if so, change them. Is it the creative work? Is it the service levels? Or is it simply the market and changes in the client’s business?

Once you know, then work out how to tackle those issues in the pitch. It sounds so simple because it is so blindingly simple. And yet it hardly ever gets done.

Top Tip Three

Your pitch needs to be emotional.

You need to play to your strengths here: you know the client, you know how to avoid being a threat, you have history on your side, you know who is who.

Don’t bring in senior players and big cheeses whom the client has never met – bring in the real people who would actually do the job were you to win it back. Show them what those people are actually like on the job. Be a partner in the pitch – to the client, to the rest of the roster, to the process.

Become emotionally hard to fire, not easy.

Top Tip Four

Show what you do for other clients and offer to do the same for your pitching client.

Of course, the success of this approach very much depends on how it’s done. It can raise the question of why you haven’t been doing this before.

But we’ve seen it work really well. Once, where an agency showed an amazing array of innovative work it was doing across the rest of its client base… but wasn’t yet doing for the reviewing client, the client team was blown away – they had no idea all this was possible.

When they asked why the agency hadn’t been doing this, the agency simply answered ‘because we’ve never had that kind of trusted relationship between us. But now we can.’

The agency kept the business.

Top Tip Five

Face up to the worst thing that can happen. Then plan for it.

Fear can drive your judgement as an incumbent. Be aware of this. After all, it’s real for you – people’s jobs are on the line. For the others it’s a new business target.

Remember what it is you do when you win business, and constantly be on the lookout for thinking that doesn’t match that pattern of behaviour. That’s how everyone else is thinking. Defence is not the same as attack.

How did we do? Was it all completely obvious? Did we miss anything? Let us know with a comment.

3 thoughts on “How do you pitch when you’re the incumbent agency?

  1. Nathan, like must truths in business this is pure common sense. Nothing wrong with that. I think the most important thing is to take the emotion out of a re – pitch. These days re – pitches are much more common and so long as there's nothing fundamentally wrong the incumbent is always in with a fair chance.

  2. Funny thing is that emotion is often the biggest thing to influence an incumbent's chance with a client. The more you can take emotion out at the start of the process as an agency, the better-equipped you'll be when it does rear its head at the end of the process.

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