There is a headline in Forbes that reads “84% of clients have picked a winner before the agency pitch begins”. The opinion piece by Will Burns refers to a blog post by John Heenan, Agency Growth Consultant, published on his website. Why does this matter? Because the Global Chief Creative Officer of McCann Health, Matt Eastwood recently shared an article on LinkedIn and referred to the statistic.
Yet the truth is the statistic is hopelessly flawed or we must believe most marketers are wasting their time and everyone else is running pitches that have a predetermined outcome.
This is a problem with a world where we have taken to reading headlines only or we read the first paragraph and take the information presented as gospel. As fundamental truth. Either that or our critical thinking has been switched off. Don’t get me wrong. I am not denying there are issues with the way the agency selection process is practiced by many, but my belief and firsthand experience, having managed countless pitches for clients, is very few are predetermined and therefore simply about going through the motions.
Pitching does not just consume significant amounts of agency time; it is also significantly disruptive and time consuming for marketers as well.
To John Heenan’s credit, the title of his post is “Is the agency pitch a fair fight?”. The results, based on a sample of 150 marketers he asked, are that 71% said sometimes and 13% said yes to the question, “Do you know which agency is going to win before the pitch?”
The question and the result provide a huge amount of wiggle room before we can agree with the Forbes headline. Without even considering the sample size or the sampling methodology, let’s look at the results presented in the context of our industry practice and experience.
Almost three-quarters of the marketers responded ‘sometimes’. What does this mean empirically? That once or twice in a career of pitches they knew which agency was going to win? What if they knew once in ten pitches or one in five pitches, what difference would that make to the result? Suddenly the ‘sometimes’ response does not seem so significant.
Yes, there are times marketers have a desire for a particular agency to win. This is very common these days where pitches are undertaken simply as a process at the end of a contract period. In these cases, marketers often want or expect the incumbent to win, driven by the false belief that they understand the client’s business better. I say false because any review of the COMvergence global pitch results will show that incumbents appear to have only a 20% chance of retaining the business.
On the rare occasion where we are engaged in a review process where the marketer appears to have a preferred agency and therefore a predetermined outcome, we make sure to provide a robust market review to challenge these preconceptions.
There is a saying that most marketers have three agencies top of mind. The agency they are currently with, the one they worked with previously and one other. As pitch consultants, we see it as a basic function of our work to ensure marketers have the widest and deepest view of the market options before selecting their consideration list.
We then manage a process of credentials review and chemistry meetings to minimise the time the agencies need to invest. Then we check in again to see if their perception has shifted. In most cases, it has – because we have introduced the marketers to agencies and capabilities they did not know existed. If it has not, we vigorously recommend they go into negotiations with their preferred agency, without further troubling the others on the consideration list.
This brings me to the next area of wiggle room in this result, which is the question.
Before the pitch?
The question asked was “Do you know which agency is going to win before the pitch?” How do you define the start of the pitch? At each stage of the process, from developing the market search brief to the agency credentials review and the chemistry sessions, the marketers involved in the process will discuss and speculate who they consider the best agency so far.
But for many the actual pitch is not this process, but the final pitch presentation. This is where often an agency is asked to present speculative creative ideas if it is creative or digital or present a media response for a media pitch.
If this is what the respondents define as the pitch, then it is highly likely that the marketers will have an opinion on who is best placed up to this point in the process. If there is an agency that has presented flawless credentials and had an incredibly strong chemistry session with the marketing team, then it would be natural that the marketers would consider they are likely to win going into the pitch.
The fact is a pitch is rarely won on the day of the pitch presentation. The groundwork for the win is done months and even years before an agency is even invited to pitch. Once invited to pitch, each step is an opportunity for an agency to position itself to win the account. The team might present their agency credentials, even in an RFP, in a compelling and memorable way. Or absolutely nail the chemistry meeting by having the right people in the room, virtual or otherwise, connecting with the client team. Or they may simply do the research to demonstrate they have an intimate and well-founded understanding of the client’s business and market and category challenges.
What is the truth?
The truth for me, after more than two decades managing pitches, is that while marketers may have thoughts on the agency they think may win, or would like to win, a well-planned and rigorous process will challenge their preconceptions and ensure they are able to make an informed decision.
Considering the time and effort that goes into managing a pitch process from the client-side and the fact that few marketers have the time to invest, why would a marketer go through a process that wastes their time and all the agencies if they knew the outcome?
If you were one of the 16% of marketers who answered yes in this survey, there are more efficient and effective ways to appoint an agency without a competitive tender. Particularly if the marketers believe that they know the agency they want.
If a marketer has a preferred agency, but still must go to a competitive tender, there are several ways to minimise the impact on the participating agencies and still provide a robust and diligent market review to inform the marketer’s choice.
The first step to achieve this would be to abandon the RFP and provide a ‘stage and gate’ process that casts the net wide at the start with low levels of requirement and effort by the agencies and then filters the choices down to a select a suitable few.
This is our approach in every pitch we manage and the results speak for themselves.