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What we know about agency pitches

We managed over sixty pitches in 2014, including 13 with global scope; and with over 25 years in the business, at The Observatory International we feel we know a thing or two about agency search and selection.  So here are our top tips:

  • Don’t do it if you don’t have to
  • Understand what you are letting yourself in for
  • Ensuring impartiality
  • Experience and knowledge
  • If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well
  • Why a workshop is essential
  • It’s not over until it’s over

Don’t do it if you don’t have to.

The first and most important advice – don’t do it if you don’t have to.  We see a number of different scenarios when clients decide to pitch:

  1. we hate our agency, they’re useless, we want a new one
  2. we pitch all of our business, including each project, we get the best value that way
  3. we’ve taken a look at our roster, it doesn’t meet our business needs now – we need a new agency configuration to deliver our objectives.

The first scenario is not a good place to start a pitch.  We either all know someone, or have direct experience of going through divorce – it is rarely a good experience.  And the same can be true of terminating client-agency relationships – some counseling can go a long way to unearth the underlying causes and fix the issue.

Our approach is to understand what lies behind the problem before dashing into a pitch.  We want to know why the relationship has broken down – the root causes often lie in poor process rather than personalities.  The client briefing may be poor, the agency may not be deploying its best talent, client creative evaluation skills may not be developed, or both parties haven’t taken the opportunity to understand each other’s businesses and ways of working.  Many reasons – and if they are not addressed the clear outcome of that pitch will be six or so months down the line the same frustrations will emerge and the relationship with the new agency will start to break down.

A re-booted agency relationship offers better process on both sides; removal of the business risks associated from moving agencies; ability for the Client to focus on communications issues rather than a pitch process which, even with the most capable consultant in place, will inevitably have a high call on their time.

But having looked at the underlying causes there are times when it is right to go to a pitch particularly if the existing client agency relationship is too badly fractured, but at least the foundations of the next client agency relationship will be stronger.

The second scenario is wasteful of time and resource for both the client and the agency teams involved.  And it doesn’t result in best value, it just results in lowest cost (at least for the client, but often only in the short-term).  The marketing communications materials will lack coherence and continuity because they are developed piecemeal and there could be downstream hidden costs in Purchasing and Accounts to manage multiple suppliers.

The third scenario is a great place to start – there’s a business need and a positive rationale.

Understand what you are letting yourself in for

A professionally run pitch should not be taken on lightly.  Typically the search and selection process will run for around 12 to 16 weeks.  It will involve the time commitment of key personnel and stakeholders at important stages in that process.  The UK trade associations, the IPA and ISBA calculate the time and resource costs for a typical client team at around US$45,000.  (The costs to individual agencies involved in the process are considerably higher – with estimates up to US$255,000 per agency for major pitches.)

Even after the decision is made and the new agency is appointed it will take at least 6 months for the new agency to ‘bed in’ and really get to understand the brand, the team dynamics and the processes they need to work within – and as a result they will not be working at their optimum.

The reality is therefore it can take up to 12 months to select, appoint and fully align a new agency – and very few companies can afford to disrupt their marketing and communications for that period of time.

Ensuring impartiality

Ensure any consultant that works for you, is aligned to your interests at all times.

Some pitch consultants have clubs, memberships or subscription fees – agencies are unlikely to get on their pitch lists unless they have made a financial contribution in some way.   In other cases, agencies have to pay the pitch consultants a percentage of the first year’s revenue from the client.  That is not the The Observatory International way.

At The Observatory International we have an entirely client-facing business model – we don’t take any membership fees, subscriptions or win fees from agencies.  This is important to us – it maintains our impartiality and integrity – ensuring we work in the interests of the client at all times.

Experience and knowledge

While we don’t take any remuneration from agencies, we do invest time in deep understanding the agency landscape.  We visit agencies every week – meeting with agency CEOs, Creative Directors, Strategists, MDs and new business teams – at a global, regional and national level.  And we don’t confine ourselves to particular types of agencies, we have expertise in all agency disciplines – from Digital, Innovation, Production Management right through to the full Integrated Networks.

