At The Drum's Pitch Perfect conference yesterday (20 November), senior leaders from a variety of clients and advertising agencies shared their insights into the pitch process and how to win new business.
Here, we round up the key takeaways you need to consider.
1. Procurement is not the enemy
Procurement departments often get a bad rap - is it fair cop? While procurement teams have been accused of ‘knowing the cost of everything but the value of nothing’ Janelle Orozco, chief procurement officer at Diageo said: “Gone are the days where we’re just there to look at only the price.” Rather, she explains, they look at the total business value.
Orozco said you need to have clear criteria so the agency knows what it is being judged against. Of the different factors that make the final decision, she says “we will make tradeoffs between price, flexibility, global reach, client fit and cultural fit and creativity.”
Another criticism of procurement is the difficulty of ensuring it is a fair and level playing field, when the outcome is already predetermined by a stakeholder. But the panel of procurement experts were quick to highlight the role they play in defending agencies.
Jo Harding, senior director, strategic sourcing at Expedia Group admits that there are circumstances where the marketing exec knows who they want to give the business to, before the pitches even begin. But when that is the case, she’ll push back. “It’s important that the procurement team challenges it,” she says, acknowledging that while predetermined pitches wastes valuable agency time, “it also wastes our time, and procurement teams are generally always lean.”
Given a lot of work goes into pitching, with no guarantee of winning the account, the tricky issue of whether clients should pay for the time agencies spend on pitching is one that was debated.
“It comes down to the amount of work that goes into it,” says Orozco, sympathising with the amount of time and effort that often goes into the process. “The fundamental is that you have to be completely transparent.”
She adds that, ultimately, the power is in the agencies hands on whether it chooses to pitch. “You can decide as an agency. If you’re not going to get paid for it, then you can weight up whether or not to go for it.”
2. Agency culture is important if you want to win business
Another key topic to emerge from the day was the increasing importance being placed on agency culture when it comes to awarding new business. John McManus, managing director, Kind Snacks, for example, said that when his brand is in talks with agencies they always ask for the diversity make-up and about the working style of the pitching agencies.
“We’ve not formalised it [in the process], but we will do,” he adds.
And it seems agencies are all too aware. Ed Riseman, co-founder and general manager, The Big Group says that all staffers in his agency - whether or not they will be pitching or working on the account - have to be able to show how they work to the agencies values. In turn, this focus then helps the whole company feel a part of a new business win.
“What a client is buying into is the agency and the values and the way it’s run and the way you treat people. It’s the decency quotient. It’s part of the scoring process now,” said Riseman. “So it’s important everyone understands where they fit in the win. So we work out why we won and translate that back to the agency team – we show them it’s about culture and values."
3. Protecting your ideas is important, for agencies and brands
Earlier this year, a very public tussle between BrewDog and its former agency
Manifest London (which claimed the latter had derived a recent idea from one of its previous pitches) underscored the legal complexities around who owns an ‘idea’ after its been presented to an agency.
So what can creative shops actually do to protect their ideas in the first place? John Haggis a founding partner at law firm Kelperwolf says in the first instance it is essential for agencies to understand the legal basis on which they were entering a pitch process before it kicks off.
“Without doing that, you’re basically going in blind and hoping that your ideas are being respected and the agency will treat you fairly,” he adds. There are several options on the table for agencies looking to prevent their IP being reused - including legal clauses and NDAs.
However, Linn Frost, partner and head of client services at Truant London offered up the suggestion that in order to keep valuable creative concepts the industry could come together and pitch on a different basis.
“How about pitching on chemistry? Proof of your creds and strategy? Should we hold back the creative so we’re not actually giving something away?” she asks.
Fiona Wylie, acting marketing director at Royal Caribbean vetoed this proposition: “No client wants to turn up to a pitch and not see any creative ideas,” she says.
So what is the solution?
A simple start for agencies is to get their paperwork (something Frost admitted can get lost amid the buzz of potential new business) in order and consult resources like the IPA’s Pitch Centre which is designed to help with the legal complexities of the process.
Haggis argued that while copyright can’t be used to protect an idea, confidentiality clauses can.
“Your pitch document should have confidentiality notices on it,” he explains. “Copyright only protects original work… without implementing these small steps you’re handing over your ideas and saying ‘here you are, feel free, do what you want.”
It isn’t unusual for agencies to be approached by problematic clients, or vice versa, and in one of the day’s presentations, several marketers were asked whether it’s important to have a moral conscience.
Manifest London’s founder Alex Myers revealed the agency was once approached by a prominent consumer vaping brand, but he says they dealt with the situation by having very clear criteria. “We turned them down as they had nicotine content in their product which makes it addictive,” he explains. “But we did say if they delivered a product with 0% nicotine then we’d work with you, and in the end they did.”
The deal, however, broke down when the vaping brand secured funding from a major tobacco company and therefore voided Manifest’s contractual terms. Myers added: “No one on our team had an issue with us working with them, but I’d advise that if one person in your team does have their hand up and think it’s wrong then you should listen to them and say no. You need everyone on the same page.”
Although being forceful is important, Jess Gibb, chief marketing officer at creative agency St. Luke’s, says agency marketers also need to be adaptable and consider the bigger picture. “Banks missold PPI, Nike had child labour in their supply chains. Like, most brands have some kind of issue,” she adds. “The key is to understand the brief and whether you truly believe a brand is trying to change. If they are then I think it’s okay to work with them.”
Other situations are more clear cut. In an earlier session, Riseman from The Big Group revealed that a client had once put pressure on his agency to let go of a pregnant woman on the team as “a test of loyalty.”
“She worked for me, not them. It was a wake up call about who runs the agency - is it us, the founders, or the client? And it put the particular client in a different frame of mind. We parted company as quickly as possible,” he says.
5. What to do when you break up with a client
Whether it’s ethical issues, legal concerns, or something else entirely, there may come a point when an agency decides it’s no longer in a good relationship with their client and ultimately opts to walk away.
The biggest lesson for many of the speakers was that managing the end of a relationship is just as, if not more, important than wooing them at the beginning.
Tim McCloud, managing director at TMC admits it’s never an easy decision to walk away from business, especially for smaller agencies. But if it turns “toxic” and that client is “holding you back as an agency” then it’s time to “be brave” and cut the ties, for the sake of both parties.
“But the parting of ways is about reputation management,” McCloud says. “It’s important to go the extra mile and make sure it’s not the hours you’re counting out but more about leaving them in a position you feel comfortable with. Sometimes they might not deserve it. But leaving it in the right way has left us with a good and positive reputation. We are in a sector with a pitch culture, and how you leave a client is important.”
Andrew Last, client services director at Earnest agreed, and went as far as to offer an example of parting ways on bad terms and the lesson he’d learnt.
“We had a client we were doing a lot of work for and things got toxic, for example they showed another agency’s work and asked us to copy. So we’d had enough and I called up the client and knocked it on the head,” he explains.
“But in hindsight it was the wrong thing to do. We knew it had been coming for a while but they had no idea. And there was potential reputation damage [for us] by leaving them on the spot. And since then we’ve made sure that we let them know early if there’s issues, try and work them through, and go from there before calling it quits.”