The recent trend for marketers to hold pitches for every project brief, as well as running cost-based, eBay-style e-auctions, is causing an unprecedented level of unrest among agencies.
As a growing number of brands look to benchmark their marketing performance through these often lengthy and expensive processes, so the argument for a fresh approach to managing pitches gathers pace.
'There have always been clients that behave badly in pitches and there always will be,' says Kerry Glazer, chief executive of intermediary AAR, which has more than 20 years' experience in the pitching business. Despite many agencies taking a contrary view, Glazer does not believe that the situation has worsened because of the recession.
Some in the industry argue that pitching should be stopped altogether and marketers should do what plenty of other industries do: research the market, request a quote and choose a contractor. However, as Eurostar sales and marketing director Emma Harris points out, the pitch process is a valuable way to avoid cronyism.
'The pitch process is a helpful way to find the right agencies,' she says. 'There is always the temptation to stick with your incumbent, or work with "friends", and it ensures that agencies not necessarily on your radar get an opportunity to present themselves.'
Others suggest that industry trade bodies such as ISBA and the IPA should tackle brands that behave badly and expel agencies that act against guidelines. However, News International's category manager, advertising and marketing, Richard Woodford scoffs at this idea. 'As much as I respect ISBA, it can't and shouldn't tell me what to do,' he says. 'As for non-members, they will do what the hell they want.'
Woodford does, however, have some ideas about how the industry can clean itself up. He backs 'naming and shaming' brands that abuse the system. With agencies reluctant to do this in the small world of 'adland', where clients move around so frequently, he believes that this campaigning mantle could be taken up by the marketing press.
Agencies object to protracted pitches that drag on for months; Holland & Barrett, easyJet and TV Licensing are among those regularly cited as offenders. The worst culprits have failed to appoint an agency even after this lengthy process, arousing suspicions that they have called pitches solely to gather intelligence about costs to use in negotiations with their incumbents.
The most effective way to encourage better behaviour among marketers may be for agencies to walk away from badly run pitches. Again, many agencies are loath to do this in such a competitive market, where supply outstrips demand. However, those that to do so can earn greater respect and place themselves in a much better light.
For example, a few years ago the IPA advised all of its members on the shortlist for a Unilever pitch not to sign the company's non-disclosure agreement because it contained clauses such as assignment of all IP rights for a nominal sum. Only Karmarama refused to sign but it still ended up winning the business.
Jon Ingall, managing partner at Archibald Ingall Stretton, is selective about the pitches in which his agency participates and believes the industry is getting better at standing up to clients. He refuses to pitch if there are what he views as unreasonable contractual obligations or ambiguities. 'We are careful to ensure that there is clarity on who will be involved and clarity about what is actually up for grabs,' he says.
Agency heads still afraid to ask difficult questions, for fear of getting a black mark against them may take heart from the experience of Rosie Doggett, co-founder of procurement and pitch consultancy RD Squared. 'I have never known any agency to be dropped off the long list for asking a difficult question,' she says. 'Agencies should. They need to ask questions to ensure the pitch is real. Ask which other agencies are pitching, whether there is a contribution toward costs, and what the realistic budget is. Agencies can ask these questions charmingly, but if you don't ask, you're not going to be told.'
Honesty and transparency
However, there are also gripes on the client side that could be avoided if the right questions are asked. For example, marketers often complain that agencies roll out their A-list employees for the pitch, but then assign less-talented staff to the account when it has been won.
David Balko, commercial director at digital agency Jigsaw, says: 'Clients should have the balls to say they want the people on the pitch to run the account, but they are often a bit woolly in the way they ask questions.'
Similarly, marketers will get more relevant work from an agency if they are honest about the motivations for the pitch, even if these are personal. Having worked in the new business arena for many years at agencies such as TBWA and Publicis, Balko has learned that being direct often pays off. If the rapport is good, he tries to find out what the marketer genuinely wants from the work, whether it is a pay rise or an award.
'You can only ask those questions if you're prepared to be told to get lost,' he says. 'I did it in a pitch recently and the client was completely taken aback. He had a think and then came back to me, saying he wanted to use the campaign as a stepping stone to a new job.'
While agencies are always pitching, the experience of clients - even senior ones - may be limited. Agencies and trade bodies may therefore benefit from educating marketers and referring them to resources on how to run effective processes.
For example, if a marketer has asked eight agencies to pitch, when the IPA guidelines state that the number should not exceed four, then agencies should decline and point out why. If marketers are repeatedly denied access to the industry's best-run agencies, they will soon get the message.
BRAND MARKETERS ON PITCHING
Chris Hancox, vice-president of marketing and creative services, Comedy Central: 'I prefer agencies to hassle me and get things right rather than go away and think they have fixed the problem without any communication since the chemistry meeting. I also prefer three really strong ideas pitched to me rather than 10, of which eight can be dismissed immediately.'
Jan Gooding, marketing operations director, Aviva, asked all the agencies which participated in a recent pitch to give feedback to enable the insurance company to evaluate the effectiveness of the process. 'We held a pitch because we wanted to change from working with all six global networks to one. It was not due to dissatisfaction with any of our agencies,' she says. 'The dilemma is when pitches have come about through failure. Sometimes clients can feel they are not rewarded for their loyalty and not getting the best talent, ideas and value, because the best talent is pointed toward the new business machine.' She adds that it is 'regrettable' that calling a pitch is seemingly the only way clients can get their concerns taken on board. 'Agencies should never underestimate how reluctant clients are to run pitches, given how incredibly time-consuming it is to conduct them,' she says.
