The dangers of pitching your agency on a regular basis

Pitching your agency

This post is by Darren Woolley, Founder of TrinityP3With his background as analytical scientist and creative problem solver, Darren brings unique insights and learnings to the marketing process. He is considered a global thought leader on agency remuneration, search and selection, and relationship optimisation.

Do you work for a company that routinely has you take your contracted agencies to pitch every three years? Is this mandated by finance or procurement? Or is this something that the marketing team believe is the best option? We know that many organisations have a habit of going to pitch every three years, just as we know that in every switched on agency there is a new business person who marks down the date of your last pitch with a note to call you in two years and six months hoping to get on your next pitch.

But here is the thing you are missing. It is highly likely that while you have justified this practice as being good governance and due diligence, it is possible that you are wasting significant amounts of money and possibly doing damage to your corporate reputation, along with the performance of your brand and business.

Now you may think this is counterintuitive advice coming from a company that you may associate with pitching, but the fact is pitches are less than 10% of the strategic management consulting we do and secondly it is the other 90% of work on marketing and agency roster performance that has informed this opinion. But let me explain as to what we have observed. 

Popularity of regular tendering

We know this is a popular policy in a wide range of organisations simply by monitoring the trade media around the world, as even the most cursory of searches will show the same clients coming up to pitch, typically every three years. Three years is also typically the term of many agency contracts, possibly with an option for a one-year extension. Of course, the one-year extension is usually enacted because the marketing team are too busy at the end of the contract to run a pitch, and so the procurement team has built in an option to buy them time but not get out of the man\dated process.

The usual reason for this mandatory pitching is usually that it is due diligence as part of the recontracting process to go to market and test to see if the incumbent is still the best agency. It is also used to see if the current remuneration model is market competitive, which is often code for ‘can we squeeze some more savings out of the fee in the negotiations’. Plus marketers will say it gives them an opportunity to test out new or interesting agencies. Some cynically admit it is a way to keep the current agency “on their toes” or “hungry” for the business.

The truth is a marketer and their procurement team can achieve all of this without the time-consuming and potentially destructive pitch process. There are other options that are just as effective to test the market, ensure a fair and reasonable agency remuneration, and keep the client/agency relationship performing at a high level, without a pitch. But more importantly, going to pitch every three years when your current relationship with the incumbent is performing at a high level can damage the relationship and certainly damage the performance of the marketing communications for the company and the brand.

The dangers of competitive categories

Most categories are increasingly competitive. Start-ups, brands expanding into new markets, and launching alternate brands make categories like automotive, alcoholic beverages, telecommunications and the like, incredibly cluttered. Within these categories it is highly unlikely that an advertiser would be happy working with an agency who was also working for one of their competitors. (As a side note, it is usually explained that they worry about confidential information being shared, but I have noticed that it is often that they fear they will get the second rate agency team while their competitor gets the A-Team).

We have also seen in several markets and in some particular categories where the market leader will appoint a number of the ‘hot’ agencies to their roster to simply ensure their competitors do not get to work with those agencies.

So the category becomes incredibly competitive, and while it may be trite to say there are way too many agencies, the fact is in any market there is always only a handful of agencies that many marketers really want to work with and who are therefore in high-demand. We had observed that when a number of brands went to their regular three yearly pitch, the same second-ranked agencies ended up on the pitch list. Why?

They were the only agencies in the market that did not have competitive business as the competitors already contracted all of the well-regarded agencies. After all it is not as if your competitor wants to work with a second-rate agency, so they are probably already with a good agency, and if not, then they will be waiting for you to go to pitch so they can snap up your incumbent agency if they are well-regarded in the market and the category.

There is something else that makes your incumbent desirable to your competitors, and that is the fact that they have been working with you for the past three years and know your marketing strategy and positioning. I know a procurement person who said they would just include a clause that they could not work for a competitor for a set period of time, but this is an anti-competitive practice in many jurisdictions and would require you to continue paying the agency a fee.

I have seen it happen on a number of occasions over the years. The most memorable was where a utility company was about to take their incumbent creative agency to another pitch to renew the contract, unaware that the agency was tired of having to pitch every few years, and had been in confidential discussions with a much more aggressive competitor. On being informed of the mandatory pitch the incumbent CEO politely resigned the account and announced they had been appointed to the competitor’s business.

