Three ways to improve your pitch process etiquette

Joseph Liu is a career consultant, keynote speaker, columnist, and host of the Career Relaunch podcast. He helps professionals relaunch their careers by more powerfully marketing their personal brands. His work is informed by 10 years of global, client-side marketing experience in the US & UK managing brands including Glad, Liquid-Plumr, Gü Puds, and Häagen-Dazs, his involvement with four major brand relaunches, and 500+ hours of professional career coaching. He now applies principles used to build & relaunch consumer brands to help professionals and business owners build & relaunch their personal brands. He's been a speaker at TEDx and MarketingWeek Live, and served as a judge for The Drum’s Social Buzz Awards.

Following my article on 'Rethinking the client-agency relationship', this is the second in a three-part series on how to more effectively manage agencies through the initial brief, pitch process, and creative work.

The ad pitch: dreaded by some, relished by others

Let’s move onto the pitch process. At its core, the marketing agency pitch process can be an efficient way for brand owners to find the most capable agency to lead a project.

As a former brand manager, I unfortunately noticed little in the way of formalised guidance on running an effective pitch process. I’m not entirely surprised when agencies complain of clients being disorganised and unclear about timings and process. Part of the poor pitch etiquette can be explained by moral hazard – clients acting less carefully because they’re not yet financially vested in the process. Clients can certainly polish up the process, taking three broad actions:

Provide feedback throughout

Too often, we as clients take a passive approach to the creative pitch process, blasting out a brief to multiple agencies then moving onto other projects, allowing for minimal client-agency interaction until the final creative response. Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of the 'big reveal'. It often results in little opportunity for further refinement prior to choosing an agency.

I’m a proponent of a more involved, proactive approach, with constant client-agency engagement. Lay down clear ways of working up front, establish expectations, and be accessible to provide feedback as the agency develops their ideas. Additional interaction allows ideas to be refined and provides opportunity to see how agency teams respond to feedback.

Act like they’re hired

Early on in my brand career, I was trained to be rather 'poker-faced' during the pitch process, erring on the side of being politically correct and polite. Unfortunately, being too measured in delivering feedback results in unclear, watered-down direction, not to mention an air of distrust between teams. I now believe candour, letting your guard down a bit and saying what you really think most efficiently drives to a better result. Dropping your client game face, putting the formal pitch dynamic aside, and treating your agency like a true partner during their creative development process allows for more effective output.

Engage with agency as if they were already hired. Connect with your account lead regularly to discuss their progress. Get to know their team. Discuss issues as you would with a strategic partner. Shifting your mind set from agency evaluation to team collaboration also allows you get a realistic taste of their true capabilities.

Respect everyone’s time

I know how tempting it can be to organise a pitch process around what’s convenient for my own client-side team. Unfortunately, this often results in agencies starting and ending the process at different times, leading to head starts and process lags that leave agencies hanging throughout. This can be demotivating, frustrating, and time wasting.

Instead, plan out the pitch process so it begins and ends at the same time for all agencies involved, with each step of the process running in parallel. This requires more forward planning and detailed project management, but it ensures all agencies are briefed at the same time and given an even playing field to formulate a response. Commit to a concrete date and schedule calls with each agency in advance for that day to inform them of your decision.

In summary, when run collaboratively, professionally, and respectfully, the pitch process can create an efficient, level playing field, allowing brand owners an opportunity to sift through many agencies where their work speaks for itself.

I’ll admit that during my days as a brand manager, I wasn’t always able to follow every one of these principles every time, but when I did, the pitch process was more effective, the client-agency relationships much stronger, and the approach more respectful, ultimately resulting in better relationships, better work, and better results.

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With over eight years of client-side brand management & marketing experience at Fortune 500 FMCG and start-up companies in the US & UK, managing brands that include Glad, Liquid-Plumr, Gü Puds, and Häagen-Dazs, Joseph Liu helps professionals & small business owners relaunch their careers with resources to help them navigate career change and more powerfully market their personal brands at josephpliu.com. He's also the host of the Career Relaunch podcast, featuring inspiring stories of career change.

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