Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Bitching about pitches? Here's a new approach.

I recently ran a pitch for a company that was seen as a highly desirable account in the industry because of the calibre of the work they had done. I don't often run pitches, mainly because I hate the standard pitch process. But I told the client that I thought there was an opportunity to do one differently - especially as their brand had a certain cachet, but more importantly because their company culture was refreshingly uncluttered and open, and the partnership with an agency was something they regarded as extremely important.

So the first thing we did was to call it an "Agency Engagement Process", not a Pitch. Semantics yes, but getting engaged, or engaging with someone, just feels like a more appealing prospect than 'pitching" which, let's face it means throwing a ball at someone's face as hard as you can.

image courtesy vectorolie |

Then we designed a Request for Information (RFI) that was one and a half pages long. No realms of financial information required, no hourly rates per each employee, no names of pets previously owned. Just simple questions, and even an emotional one: what is it about our account that makes you think you would be the right agency to partner with us? We asked whether there were any interesting facts about the Agency that we might not know, and then we asked them to submit the creative work of which they were most proud.

Oh, and when I say 'we' designed, I mean the client was deeply involved in the design and application process. This was no 'cut and paste' tick-box process.

We outlined the process we were planning to follow, and we agreed upfront that we would be transparent and open with all the agencies involved throughout the process. We also agreed the criteria, and the level of importance of each one.

Interestingly the winning agency's MD referred to it as an "empathetic pitch process". Yes it was.

Another feature of this "empathetic" pitch was that we were determined to give each agency detailed feedback, and to answer as many questions as they wanted to ask.

When we had gone through the submissions, we communicated (quickly) with the successful and unsuccessful agencies. The unsuccessful ones who wanted to know why they hadn't made it could ask, and I would tell them. Many of them said it was the best (if not, only) feedback they'd had during a pitch, and it was really useful. Pitches are time consuming and expensive. Why shouldn't agencies be able to use them as a learning process? Even though each client or prospective client and pitch situation is different, there may be some simple things that are screwing up the agency's chances of winning the business. For the work that agencies put in to pitches (usually free, or for a pittance), the absolute bare minimum should be some constructive feedback. IMHO.

After evaluating the RFI's from the long list, we selected five agencies for a short list. They were each invited to a Chemistry Session. The first date.

image courtesy Stuart Miles,

Before the meeting, we sent the five shortlisted agencies some thought starters in terms of areas they might want to research and have an opinion on. We suggested that they stay away from PowerPoint and bring the people that would work on the business.

The chemistry meetings were illuminating! I'll talk about the 'don't's' below, but overall it gave us an excellent way of discerning who to take into the next round.

After evaluating the agencies against the pre-agreed criteria (and after a rigorous, open and fair debate amongst the key stakeholders), we selected three agencies. There was no "done-deal". Each stakeholder had a different ranking of the 'favourites'. What made this process so unique too was that the key stakeholders in the business, right to the top, were involved in all the debates and meetings, from the beginning to the end, and each had an equal say. The Marketing Director, who was running the process, had a casting vote, if needed.

The brief to the last three agencies was to work towards a Tissue Session, off a detailed brief. We wanted them to suggest a possible "creative platform" that the client could build their next campaign around. We stressed that they were not to develop 'ads', but that this was a test not only of their strategic and creative abilities, it was a test of how they worked with the client in the three weeks leading up to the tissue session.

Why do it this way? 

Because if creative work is presented, the client might buy the right idea on the day, not the right team. And given that most work presented in pitches never sees the light of day (I reckon it's about 99%), and it's done totally in isolation of the marketing team, why choose a team on the pitch work? Beats me.

image courtesy of pakorn

During this Tissue Session process, the client had many working sessions with each agency, got an inside view of how they worked with their clients, and worked with actual client service people (who are almost invisible in the pitch process, yet so vital in the running of an account). The client also flew to see offices in other cities, and had the opportunity to meet production teams and other support staff. Again, the process was transparent, and questions were asked and answered as they came up.

Finally, the Tissue Session day was upon us. The responses to the brief were different and interesting and gave us all food for thought. It was clear on entering each agency's meeting room, that there was already a relationship between the client team and each agency - it wasn't a case of meeting people for the first time on the pitch day. Even the senior execs in the room had met the agency team at the Chemistry meeting. The meetings felt comfortable even though there was a lot at stake.

