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

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