News Feature

By The Drum, Administrator

October 31, 2005 | 9 min read

Few topics are capable of turning ordinarily mild-mannered agency folk into crazy-eyed ‘better practice’ crusaders, quite like that of the pitch process. Mention to any agency boss the recent pitch lists that have included upwards of 10 companies and it’s pretty easy to see why ‘red rag to a bull’ has become such an oft-used phrase in our vocabulary.

Take retailer Matalan’s 15-way pitch, as reported in Adline last month, which required each from the pitch list to formally present creative work. Tim Rees, chairman of RBH in Meriden, believes this type of pitch is very concerning: “These clients, which are physically and actively speaking to 10 or 15 agencies, clearly haven’t done their homework properly. Marketing professionals should be educated enough not to waste both their time and the agency’s in hosting these type of pitches. It’s extremely unprofessional.

He added: “If they have a sizeable budget you’d expect experienced marketing professionals, who understand the marketplace well enough, to know the exact few agencies that they want to speak to.”

Sue Little, chief executive of McCann Erickson Communications House in Manchester, comments: “If a client genuinely wants to source an advertising \'partner\' and commit a significant amount of time to getting that right then I do not believe that a long pitch list is unprofessional, provided that the amount of work required by the agency \'long list\' in the early stages of the process is limited (i.e simply credentials).

“If that long list is then reduced to a \'short list\' of say four agencies from whom creative work (i.e. significant workload is required) then that would seem to deliver against all party\'s requirements.”

However, with that not having been the case on a number of pitches, there’s a call for action. As luck would have it, something is being done. News emerged in October that the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) has launched a confidential pitch advice service for member agencies. The initiative aims to provide a place where agencies can seek assistance if they feel they are being asked to pitch unfairly, such as extensive pitch lists. At the time of the launch, IPA director general, Hamish Pringle said: “Our aim is to ensure that every client is aware that the industry has an agreed set of best practice guidelines and that the IPA will get involved where there are serious breaches of that best practice.”

Ian Noble, managing director at Bray Leino in Bristol, believes the service could have a real impact. “As long as it’s done on a proactive rather than reactive basis, then it should work. But it’s the responsibility of the client and agency to take a real interest in what the IPA is trying to do. The advice service must be well communicated to both agencies and clients, offering the latter a guide of best practice that they can follow.”

BJL partner Nicky Unsworth agrees that the service can only be a positive thing, but remains sceptical on whether the problem will ever be eradicated. “The IPA initiative is a great idea, but it will take some time to build momentum, and may not catch some of the worst offenders.”

So, how has the industry become a victim to these practices? Have agencies brought it upon themselves, or are clients victims of corporate procedures? Saman Mansourpour, new business chief at Bristol-based Rhythmm, argues: “With so many agencies scrambling around for work, the industry has spiralled into a condition of doing anything for anyone if there\'s a chance to win the business. This has unfortunately led to many clients (of which inexperience plays a part) agreeing to put high numbers of agencies on their pitch lists.

“Not only does this mean there are a vast number of organisations doing work for free (and it is often the case that agencies won\'t know how many are on a pitch list) but most importantly it devalues the work done. It is very hard to charge market rates for something you have agreed to do for free at the start.”

He adds: “I have been in numerous pitch situations whereby the value of the work won turns out to be less than the time spent on the pitch, making the account a loss leader from the day it arrives in the agency.”

Noble, however, believes marketeers have become too concerned by cost, largely because of the ascending role of procurement departments. “There’s definitely a problem with procurement departments that commoditise marketing. When a marketing professional needs an agency, they are required to call in the procurement people and the pitch becomes predominantly focused on cost rather than strategy, creativity or, more importantly, the relationship.

“There’s absolutely no way a client can judge the suitability of an agency, from a relationship point of view, if they’re having five, ten or fifteen agencies pitching for them. They should set the brief, organise response meetings with three or four agencies, maybe even visiting the agencies to meet the teams they could be working with, and then go into the pitch.”

Speaking of Matalan’s 15-way pitch, and others like it, McCann Erickson Birmingham’s chief executive, Dean Lovett, said: “How does a client have enough time to see creative presentations from 15 agencies? It would take at least a week to get through that, so you have to feel sorry for the poor sod that goes first. If you consider that pitching can cost £20,000 to £30,000 in time, the actual amount of money that’s being spent on the pitch is ridiculously high.”

Rees believes the gamble for agency is too great to be taken. “I wouldn’t back a horse at 15 to 1, so why would I pitch against 14 other agencies for an account?”

Both RBH and McCann Erickson Birmingham have, in fact, adopted similar policies on when to, and when not to, approach a pitch. Rees commented: “As a matter of principle, we would always decline to pitch against more than four agencies. We prefer it when it’s against three, but will go to four for the bigger accounts.”

“We won’t pitch if there’s more than five agencies involved,” states Lovett. “We’re also very cautious about what is expected from us for a pitch. It could get to the point where it’s detrimental to existing clients, so we have to be careful.”

So, while the IPA’s new service will undoubtedly help in stopping what is fast becoming an unpopular trend, is having a policy on the number of agencies you’re willing to pitch against the only way to combat bad practice once and for all? Mansourpour adds: “There is a specific reason why lawyers and accountants still charge consistently on their hourly rates, and that\'s because as an industry they never compromise their value to their clients. In advertising this is becoming a common trait.”

Alternatively, Little suggests another way to ensure the pitch is conducted with the utmost professionalism and maturity. “Possibly from a client perspective the most effective way of sourcing a long term advertising partner would be to use the services of one of the recognised pitch consultants. While there is obviously a cost involved in doing this, taking a professional approach to pitching not only saves a client time, but also ensures that the eventual partner they choose, having thoroughly done their homework, will be the right one for them and add genuine value to their business.”

Nicky Unsworth, a partner at BJL in Manchester, outlines what constitutes a good pitch and tell tale signs to avoid poorly run pitches.

GOOD PITCH

ïThe client has clearly identified what they need in terms of an agency and the outputs they will require, and has done some early research.

ïIf the research is thorough they should then be able to move to a short list – by which time they should have taken into account agency strengths, the team, past activity, and chemistry – so there should be no surprises at a later date.

ïAn ideal short list would be no more than three or four agencies (especially if they are going to invest time in agencies to work with them/get to know them – more than this can become unwieldy).

ïThen, a clear unambiguous brief must be set and...

ï...A decent amount of time to progress with the brief must be given (depends on the type of account – but certainly weeks not days!).

ïGood clients should also give access to agencies for meetings and extra information – I don\'t think it is reasonable to ask an agency to do speculative work and then refuse access.

ïAn agency should then be judged against set criteria.

ïFinally, some clients do pay for pitches – even if this only amounts to a contribution – and it does acknowledge the work that will go into a pitch and the value it brings to clients. It also bodes well for the (potential) future relationship.

THINGS THAT SET ALARM BELLS RINGING...

ïBeing asked to pitch when no one has met us, worked with us, or been into the agency.

ïBeing asked to assign copyright on all our creative work following the pitch but without appointment.

ïBeing one of a large number of agencies.

ïThe brief being re-issued at a later stage because “it wasn\'t right” when the agency has already spent time on it.

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