Pitch Bitch

By The Drum, Administrator

September 27, 2007 | 9 min read

Crown Duals

Despite Universal’s best efforts, being the incumbent – like for so many agencies across the media and marketing industry – proved unfruitful. So is it worth it for the incumbent to go for the account? Are some companies abusing the process to ‘keep the agency on its toes’ or to get free ideas? And what exactly is a client looking for from its incumbent agency?

Nicola Newall, sales and marketing manager for Cogent Elliott, believes there are three common reasons why an agency would find itself pitching to retain an account. The first of these reasons, she says, is the statutory review. Usually coming together through a procurement process, the firm is required to review its supplier relationships on a regular basis.

“We do go through these types of situations and I genuinely see them as a good opportunity,” Newall explains. “It does keep us on our toes, admittedly, but it’s also a great way of showing them just why we’re their retained agency. It can also be an opportunity to put forward some ideas that are a bit out there and wouldn’t necessarily run, but display the full range of your creative pedigree. I don’t think this process does anybody any harm.”

Newall’s second reason is altogether more concerning for the other agencies involved in the pitch – “the keeping the incumbent on its toes” pitch.

“If this were a prospective client,” she says, “it says to me that we’d have to repitch every six months. That’s not the type of client we’d want to work with and I actively use this to distinguish whether we go for a piece of business or not.

“Before we went on the [Marketing Forum’s] cruise last month, I read the information about clients attending and decided that it wasn’t worth meeting any agency that said they were using the forum to ‘keep the incumbent agency on its toes’. For me, it shows a naivety on the part of the client and it won’t get the best out of their agency.”

However, when it comes to being the incumbent, the concern is on the unexpected decision to review the account.

Jared Read, creative director of Leeds-based Prego* says: “If the pitch comes out of the blue – as it generally does – that’s when it gets tough. You know the other agencies involved are out to win something new, whilst you’re trying to defend what you already have. That’s a difficult place to be.

“There’s also the nagging feeling that sometimes you’ve been included just as a courtesy, especially when a new marketing director has joined and it’s a shoo-in for their pet agency.”

Lucre director Adrian Johnson, adds: \"Public sector aside, when you\'re asked to repitch for PR work, nine times out of ten it\'s dead man walking. In our industry, it\'s a client\'s way of letting the agency down gently, rather than kicking them in the bollocks with a sacking.

“We\'ve got more than thirty clients now and we\'ve been asked to repitch twice in the two and half years we\'ve been operating. The first time we were young and naïve so we repitched. I doubt we\'ll ever repitch a non-public sector client again. On the two occasions a client has put us up for review, it\'s been as a result of a new head of marketing or PR coming in. Unfortunately, some incoming heads feel they have to make huge changes in order to justify their appointment. The smarter, savvy ones are confident enough to tweak successful relationships, not break them.”

So should the incumbent turn down the opportunity to repitch? “It would be courageous not to repitch,” says Danny Turnbull, managing director of Manchester-based Cicero (soon to be Gyro International), “because it would actually be quite defeatist, but I think we all know it’s fate-a-compli. In most instances, when a client puts the account up for review and invites the incumbent to repitch they’ve actually already decided that the account is going to move.”

Newall adds: “The third reason why an incumbent finds itself pitching is if the client feels the agency is underperforming. If the incumbent is invited to pitch, it’s generally out of courtesy and they haven’t got much chance of winning it. This is where the client needs to be honest with the agency. Even if the agency does produce great ideas or work in the pitch, it begs the question of why they haven’t been delivering it over the last six months and probably won’t be reappointed.

“What it boils down to is relationships. Ideally, every agency-client relationship should be a partnership and, that way, if a client is unhappy with its agency, they can attempt to resolve any issues early on and before it gets to the stage where a pitch needs to take place. Or, if they can’t be resolved, there’s little point in the incumbent having a courtesy invite to the pitch.”

However, Turnbull believes not inviting the incumbent could be problematic. “It would be quite brutal to say they weren’t invited to repitch for the business. Plus, in most cases, a client will have an ongoing requirement. They may need the agency to continue working with them for the next three or four months, and if they were to not invite the incumbent to repitch it could jeopardise the level of performance the agency would put in. It’d be all too easy for the agency to take their foot off the gas.”

The Co-operative Group’s Patrick Allen knows all about the review process. When the firm merged with United Co-operative earlier this year, Allen was installed as the firm’s group marketing director and promptly set about reducing a 47-strong agency roster down to 10.

So what does a large client like The Co-op expect from its incumbent agency in a review?

“You don’t want them to become lazy. You want them to be continually working with you to move the business forward, not just churn out the same thing that worked 10 years ago. I’m not suggesting for a second an agency would do that, but a regular review of what’s out there doesn’t do anybody any harm and keeps everyone on their toes.”

He adds: “We review our agencies on a regular basis because we want to be at the vanguard of marketing. But it doesn’t always mean a change. We’re a very professional business and we expect our suppliers to live up to that too. If they’re not up to it, they’ll go, and if they are, they’ll stay.

“I challenge myself, personally, I challenge the business and I challenge my staff. We do exactly the same with suppliers.”

So does having a thorough understanding of the firm put the incumbent at an advantage against other pitchees?

Turnbull says: “There are some advantages – such as the knowledge of the firm and what works and what doesn’t – but these could also be disadvantages, with the other agencies bringing a fresh pair of eyes to the pitch.

“You have to approach it with the same conviction and professionalism that you’d bring to any pitch, but I suppose there might be a sub-conscious resignation. Alternatively, the incumbent generally will put in more effort, at least then when the account inevitably leaves, the agency can go out with a sense of pride.”

Read adds: “Knowing a client’s history, likes and dislikes can also put the incumbent at a disadvantage – stifling creativity and making it hard to approach the pitch with fresh eyes and a clean sheet of paper.”

Another note of caution, according to Turnbull, is the danger of some firms abusing the process to their financial advantage. “There are some clients that see it as an opportunity to get free creative work out of their agency,” he says. “The incumbent will pitch new work in an attempt to be reappointed and the client will then retain their services and use the work without payment. That once happened to me with one of the world’s largest brands.

“We now make sure that if we are retained and the work is to run, the client will pay for it retrospectively. This needs to be agreed before we start.”

In the end, it boils down to the relationship between agency and client. As Newall concludes, if it’s worked at as a partnership, avoiding unnecessary pitching can be achieved. “There are actually organisations that operate like Relate, where the client and agency split the payment and sit down for a sort of counselling session where you can talk through any issues. But even without the help of third parties, if the relationship’s worked at as a partnership, it should never reach a point where the agency has a courtesy invite on a pitch they have no chance of winning.”

Turnbull adds: “Everybody knows the pitch process is flawed, but it should be said that there are enlightened clients out there who are willing to make some financial contribution, even if it doesn’t cover the extent of the work, to an agency’s pitch.”

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