In the end, in my opinion, the best fit for the client was the agency that won the business. And funnily enough, the thing that probably swung it was a conversation about the client's business away from the traditional advertising space - the agency had researched all aspects of the business and was able to comment on an activation concept and provide insight that excited the client.

So, why write this post? A number of learnings made themselves clear to me - what the client did right, and what agencies should try not to do in pitches. As I said above, every pitch is different, but hopefully these can help.

Things I think worked well

Image courtesy iosphere

Care was taken not to waste people's time with the RFI. It was kept short for a reason: why waste agencies' (valuable) time when they might not make it through?

Enough time was allocated to each step - there was plenty of time to complete RFI's, prepare for the Chemistry Sessions, and for the final Tissue Session. Yes some pitches may be urgent, but what can a marketer possibly gain by rushing this process?

The process was open and transparent - most questions asked, were answered. To help the client find time to do his day job, I was given the task of handling these - and was happy to give advice, guidance, and talk people off window ledges. I've been in huge pitches were no contact with the client was allowed between a group briefing, with all the competing agencies in the same room, to the presentation - horrible. And unconstructive.

Detailed feedback was given to both successful and unsuccessful agencies, which I hope (given some of their comments) will help them learn and improve in upcoming pitches.

Evaluation criteria were shared, and feedback was given according to those criteria.

Top management involvement was key - in each and every meeting, even internal debates, from the beginning to the end. The most senior executive expressed amazement that there are pitches in which the CEO doesn't get involved. "Why would they not want to be involved, when it's such an important decision for the business?"

A lot of additional research took place - the client and I spoke to many other people about the agencies - TV directors, other clients, staff, other suppliers.

The incumbent agency was involved and gave advice to other agencies and to client and me. This was a bit weird and probably wouldn't work in the case where a pitch is called because of  a breakdown in relationship between agency and client - but it worked in this case - the best interests of the client were top of mind.

Things I think agencies should bear in mind for their next pitch

Answer the brief (even if it's a brief for a meeting), creatively. The winning agency devised a technique for directing the flow of conversation in the Chemistry Meeting that was clever, simple and creative. The impression created was that if they can think that strategically and creatively for a meeting, then they've got to be good.

Follow the instructions - they are there for a reason! We said 'no PowerPoint", as the client is allergic to PowerPoint's. What happened? Two out the five 'dates', in the Chemistry Sessions - plugged in PowerPoint. I also use PowerPoint, but here's what I learned - it changes the dynamic in the room. It stops people talking to each other as they turn to look at the screen and they listen without engaging with the speaker. Most interesting for me, was that when they plugged a laptop in, it lowered the lights in the room. Then when the PP was done, the discussion took place in a gloomy light. The effect on the 'chemistry' in the room was staggering.

Cartoon courtesy of the remarkable Tom Fishburne @marketoonist

Consider carefully who to bring with. One of the agencies had someone present something (see how discreet I'm being) which somewhat annoyed one of the clients. When I gave them this feedback, the agency said "oh no, but he's leaving anyway'. What would have happened if he was the star of the show, only for the client to find out at the end of the process that he was leaving? Bring the best people,  but make sure if the brief says "bring the people who will work on the business", that's who you bring. If you have to hire to handle the business, say so. Keep the group small. Make sure everyone has a role in the meeting.  But make sure the core team in the meeting will be there for the client afterwards.

Make sure your credentials are relevant to the needs of the Client's business. If you are linked to a global network and have offices in 300 countries and several small planets, consider whether that is in fact relevant, impactful and interesting to the client. I find a lot of agency credentials talk about the agency - yes that's a good thing - but do what you do best. Craft a persuasive message. Define your benefit. Find an insight about your target audience (the prospective client), ask what will encourage them to appoint you. I promise you a standard credentials show ain't going to do it. Bear in mind too, that by the time the client sees you, if he's done his work properly (as was the case in this one), he (or she) knows all that stuff anyway. They've read your submission, they've been on to your website etc. Your job is to answer the WIIFM* question (*What's in it for me?)

