It made for uncomfortable listening: last week a room full of advertisers and agencies was confronted with unpalatable, but seemingly perennial, truths about pitching.
The occasion was the ISBA annual conference, at which Barclays marketing communications director for UK retail banking, Sara Bennison, unveiled new guidelines for best pitch practice. These, she explained, were the result of a collaborative effort involving ISBA and the IPA, inspired by 'horror stories about bad behaviour on both sides'.
Bennison did not mince her words. 'Clients who ask for the world but have only the budget for a county, agencies that undercut others with impossible deals ... it's quite shameful for an industry that complains about not being seen as professional'.
Delegates heard how a 2010 IPA/ISBA survey found that only 8% of clients rated pitching as an efficient process. The same survey uncovered a discrepancy in perceptions about the cost of pitching. While clients believe agencies spend an average of £31,000 on a pitch, the reality is, say agencies, £178,000 when time is factored in.
The IPA/ISBA task force has produced '6 Pitch Principles', but, as a first step, said Bennison, the onus was on clients to ask 10 questions before considering pitching their accounts (see box, right). It is vital, for example, to sort out internal politics first. 'What happens when, the day after you choose your agency, Sir Martin Sorrell calls your chairman and says WPP isn't (on the list)?' she asked.
Poor pitch practice is an ever-present issue, but 'the principles are, we hope, the kick-start to change for the better', said Hamish Pringle, IPA director-general. 'Change will only happen if both parties put them into practice.
We hope they don't fall on deaf ears.'
Here, we summarise the guidelines and ask four marketers for their verdict.
Openness and transparency
Ask yourself whether there is a need to pitch at all. Clarifying the business opportunity is key - the scope of the work, commercial opportunity and reason for the pitch.
In most pitches, there is an unnecessary amount of secrecy. Do you need to keep the agencies, budgets and time frames a secret? Transparency throughout the process allows agencies to make informed decisions on whether to pitch and assures clients full participation.
For consistency, all agencies should be briefed at the same time and place. Quality of briefing can vary significantly from first to last meeting.
Treat pitching with respect. Don't bring in the decision-makers at the end of the process. Only with senior client involvement from day one can the agencies be judged fairly. Consider paying a fee to an agency as a sign of good intent.
Agencies should not ambulance-chase or pursue every opportunity to pitch that is published in the press. Be discerning and clear about what opportunities are right for the agency.
Clients need to say no if agencies try to squeeze onto their pitch lists at the last minute. Agencies need to be similarly brave and firm with clients and push back if there is little clarity, the brief is poor, or the timescale too tight or protracted.
Clients should feel confident about eliminating agencies, including the incumbent, along the way if they really have no chance. It's not an imperative to finish with several agencies, when you are sure it will be one of two. You will save them a lot of time, money and heartache.
Access and navigation
Marketers must understand that for the pitch to succeed they need to make themselves available for the pitching agencies.
Clients and agencies need to have the process clearly mapped from the outset in terms of numbers, timings, people involved and location. Who is the decision-maker and what is their decision based on?
Treat all pitching agencies as if they were the incumbent. Allow them to navigate their way through your business in the same way.
Pitches can often go on too long. Set a time scale and stick to it. It may not always be possible to conclude a creative pitch in four weeks, but it could be worth aiming for. Contemporary practice seems to indicate that pitches are elongating; this causes uncertainty and is costly to business. Many pitches are lengthened by negotiations that should be contained within the pitch time frame.
Power of collective action
Encourage both parties to sign up to the IPA/ISBA mutual pre-pitch non-disclosure agreement (NDA) and be cautious of clients and agencies who are unwilling to respect these principles.
The NDA prohibits both client and agency from disclosing confidential information about the other, whether intellectual property or business details, to any third party.
While the pre-pitch document, which should be co-signed before any work is done, is not mandatory, it has been endorsed by the IPA Council and agreed as part of industry best practice by ISBA and the IPA.
