A brief from the client and the ensuing pitch remains the starting point of most new client-agency relationships. For both sides, the pitch process also remains complex and time-consuming and still offers no guarantee of success.
This year, Ballantine’s the global whisky brand owned by Pernod Ricard worked with The Drum to develop a more immersive approach that helped them and the agencies that took part, perfect their pitch. He is an insight on the subsequent process that emanated from the partnership to select the correct agency partner.
To begin, working closely with The Drum Consulting, an immersive ‘all agency’ briefing session at a specialist private drinks venue in London was held.
Ballantine’s head of brand communications, Josh McCarthy explained in his briefing to those who attended that this was a brand with a long history that was experiencing growth in established and emerging markets.
“Our company wants to express ‘conviviality’ and we wanted to give the agencies a chance to experience the brand and the culture of our team as quickly as possible,” he explains.
The key people from the competing agency teams were all invited to the full-day event where the format provided an opportunity for Ballantine’s to meet the various personalities in a more relaxed setting, to see how the agencies interacted with their peers and of course how they responded to the content of the brief.
The session also allowed for room for one-on-one questions with the client in order to assess the brief and the chance to sample the product range in a unique setting.
Choosing a different path
Not every client places such emphasis on the briefing process and sometimes agencies might simply receive a document over e-mail followed by a quick question-and-answer call with the client.
An executive from one of the agencies who asked not to be named offers the view that the briefing process should be about “beginning a human relationship, not just completing a transaction or ticking a box.”
A managing director at one of the other agencies participating in the Ballantine’s process admits that access to clients is crucial, otherwise “a lot of the context and nuance can be lost.”
With that point in mind, the immersive briefing approach chosen by Ballantine’s was able to quickly cultivate relationships between the agency and client. By getting everybody together, in person and speaking openly about the aims and intentions of the project the brand minimised the chances of any misinterpretation.
Ballantine’s even specified the ideal mix of the agency team that should attend “We stipulated, for instance, that creative should be represented” outlines McCarthy.
“Client service and planners can interpret things differently and we wanted nothing to be lost in translation, plus we might spark an idea by speaking directly to the creative teams.”
Although this approach may seem far more time-consuming when compared with traditional practices, it’s a way of motivating agencies to come up with something exceptional, according to The Drum’s head of consulting, Steve Antoniewicz, who steered the process. “As a client, it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it” he adds.
Another competing agency used a sporting analogy to describe how he sees this process: “You can give a perfect briefing presentation, but it won’t necessarily change an agency’s overall performance. You need to set your players up to succeed and coach them so that they’re motivated and in the right state of mind to go out and perform, knowing what role they need to play.”
What are the benefits?
“First off, it’s a great signal for agencies that a client recognises the importance of the work and is prepared to invest real-time in the briefing. Creative encouragement aside, having everyone in the same room receiving the same brief at the same time means consistency for every agency and logistically it’s much more practical for the client” adds Antoniewicz.
“A single briefing, as opposed to three or more individual sessions, means you have a far better chance of getting all the key client representatives in the room at once.”
“Everyone gets a better brief,” says McCarthy of working in this manner. “Our key people are all here and we can move around the room and speak to everyone without it being awkward.” He adds: “In the past by the time you've given a brief for the third time, we have to ask ourselves whether we’re giving it the same level of enthusiasm and whether we’re being fair in terms of presenting it in the same way. Doing it in one hit is definitely better for everybody.”
It was found to also cultivate greater transparency, knowing that all agencies have been briefed in the same way. As McCarthy explains: “There’s no separate sessions or private access so it keeps it more of a level playing field and demystifies the process.”
He goes on to say that, importantly, this deeper briefing method also gives agencies the chance to see how the client presents themselves, they can get an indication of the brand and the team’s values. It helps agencies get an insight into just how enthusiastic the client is about their upcoming project. McCarthy admits that it has taken a significant amount of time and effort, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: “It reflects the fact that it’s an important project for us and that we're passionate about making it a success. We feel that the more information we can give people, the easier it is to crack the puzzle.”
Of course, spending quality time together for a full day means that both the agency and client teams get the chance to check the chemistry between them is right. “To build the kind of long-standing relationship, we’re looking for, we need to make sure that personalities gel,” says Ballantine’s brand manager Maxime Zanelli. “This approach really helps us to get an idea of whether we can see ourselves working long-term with these agencies.”
The primary purpose of this session is for clients to immerse agencies in their worlds, especially key for heritage brand with a legacy to share. It is a big opportunity for brands to inspire creativity within an agency.
“If you can’t be passionate to agencies about your brand, then how on earth do you think they'll be able to turn that into marketing that gets consumers excited about what you’re doing?” asks McCarthy. “You must bring to life your consumer benefit to an audience who are going to bring your marketing to life. If you can’t impart that energy, then I think it’s very difficult for them to take that brief.”
The challenges of a more immersive approach
Immersive briefing sessions like this one may not always be the norm and perhaps some clients fear that this method can only apply to brands in consumer culture or from sectors, like alcohol.
Antoniewicz however explains that any brand can do it: “Whatever sector you are in it’s up to you to be able to present your brand in an interesting way and excite prospective agencies.”
McCarthy thinks that this style encourages creatives to pull out all the stops.
“You’re gambling with hours of investment here but if we can be the brand they want to win, they’ll put a few extra chips on the table. In effect, we are pitching our brand to them and we need to make sure that we do a good job”.
Other questions emerge in relation to competing agencies attending together. Does the dynamic change by having competitors in the same room? How open are they? How realistic is it for them to start asking the big questions in front of their peers?
“The kind of agencies we like to work with should be comfortable working alongside others so this environment shouldn’t be a problem if it’s not right for them then chances are, they are probably not right for us.”
As one agency head of strategy says this works when communication channels are open during and after the immersive session.
“I prefer processes like this where there’s scope for lots of catch-ups and conversations at the briefing and before the pitch. That’s the really important bit because you get the chance to genuinely collaborate and build what the client wants. Having that open two-way dialogue really helps.”
This more immersive process helps clients and agencies to see from the get-go if their working styles match. “We’re hoping to buy great work, great creativity and great thinking, but ultimately, we’re buying people,” says McCarthy.
“We're investing in people that we believe can help take our business to the next level. There's something very cold about sending over a blank briefing to an agency without meeting them and asking them to represent our business. This opens up the process and allows agencies to act like they would if we were already working together. Other approaches can be very artificial; that’s not how everyday life works. We need conversations.”
To succeed, a new client/agency partnership should be built on trust, transparency and real collaboration. The Drum’s consulting team advocates an approach to agency search and selection which allows these themes to develop and improve the way that business is pitched and won.
“Selecting a new global creative agency is a huge decision for us and we worked with The Drum to design a process which gave the agencies full access to our team throughout and allowed plenty scope for collaboration and immersion in the brand.” Praised McCarthy following the end of the selection process.
The winner of the process has yet to be revealed but is expected to be announced in the near future.
Josh McCarthy and Steve Antoniewicz will be in conversation at The Drum’s Pitch Perfect event on Weds 20 November. There are only a few spaces remaining for this event, to purchase your ticket visit the website.
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