Do your research. Introduce some category or brand insights. But and this is a big but. Don't tell them what they already know. Because, worst case, you might get it wrong. If it's about competitors - they probably already know what their competitors are saying and what their positionings are. Add a layer to it that they won't know. Frame it differently. Bring consumer insights that will surprise them, rather than the obvious ones that they may have worked with. I realize this is difficult - because as Donal Rumsfield said "there are things we don't know we don't know". You don't know what they know - but be sensible about it. If you there marketing person of that company, would you know this - or do you think it's an Aha observation?

Find a role for account management. Almost every agency had a 'tag on' account management person, yet the client had rated this is a very important part of the search criteria. Especially in a process like this, the client wanted a sense of how compatible the account management person was with the key members of the team. If the account management person sits in a corner with a mouth full of teeth, that's hard to gauge. And yes Creative Directors, I'm looking at you on this one. Let them play a role - a team role, not a support role. The client wants and needs to see it, because as much as they might love you, they aren't going to be speaking to you 87 times a day.

And - show your soul. The question we asked "what is it about our account that makes you think your agency is the right agency to partner us" gave us some hilarious answers ("because it's nearly awards season"... seriously) but also showed us some incredible insight from agencies that might not have otherwise been  considered. It's an engagement process - be engaging.

And finally...

Make sure that you want the client for the right reasons. Is it right for your business? Does it suit your team's expertise, what you love doing, the type of work you want to do, the categories you know and love. Because if it's just for the money, chances are the whole process is going to have to be redone too soon.

Adtherapy is a consulting and advertising skills-building company that is on a quest to #ridtheworldofbadadvertising


Call me if you want advice on your new business pitch strategy, your credentials presentation, your positioning. Or if you just want to chat.


Call me if you want to discuss finding a new agency. I'll probably start by asking you if you can make the current relationship work better, and may help you with that. But if you can't, then I'd be happy to work through a process like this with you. Bear in mind though - the success was partly the process, and mostly the involvement from the client. So you'll have to work with me.

Contact details: (+27) (0) 83 2659099

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Cannes Festival is over. Is the winning work any good?

Well, what a relief that the endless stream of sun-dappled beach and cafe pictures, with the obligatory cocktail or glass of pink Chateau Quleque-chose in the foreground, are over. Back to the real world for the lot of you.

Pic Courtesy Arlene Donnenburg. 

Not that I'm envious at all. I managed to save my South African Rands, and still watched some great seminars from the comfort of my heated office in freezing Cape Town. And I didn't have a hangover once.

So given that I was a virtual voyeur of the Festivale, which used to be called the International Advertising Festival and now is known as the somewhat loftier International festival of Creativity, I have a few learnings, observations, musings, mutterings.

The first is the mobile is where it will be, and the developing world has the most opportunity. Watch Keith Weed from Unilever's views here

The second is that ideas still matter. More than ever.

The third is that the name should revert to the Festival of Advertising, not Festival of Creativity. Just because it's a 3-D billboard, or a prosthetic arm, or an App that looks after your kids on the beach doesn't mean that somehow it's stopped being advertising. 

MegaFon's MegaFaces Billboard at the Sochi Olympics

This is not a festival for pure creative, because that would then encompass art, and graffiti and music and film and books and a whole bunch of other creative pursuits. This is creativity in service of business. It's creativity that is helping brands grow. And that, in my humble view, is called Advertising.

Of course Sir John Hegarty said it best - listen to his view on this point here.

Another point is that many of the winners were familiar work, already. Both the Grand Prix Winners for Film had already been seen many times; in the case of Volvo Trucks  over 73 million times.  Fourth learning: great work gets shared. Great work is amplified. T'was ever thus, but so much more powerful today.

But for my fifth and I think most interesting learning, back to my headline. An article in the USA Today had this headline "Incredibly Unusual Ads take Top Cannes Awards".

Which got me thinking - why are they unusual? Awards shows are always controversial, but unusual? Are the winners any good?

And that's the beauty of Cannes. 

Whatever the festival is called. Because it forces those of us in the pursuit of great advertising to challenge our notions of what great looks like. And to share in the choices of experienced judging panels. And to ponder and wonder what they saw in those pieces, and why the mood of the winners feels quite different to the winners last year. And whether we personally think they're good or great.