All our consultants have deep experience of working, operating within and / or managing agencies of all types.  This knowledge and our on-going meetings with agencies means we know how agencies work, operate, and to some extent think, as well as having a good understanding of their corporate culture and the fit with you as a client.  This is invaluable understanding when you are evaluating an agency’s performance through a pitch process.

As we operate on a global basis we ensure we know the regional and local capabilities and reputation of any agencies we put forward for global pitches.

A client team trying to run the whole pitch themselves is just not going to have the knowledge and experience of the agency landscape that we do.  They have their own day jobs to focus on!

If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well

The search and selection of an agency represents a considerable investment.  Not only in the time and resource already mentioned, but the new agency will be accountable for potentially large quantities of the marketing budget and ultimately the Return of Investment of that budget and their client’s reputation and value.  So an efficient, and professionally run process is essential.  During a typical marketing communications career individual team members are probably involved in just a handful of pitches.  It’s not unusual for us to be approached by client teams to take over a pitch process they have started for themselves once they realise they don’t have the in-house expertise to manage the pitch effectively.  At The Observatory International we handle pitches day in, day out and have established best practice methodologies and processes.

The graphic below is a high level view of our search and selection process, delivered consistently by our offices around the world:

what we know about agency pitches

Why a workshop is essential

Our pitch process includes a workshop (often called a tissue session) between the agency briefing and the final pitch presentations.  Some clients try and skip this step, due to time pressure, and other intermediaries do not include this stage.  But to us it is essential.  It is the only time in the whole process when the client and agency teams get to experience what it is like to work with each other.  How do they react to feedback?  How do they respond to challenges? Do they listen?  Are they collaborative?  These questions are relevant to both parties.  And they are really important indicators of what the relationship will be like going forward.

The workshop is also really valuable to ensure the agencies are able to put their very best work forward at the pitch.  Unless they are the incumbent, the agencies will not have worked with the client before, or be as familiar with the brand.  This will mean they can misinterpret the brief, or not be aware of particular preferences and limitations within the client organisation.  The workshop is ideal to bring the agency back on track before their final presentation at the pitch.

Don’t bet on the outcome

Actually that is not strictly true – the one thing that we would bet on is that one of the agencies involved in the process will, as we term it, ‘blow up’.  But you can’t always tell which one it will be. An agency might have a fantastic Chemistry meeting, have a really constructive workshop meeting with lots of idea and directions to choose from – and then at the pitch they have lost the connection between strategy and creative output.  Or another agency might be on the ‘back foot’ through the whole process, but learns and develops through the whole selection process to finish with a fantastic pitch presentation and outcome.

It’s not over, until it’s over

So you just spent the last 12 weeks (at least) preparing and presenting briefs, visiting numerous agencies, trying to resist the mouth watering refreshments in front of you at each meeting, sitting through several hours of pitch presentations and dragging beautifully crafted A3 size books back to the office.  You sit down with your colleagues, after a debate lasting 5 mins or 5 hours you reach a decision – you have chosen your new agency.  Hurrah, it’s over we can get on with the marketing.

But actually it is just the beginning.

  • On-boarding the new agency is vitally important to the future success of the relationship to ensure they know your ways of working, or you establish mutual ones.
  • Mutual agreement about what to expect in a great brief.
  • How to give creative feedback.
  • Ensuring fair performance measures are in place to help keep the relationship on track.

These are just some of the elements that need to be discussed and agreed up front.

For The Observatory International agency search and selection is too important to be just an ad hoc addition to a client team’s workload.  It’s our job day in day out.  It needs expertise and dedicated focus.

The Observatory International is the leading global management consultancy dedicated to helping companies maximize their marketing and communications resources.  Our consultants have been working with leading marketers across Europe, North America, Africa and Asia for decades.  We are the only global Consultancy in the marketing field accredited by the Management Consultancies Association.

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