The difficulties in competitive categories

Often when we talk to marketers about agencies they would like to work with, it is usual for them to name the agencies working with their competitors. This is totally understandable for two reasons; firstly they are in the same category and so the marketer is more likely to be aware of the work they are doing with the competitor, but secondly, it is not unusual for marketers to also move around within the category, and so they want to work with the agency they worked with when they were with the competitive company.

Also, marketers will ideally like the potential new agencies to have category experience. That means the agency is either currently working with a competitor or were recently dumped by a competitor. If the former then there are conflict considerations and if the later then appointment may be perceived in the category as picking up your competitor’s rejects.

If the purpose is to test the market to see if you have the right agency, then the pitch is flawed if the incumbent is performing well. This is because in a competitive category you have to assume your competitors, like you, have already selected the best in category.

Unless you want to pick up their recent rejects, or have one of them lure your incumbent away with a better deal, all that can be left are the second tier agencies. It explains why often the marketers will end up staying with the incumbent, but usually at a lower retainer cost due to the diligent efforts of the procurement team.

Sure, you could luck it in and manage to pick up a new emerging contender, but the timing would need to be perfect that your market-leading competitor didn’t throw them a retainer to take them out of the market. Believe me, it happens.

Cost in time and effort

You also have to consider the amount of time and effort it takes to properly run and manage a pitch. I am not talking about the agencies here, which I will get to soon, but the time it takes the marketing and procurement team to do the process justice. One of the big complaints of agencies is participating in a tender where the marketing team are disinterested and distracted, often changing dates and delaying the process because they have more pressing demands.

And it is not as if the marketing team has the extra hours required over a two to three month period to meet with the agencies and brief them and review the work. Marketers are already usually stretched for time just simply delivering the current marketing requirement, so the additional time pressure of a pitch can potentially compromise the current marketing performance.

Add to this the additional time and effort committed by the incumbent to pitch against the market, while still delivering the day-to-day requirements for the brand, and the process is stretched and potentially compromised. I know marketers will often try and schedule these routine contract pitches or tenders for a quiet time in the marketing program, but in an increasingly always-on world, those quiet times are harder to find.

There is a cost associated with all of this time consumed in the pitch and tender process for both the advertiser and the agency. There are also the risks of compromising the incumbent and the marketing team taking on the additional burden of a pitch. Yet there are definitely less disruptive and more cost-effective ways to achieve the outcomes that the mandatory contract pitch is meant to deliver.

Practical alternatives to pitching

If you are running a contract pitch or tender to achieve the following, we have more cost and time-efficient and less disruptive solutions that are equally effective as a pitch and provide the same level of due diligence and governance:

  1. Wanting to test the market choice – We often provide marketer, throughout Pitch Perfect or Market Search, with a list of suitable agencies currently available in the market and identify those with competitive business. We even encourage them to meet with those agencies on an informal basis if only to satisfy themselves that they are not missing out. We have had clients take this one step further and had an agency they liked undertake a small project. All of this is much less disruptive than a full-blown pitch and allows the marketers to explore the market without jeopardising or disrupting the incumbent relationship.
  2. Wanting to ensure the agency fee is market competitive – This is where we can undertake an assessment of the agency scope of work delivered in the previous 12 months and using our Scope Calculator determine how the agency remuneration compares to market. But more importantly we will also review the current agency contract as part of this process to make recommendations on how and where to update it and it costs a fraction of the cost of a full managed pitch process.
  3. Wanting to prove to management we have performed due diligence – For more than 15 years we have been providing these services and have found that when the CEO and the CFO see the level of analysis, and not just opinion, in both the market search report and the agency remuneration and contract assessment, they are usually very comfortable with the level of governance in the process, especially when they become aware of the risks associated with openly going to tender or pitch.

Now, of course, if the incumbent relationship is underperforming, and all efforts to improve or correct it have failed, then it is probably time to go to market. But this is justified, unlike the practice of going to market because the contract term is up.

TrinityP3’s comprehensive Search & Selection process provides extensive market knowledge, tightly defined process and detailed evaluation and assessment. Learn more here