And that's the greatest learning of all. Everyone in the business of marketing communication needs to constantly review, question, discuss, have a point of view. Watch the seminars. Learn. Listen. Grow. That's the practice needed to constantly get better at this.

Btw, the journalist of the "Unusual Ads win Cannes" story, quotes:

Harvey Nichols Christmas Campaign
The Harvey Nichols "Sorry I Spent It on Myself" campaign focuses on people who buy their loved ones inexpensive holiday gifts, such as rubber bands and paper clips that come in Harvey Nichols-branded packaging, so they can spend more on themselves. 
The retailer actually sold the cheap, unusual presents featured in its ad — and sold out in just under three days.

Harvey Nichols' advertising approach was "brave" and "flew in the face of convention around holiday advertising," said film jury member Pete Favat, who is the chief creative officer at ad agency Deutsch LA, in Los Angeles. "For a retailer to take their highest-selling season and do something like this is remarkably bold."

Brave, bold, convention-breaking, successful. Those have always been hallmarks of great advertising. So not really unusual at all. The only unusual bit is that so few marketers will make this type of work.

To summarise.

My brain is full. My heart is inspired. Onwards brave warriors. Do your best. Because in the end, everybody wins.


Adtherapy is a consulting and advertising skills-building company that is on a quest to #ridtheworldofbadadvertising

Contact Gillian on if you want to join the quest, or want some advice on how to make better advertising.Or you can follow, chat on Twitter @grightford@grightford

Friday, May 9, 2014

Are ad agencies becoming commoditised?

A fascinating debate took place on Twitter last night, initiated and facilitated by the team at Adlip, on the subject of whether "agency services have become mere commodities".

It was short, sweet and full of as much insight as one can get across in 140 characters. (Read the full #Adlip Talk Twitter TL here)

The general answer, was "no, well, maybe, but.." It was an industry view, and missing the voice of the one person who really can answer: the marketer him or her self.

Of course there is no Yes or No answer to this question. Frankly, a lot depends on the agency's abilities and on the marketer's skills. But the question that does have a simple answer is "has the business changed"? Yes it has. There are a myriad options available to marketers - but that in itself is not necessarily a good thing for them.

What is happening, especially given South Africa's small market, is that each agency wants to capture as much of the pie as possible, so that many agencies are trying to do all things for all people.

But if we all do the same thing, we do become commodities, and it does become a case of "well, I can get exactly the same thing from those guys, for cheaper. Cool."

Agencies spend their days crafting strategic positioning for clients, marking competitive territory and helping clients defend it. When it comes to their own, they are the cobblers kids with no shoes!

There is even a comic book on it! 

There is no marked differentiation among the major players. The ones that do have a differentiated spot soon begin looking over at the others and wanting to be more like them. The reason that there is commoditisation is that the clients perceive all agencies to look the same, and do the same.

From Auditing Your Agency's Business Model - see below

To makes sense of it all, I came across this slide show by the hugely insightful Tim William, on how to really decide what your agency is and does, for whom, in which channels. It's called Auditing Your Agency's Business Model. Take a moment to read it, and even better, take a moment to run through the exercises and charts with your Exco.

Then - make a stand that creates a differentiated, desirable, defensible (and profitable) positioning in the market. Stick to it. And better yet, communicate it and deliver it. Commoditisation gone.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Client-Agency Marriage Counseling?

The relationship between a Marketer (Client) and an Agency is often compared to a marriage. Although procurement people have tried to muscle in on the dating and wedding processes, the truth is that the relationship is between the people in the bed together, so to speak. This relationship has its ups and downs, and the primary reason for its “marriage” analogy is that it veers from moments of great joy to being quite often unreasonable, it is prone to emotional and subjective responses, blame and above all, is always high risk.

There are a number of companies offering tools (e.g. Y-Care, RAM) to help ad agencies and their marketing clients assess the status of their professional relationship. These are usually survey based and can be done on an ongoing basis, a few times a year or even just once a year as an annual assessment.

The assessments are usually mutual – agency scores marketing team and marketing team scores agency. The assessments flag areas of high and low performance and hopefully shed some light on those areas that one or both parties need to continue, or need to improve, if the relationship is to be the best it can be.

