Do you need to review your incumbent agency? If so – don’t launch a pitch

Do you know what I love? I love being able to recommend to a client that a pitch is not the answer.

It may sound strange, coming from an organisation for whom running pitches is a part of the service offering. I am personally involved in procuring projects for TrinityP3 and so by taking this approach, in some instances, I’m effectively reducing or even rejecting good money flowing into our own business.

This isn’t disingenuous, it isn’t humblebrag, and it isn’t fake. Pitches – we’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again – are not the only answer. They carry disadvantages, and when not run properly, they’re downright morale-sapping. There needs to be integrity in the way they are approached.

And yet, marketing clients will often default to ‘pitch’ as the only mechanism against which their incumbent agency can be reviewed. It isn’t necessary. And often, it isn’t fair to that incumbent agency, which in a pitch scenario has a statistically lower chance of retaining an account than a fresh face.

To Ditch the Pitch or not?

Am I saying ‘ditch the pitch’? No, I’m not saying that. Pitches are still relevant. But our central piece of advice to any client who approaches us about pitching is ‘pitch when it’s right to pitch, and when you do pitch, pitch right.’ (you can find this sentiment expressed in much greater detail here in our White Paper, ‘Agency Selection: The Pitch Consultant’s Definitive Guide’).

There are more bad reasons to pitch than good ones 

We’re focused here on the first part of our advice – pitch when it’s right to pitch. In our opinion, the situations when ‘it’s right to pitch’ are relatively few:

  1. The agency has defaulted on the contract or committed some other act of gross misconduct which renders its position untenable.
  2. The agency has fired the client (rare, but it happens).
  3. The interpersonal relationship between the two businesses, for whatever reason, has broken down to such an extent as to be unresolvable.
  4. The agency is not able to provide the scope of services currently required by the marketing team.
  5. The results of the agency’s work (output or commercial outcomes) are so poor that the board has effectively forced a change.

What common threads run through all these situations? Well – it’s safe to say that in any of them, the possibility of the incumbent agency being included in a pitch is almost zero. The pitch essentially becomes an exercise in finding a new agency – not reviewing the incumbent.

Pitches shouldn’t be the default

None of this is intentionally naïve. Of course, there are scenarios where the incumbent is included in a pitch – in fact would desperately want to be included. Sometimes, pitches are procurement or compliance mandated. We’ll work with this, and we’ll aim to run as fair a process as possible for the incumbent agency (and all other participants).

What I’m saying is this: why is ‘pitch’ the default setting for so many, and does it have to be this way? In a scenario where the incumbent is welcomed into a pitch – in other words, where there are no serious issues as described above, where the relationship is basically good, the work is good, but things just feel a bit tired – is a pitch the right approach in the first place?

Problems with the pitch

Let’s consider the negatives of the pitching process.

  • They’re costly – to the organisation and to the agencies.
  • They’re seriously disruptive, over anything from a three to a twelve-month period
  • Appointing a new agency carries a risk – loss of incumbent IP, the need to retrain and reintegrate, pitch promises that fail to materialize, honeymoon periods that crash.
  • Re-appointing the incumbent also carries risk – complacency, a loss of trust (a sense of ‘why on earth did they go to pitch in the first place?’)
  • Pitches do not reveal or fix what is often one of the biggest challenges in agency-client relationships – the behaviour of the client being at odds with requirements. The old cliché of ‘different agency, same problems’ is still very relevant, and marketing teams are often completely blind to the effect their own approach, operating methods or treatment of an agency has on efficiency, effectiveness and quality of agency output – regardless of who that agency is.
  • Where the incumbent is concerned, pitches can rarely be a truly level playing field. To a certain extent, the incumbent is damned if they do (why are they showing me all these bells and whistles now, instead of 12 months ago?) and damned if they don’t (more of the same just isn’t cutting it against all these bright shiny keen new agencies).

There is another way

So, what’s the answer? Our consultants’ experience tells us that conducting a closed review or assessment of an incumbent agency, rather than going to market and pitching the account, can be extremely effective in the right circumstances.

Consider the benefits of the agency operational reviews we run for our clients:

  • Taken overall, it’s generally cheaper, far less disruptive, and quicker than a pitch
  • It allows a truly two-way diagnostic of what’s great and what needs work – from the client-side, and from the agency side
  • It does not lose the financial or commercial components of a pitch – we can still benchmark all financial components of agency remuneration and resource composition against the current market and scope, and assess contractual terms against current standards, allowing for negotiation and adjustment where necessary
  • It is generally more holistic, taking full consideration of process realities, operational challenges, creative blocks, and any other issues experienced in real life (retrospective experience rather than forward-facing promises)
  • It allows for clear improvement recommendations that can be taken up by both parties to extend and refresh the relationship – so that, even if a decision is made to pitch in 12 or 24 months, theoretically the marketing team will have improved and be able to make more informed decisions about how to work with an agency team.
  • It can act as a watershed moment to refresh a tired relationship and start afresh, with the best intent.

It seems contrary, I know. And yes – well-run pitches, pitches managed with integrity and for the right reasons, are not going away and nor should they. Agencies need to win business, and this will never change.

But we – a company well known for managing pitches – strongly believe that there is another way; and that marketing teams need to look before they leap.