10 Questions ... To ask yourself before and during a pitch
1. Do I really need a pitch?
2. Do I need a pitch consultant?
3. Who is project managing it?
4. Have I sorted the internal politics?
5. What is my pitch budget (time and money)?
6. Are the right people involved?
7. How am I managing the commercial part of the process?
8. Why is each agency on the list?
9. Does my brief ask the right questions?
10. How short could the pitch be?
THOMAS COOK: PUT CHEMISTRY BEFORE CREATIVE
- Mike Johnson Group brand and marketing director, Thomas Cook
The principles are logical, solid and make it clear that a pitch is a two-way process, where both client and agency have an opportunity to win and learn.
Although it is addressed in the '10 questions', one glaring omission from 6 Pitch Principles is a pre-pitch step of clarity by the client on what the pitch is for and the overall objectives. The principles will apply differently by the type of pitch. Many pitches get bogged down in evaluating creative output rather than the capability of the agency to handle an account. Clients that torture agencies about the work, rather than focus on the people may wonder why it fails at the first hurdle.
The sixth principle is essential. Intellectual property is at the heart of all our marketing interactions and should be treated with total respect. Openness and access will also be enhanced. Any party wavering on these points should not be trusted.
Furthermore, neither party should tolerate leaks during the process. Idle rumour and posturing is damaging and a waste of time, usually perpetrated by losing parties.
HACHETTE FILIPACCHI: IDEAS ARE HARD TO PROTECT
- Reid Holland Marketing director, Hachette Filipacchi
These guidelines are a welcome way to ensure we all get the most value from the process. I agree that openness and transparency should be paramount, in particular with regard to budget, time frames, scope of work and sign-off procedure.
The pitch should be an opportunity for the agency to demonstrate its approach and present initial ideas.
It is also vital for both sides to get a sense of the chemistry they share. Clients should not expect fully formed strategies or plans, and agencies should not try to prepare them.
As an ambition, the sixth principle is a good one. In reality, however, pre-pitch agreements could be tricky to manage. 'Ideas' are difficult to define and often are as much in the execution as the concept. I am not sure that an agency should be able to claim an initial pitch idea as its IP, especially as two agencies might present similar ideas.
Ultimately, trust between agency and client is at the heart of a successful ongoing relationship, and this is not necessarily secured by a written agreement.
CAPITAL ONE: TWO-WAY CONFIDENTIALITY IS VITAL
- Dominic Grounsell Marketing director, Capital One
Pitching can be a difficult process. Emotions and stress levels often run high on both sides and a lack of accepted best practice leads to variability in process and quality across the industry.
These principles are a positive step forward in that they provide guidance on the mindset and approach that should be taken, rather than focusing on the mechanics of the process. This should mean that the ideas can be flexibly adopted without feeling like a procedural straitjacket.
The most-critical themes are respect, openness and transparency. These are vital for ensuring that agency partners are engaged, feel valued and have a positive mindset about our businesses once the process has been completed.
I also support the guidance on pre-pitch agreements and NDAs. Both agencies and clients need to protect themselves, particularly given the confidential nature of the information being shared. We already do this in my business and I recommend it to any marketer engaging with suppliers who aren't under contract.
HEINEKEN UK: PAY A FEE TO LOSING AGENCIES
- Mark Given Brands director, Heineken UK
As a member of the working group I was shocked by agency stories of how they had been treated during a pitch. From my own recent experience on Foster's, I believe a well-run pitch can be a defining moment for a business.
The principles are simple guidelines that are hard to argue against. The point is that on many occasions we are not living up to these standards.
Principles one and four are important foundations. You need to get organised and design a clear process before you even pick up the phone. Senior marketers must get involved. I heard of one car company that let an intern run its global creative pitch.
There is no optimum pitch duration; it depends on the task in hand. However, clients should state the time frame upfront and stick to it.
On the subject of fees, we are happy to pay a modest pitch fee to cover out-of-pocket expenses to unsuccessful agencies as a token of goodwill.
The last principle may appear controversial, but it shouldn't do. While we need to understand the detail of the NDA, we should not fear collective action to safeguard our future.