ANALYSIS: Will workshops replace the pitch? - Would you go for a pizza with the agency people working on your business? This is one of the questions helping to change the way clients select agencies Alexandra Jardine reports.

When Iceland reviewed its direct marketing last year, it experimented with a new approach to choosing an agency - and came out with an unexpected result.

When Iceland reviewed its direct marketing last year, it

experimented with a new approach to choosing an agency - and came out

with an unexpected result.

Instead of formal pitches, Iceland invited agencies in to discuss a

’mini-brief’, handed out on the spot.

Home shopping marketing manager Claire Rowling said: ’It was fascinating

to see how they reacted. It was immediately clear there was one outright

winner (MSB&K) and that really surprised us because it wasn’t

necessarily the one we would have picked on the strength of previous

meetings. In a different kind of pitch, we could well have chosen

someone else.’

Formal pitches

Iceland is one of a handful of companies turning their backs on the

traditional process of agency selection. For most clients this follows a

fairly standard formula: agencies are given a brief, spend six weeks or

so working on strategic and creative development and then ’pitch’ with a

formal presentation to the client.

But those days could be numbered in the new, fast turnaround, marketing

era. The dotcoms banging on every agency’s door need to find agencies in

six days, rather than six weeks. And, even for more traditional

marketers, time is increasingly precious.

’When clients come to us it’s generally because they have a problem and

they want it sorted. Taking lots of time over agency selection means

they take their eye off the ball,’ says Paul Phillips, director of media

services at the AAR Group, the London consultancy which matches clients

to agencies.

Perhaps the most important factor is the realisation that clients and

agencies need to find more realistic ways of discovering whether they

will be able to work together.

’The most important factors in agency selection are ’people, people and

people’,’ says Phillips. ’But a decision is often made on the agency’s

performance on the day, rather than knowing what they are going to be

like day to day. It can be a false environment.’

With this in mind, the AAR is encouraging clients and agencies to try a

new approach. The final ’pitch’ becomes an informal debate or workshop,

lasting around three hours, with contributions from both client and


Issues for discussion, or ’mini-briefs’, are given to agencies around

ten days before - or in some cases, even on the day itself.

’Instead of tackling the ’coalface’ issue of ’How do I improve my brand’

head on, we encourage them to talk about related issues such as

’Sponsorship - what’s in it for me?’ or ’How can I increase direct

selling of my product without upsetting retailers?’ says Phillips.

The shorter lead time means the agency is not expected to know the

minutiae of the client’s business, he says. ’The idea is to give the

client a taste of their style rather than getting the answer to the


Staff support

One benefit is giving client and agency staff at all levels a chance to

interact. However much the marketing director loves the agency chief, it

could well be the brand manager who says ’This just isn’t working’ a few

months later, says Rebecca Trentham, group marketing director at Dyson,

which selected Walker Media last year via the workshop.

’It’s important that junior staff get to meet their opposite numbers

because they will be working together most,’she says.

Trentham describes the scenario as ’more like the first meeting with the

agency rather than their talking at us. We could see their team working

in action and could tell what they would be like to work with.’

Rowling at Iceland also preferred the approach: ’We had more control

over what went on in the presentation and felt more involved. We didn’t

want to be ’wooed’ with an all-singing all-dancing presentation - this

is not what it’s like in the real world of retail.’

For agencies, Phillips says the workshop method means a more focused

approach to new business, which can be labour intensive and draining on


Emma Serednyj, new business director at HHCL & Partners, points out:

’Most agencies suffer from too much new business, rather than too

little. It makes sense to understand as quickly as possible if we have a

matched agenda.’

Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy won online start-up Self Trade following

a workshop session last year.

Helen Calcraft, managing director, says: ’It is much more collaborative.

Quite often, clients are sold on ideas rather than people when they

select agencies - which could be the reason why accounts move around so

much. When we pitched for Self Trade, our brainstorming session produced

a creative strategy that everyone owned. We even went out for coffee

halfway through - together.’

Kitchen clash

Aside from the AAR’s new approach, there is some evidence that other

marketers are changing.

When RHM launched a top secret organic food range earlier this year,

agencies ’pitched’ to marketing director Harriet Rhys Williams in the

kitchen of her flat.

One famous example is Commercial Union, which resolved its pounds 10m

account pitch between Duckworth Finn Grubb Waters and Leo Burnett by

inviting each agency separately for a day’s sailing to see how they

worked as a crew.

Whatever your method, it is a priority to make sure you can happily go

out for a beer after work with your agency, before trusting them with

your brand. Calcraft says: ’Collaboration is what modern client and

agency relationships are all about.’


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