Emma Harris, Eurostar sales and marketing director: 'I find it incredible how many agencies spend most of their pitch time talking just about themselves in a way that bears no relevance to the client. Anyone versed in the basics of effective selling will tell you it's about providing solutions to a client's needs. It's fine to talk about an agency structure, background, achievements and other clients, but it always needs to be brought back to the client in hand. A pitch presentation that focuses on the credentials and successes they have achieved for others is never going to impress me on its own. They need to show a real understanding for the challenges we face as a business and present themselves as very much on our side.'
Because the current modus operandi of a traditional pitch is so expensive, time-consuming and often unrealistic, the IPA and ISBA are working on other options, which include:
- a strategic workshop
- a 48-hour pitch
- a two-week pitch
- IPA, ISBA, CIPS, DMA, MCCA and PRCA, have produced guidance for marketers on appointing a new agency, see: www.ipa.co.uk/Content/Finding-an-Agency-summary-version
- The IPA, ISBA and the DMA have developed a standardised RFI form, see: www.ipa.co.uk/Content/Request-for-Information-RFI-template
WHEN PITCHES GO BAD
According to sources, one agency's pitch for a major telecoms provider was going well. About halfway through, the clients asked the agency to leave the room while they talked over what they had seen so far. When the agency came back in, the mood had changed. The pitching team couldn't understand it, until they caught sight of a note one of them had written to another, now sitting in full view of everyone in the room. It read: 'The **** in the glasses looks like trouble.' The client took it in good humour, allowing the agency through to the second round, at which all client representatives turned up wearing big glasses.
Before a pitch, an agency presenter nipped out to the loo and returned with white powder traces under his nose. However, the agency head did not interrupt the proceedings. At the end of the pitch the client told the agency it had not won the business, not because the presenter had obviously been taking cocaine, but because none of his colleagues made any effort to alert him to his faux pas. This failure, said the client, was clear evidence that they were not a close team, and he didn't want them working for him.
While pitching for a retailer's account and on the day of the pitch, the agency team was sitting eagerly in its London offices waiting for the client to arrive. Then came a phone call from the client who was in Manchester. The pitching team hired a helicopter to get there but failed to win the business.
A design agency was pitching for some business from a big FMCG company. Halfway through, the client fell asleep. The agency members weren't sure whether they should wake him up, but decided to carry on. A short time later the client woke up with a start - ultimately the agency was handed the work.
An agency was hosting a chemistry meeting with a slimming brand so it ordered healthy nibbles for lunch. Part-way through, an agency employee joined the meeting, saying: 'Oh, how come we've got this food? We usually just have cheeseburgers.' The same person greeted an agency colleague as if they were from the client.
An agency was pitching for a clothing retail chain¹s account. The marketing team told the agency that the owner of the company would be joining the pitch at some point. When he did, he demanded that the agency jump the strategy and go straight to the creative, but then took a call on his mobile and left the room. The marketers then asked the agency to go back to the strategy, which they did, until the owner again returned only to insist they jump back to the creative, before popping out to take another call. This continued until the agency head called time and instructed his colleagues to pack up and go, saying it was clear the owner had no respect for or understanding of marketing and it wasn¹t worth their while.
During an e-auction pitch being run by a global computer company, an agency head got so carried away that he yelled at his new business director to drop their prices to ridiculously low levels to try to win the account. The new business director knew this could bankrupt the agency, so refused. The agency head went puce and fired him on the spot. Later, this firing was reversed and the managing director was given the boot instead.
An agency was attending a chemistry meeting at a national broadsheet¹s
offices. One of the first questions the client asked was: ŒWhich are your favourite writers for us?¹ The agency team, which had only been assembled that morning, was lost for words. Eventually one member said: ŒWell, actually, I don¹t read your newspaper.¹ This, coupled with the fact that one agency representative¹s new Blackberry kept going off, ensured the agency didn¹t get asked to pitch.
A Soho ad agency big cheese dropped out of a first round pitch at the last minute. The rest of the team, knowing the client would be expecting to see him, brought along a life-size cardboard cut out instead. It didn't go down well.
In a pre-pitch meeting, two agency staff walked into the client meeting to be greeted by the new interim senior marketing manager, whom they had helped to get fired from her previous job. Needless to say, she wasn¹t thrilled to see them and they didn¹t win the pitch.
On the morning of a pitch, an agency found someone had locked the room where all the pitch documents were kept. A chair had to be thrown through the floor-to- ceiling glass window to get the material, just as the client was entering the building
Perhaps the classic pitch story is how Peter Marsh won the coveted British Rail account. BR's top brass turned up at ABM for the pitch. An inattentive receptionist, who sat filing her nails, made them wait in the foyer, which was strewn with coffee-stained tables and overflowing ashtrays.
The minutes ticked by and nobody came to meet them. Furious at their treatment, the BR managers were about to storm out when Marsh and his team appeared. 'That's how the public sees BR,' Marsh told them. 'Now let¹s see what we can do to put it right.'