Whilst I believe there can be flaws in the collection of this data, it often provides the marketing team and the agency with a score – a number – which is either good or bad.
“My agency’s an 83, what’s yours?”
“Oh, mine’s terrible, still a 58”. 
Ideally if either party consistently scores below average, or below 'acceptable' levels, then remedial action needs to be taken. Does the team, or one specific person need training? What sort of training? Capabilities training or soft skills training like people management, managing conflict or time management? Are there process issues on one or both sides that need addressing? Is there a cultural incompatibility? Instead of changing the agency, does the agency need to be changed?

The assessments will highlight key success areas, and urgent issues that need to be addressed. Unless the agency and the marketing team take immediate steps to address these issues, the relationship is heading for the divorce courts. A friend I once worked with was married to a divorce attorney. He said this: 
“once a divorce file is opened, it’s never closed”.

And that’s a bit like the 'underperforming score' situation. Once that doubt settles in, frustration starts building, trust starts falling and the divorce file is metaphorically opened.

So, it's a no-brainer that both marketing and agency teams would assign the highest priority to getting the problem areas sorted, right? Although it sounds simple sometimes these areas are not improved, or even addressed. You may well wonder why this happens, when improving these areas has such important ramifications for both businesses and such dire consequences if not done?

Who knows, but I’ll hazard a few guesses:
  1. Because it falls into Steven Covey’s Important but Not Urgent box? No-one will be harping on this on a daily basis and so it slips through the cracks while the urgency of the day job takes priority?
  2. Because addressing the issues might rock the boat and the agency thinks it might destabilize the relationship and they might lose the business?
  3. Because the parties don't know how to fix the problems?  
  4. Because one party is too arrogant to do it and expects the other party to change completely while they change nothing?
  5. Because no. 4 is allowed to happen because of no 2?
  6. Because one or both parties don’t take the measurements seriously, or thinks its all the other parties fault anyway? 

That's why Adtherapy starting offering Agency-Client Interventions, running successfully since 2007. The current 'score', and the issues that have been identified, are only the starting point.

A recent client asked what the ‘success rate’ was in Agency-Client Interventions and it was an interesting question. In all those that I have done, I have only recommended one partnership to split, as the relationship had deteriorated beyond what I felt was salvageable. Was that a failure? I think not – maintaining a destructive client-agency relationship is toxic for all parties and especially destructive for the end creative product. That agency and that client went on to find new partners with whom they have done great work.

The reason why Client-Agency Interventions are like marriage counseling is that they examine whether it’s possible to improve the relationship to save it, and how. 

A recent study by the IPA suggests that the costs for pitches are extremely high – for the agency and for the client. So we ideally want to keep the relationship intact but make it commercially and psychologically viable for both parties. We want to look at the drivers for successful relationships and what the drivers are for the relationship under duress. 

Just so you know, the IPA recently concluded that four drivers of successful agency-client relationships are:
  1. Transparent and effective approval processes 
  2. Mutually agreed and maintained timing plans. 
  3. Honest and open briefings with clear business objectives, budget, timing and brand guidelines. 
  4. Respectful and collaborative behaviours built on shared goals and rewards.
The most important thing is this: like the divorce lawyer’s sad observation, the sooner this counseling takes place the better for the eventual outcome of the partnership.

As this post says with wise words from Vanilla Ice: Stop, Collaborate and Listen.

My advice? Don’t wait till Terrible Assessment Number 4. or 5.

Deal with it urgently. Get stuck in. If it helps to have an outside party manage the process, then let us add the qualitative and interpretive layer to what you already know but might not think you can do anything about. Let’s scope some Partnership Principles and deal with any process or people issues. Let’s be proactive rather than defensive.

And let’s all live happily ever after.


An Adtherapy Client-Agency Relationship Intervention is a positive and constructive process that aims to learn from the relationship challenges and ensure that the right partnership principles are applied for each party. 
The ultimate aim? A successful business partnership that produces the best work. A recent client described the process as 'part agony aunt, part freedom fighter'. We like that.
Mail or phone on 0832659099 to chat about how we can help you.