"Send me over an RFP and I’ll hire some $1,500-a-day freelancers to work on it with me, ignore my important clients, and get back to you in a week!" Sound familiar? If so, we’re going to do a little social profiling and assume that you work in an agency and have been involved in the process of pitching for business.
For something so integral to the success of an agency (and a brand) the process of acquiring new business—the pitch process—is notoriously fraught. Long lead times, long pitch lists, layers of consensus needed to select a partner, layers of meaningless paperwork for RFPs, requests for spec work, lack of access to decision makers, cost pressure from procurement for the agency, search consultants who may or may not be motivated or equipped to arrange the best marriage, giving away IP… when it’s bad, it’s pretty terrible. Even the wording of recent guidelines from the normally restrained 4A’s (the American Association of Advertising Agencies) and ANA (the Association of National Advertisers), referring to "excessive, unfocused RFP demands and cattle calls," reveals the extent of the problem when it comes to the process of securing new business.
But rather than dwell on the negatives, and given that agencies are in the business of solving problems, we thought we’d get some insight into potential solutions to make the practice of developing new creative relationships more efficient, respectful, pleasant and, well, creative.
While we anticipated some resistance to an open conversation about reforming the pitch process, the question, "How would you suggest improving the pitch process" was answered with resounding enthusiasm. The tone was highly positive, with little finger-pointing—that could, of course, have to do with the delicate nature of the question, but there was also some acknowledgment that agencies have more of a say in the process than it might sometimes seem.
"Agencies suggesting ways to improve the pitch process is a bit like crying over spilled milk because in the end, if we don’t like the way a pitch is being run, we don’t have to participate," says Jeff Jones, Partner and President at McKinney, before sharing his single best idea: Ditch the pitch altogether in favor of hiring agencies like senior executives. "Even the best pitch process today does very little to assess fit from both perspectives," says Jones.
Similarly, Laurie Coots, Chief Marketing Officer of TBWA\Worldwide says that agencies have to set new standards, know what’s important to them, and to define the lines within which they will participate and stick to them.
"Agencies are victims of our own drama," she says. "We have taught the clients that we will give them free ideas, that we will invest extraordinarily for a chance to prove we are the right partner, we will give away our IP for a shot—and now we are crying foul."
So in the spirit of constructive conversation, Co.Create solicited feedback from agency presidents, CEOs, CMOs, Creative Directors, Managing Directors, and new business heads to get some clear thinking on the matter. The feedback was overwhelming and could have resulted in 50 ways to improve the pitch process. Instead, we parsed the valuable input into 10 recurring thematic ideas that agencies feel will make agency/client relationships just a little bit easier.
Be sure to tell us what you think. Is the process broken? Is it fixable? It’s a complex issue and we want to hear your point of view.
While business relationships are no doubt a different beast than personal relationships—more formal, thankfully less intimate—the human behavior behind forming these bonds is the same. As in love, chemistry—or fit—is the most important element to a fruitful partnership, and the rigid, often arms-length way in which new partners are engaged does little to help foster the necessary connection to make professional fireworks.
Rosemarie Ryan, Co-CEO of Co Collective suggests thinking of the process less like pitching and more like dating. "Chemistry is everything. Do they spend the entire time talking about themselves or are they genuinely interested in you? Do you want to keep talking after the meeting ends, does the time fly by? Are you looking forward to getting together again?," she says. "Find the people you would walk through a burning building with and then get down to the real work."
That said, Sam Wilson, Managing Director from Wolff Olins cautions that while dating is an apt metaphor, competitive dating is not the goal. "One at a time, please. There is nothing worse than those briefing calls (or worse, in-person meetings) where there are multiple agencies present. They can’t be themselves; you don’t get to know them. This is not The Bachelor!"
For Krystle Loyland, head of new business at Mother New York, the importance of meeting prospective clients at the pitch phase is key to a quality outcome. "Pitches are often run by marketing folks who don’t necessarily have the authority or vision to make the final decisions. So by the time you present to the ones who do, you have developed creative ideas based on someone else’s strategy," she says. "This will always prove to be a waste of time and energy for both the client and the agency." Mother avoids this, says Loyland by meeting with all key decision-makers at the beginning of the pitch process. "This helps us not only better understand the core business problem, but also the client dynamic. It allows everyone involved to assess chemistry, compatibility, and shared values; and ultimately leads to better-fit work and long-term` partnerships, not short-term wins."
As in your personal life, where you meet someone matters as well, which is why AKQA CEO Tom Bedecarre insists that pitches should always take place at the agency. "If you are hiring an agency, then you are hiring the people, culture and work environment of that agency. It makes no sense to have pitch meetings at client offices or neutral locations because it shortchanges the opportunity to learn more about the people, culture and work environment of the agency you are about to hire."
Because as John Matejczyk, Executive Creative Director of MUH•TAY•ZIK HOF•FER says, "Understand what you’re really hiring is what’s the hardest to come by: taste." And the best way to get a sense of someone’s taste is certainly not in a cattle call.
If many agency leaders advocate for a more personal touch when searching for a creative mate, others go a step further, suggesting that clients engage prospective agencies in short term but real project to get a sense if they’re a perfect match.
"If you’re looking for a long term agency partner, beta test. Build and test a live partnership with the agency(ies) you’re considering; get involved, assess it, optimize it, roll it out more widely if it works," suggests Emma Cookson, Chairman, BBH New York. "Assign a controlled but real project, pay fairly but not excessively, and work with the agency honestly and in depth—it’s the only way to really know in advance what you’re buying." On the flip side, Cookson feels that for one-off jobs, the pitch should be limited to fast, intense, focused presentations. "Think TED talks. That would minimize time/effort on both sides, maximize pace and stay focused on what you really need to buy - a big central concept or idea that you can then later blow out together."
Similarly, Alasdair Lloyd-Jones, COO, Big Spaceship suggests reinventing the pitch process by building collaboration. "Bring on two agencies that excite you and pay for them to work with your team for a month or two on a particular challenge," he says "It’s full commitment on both sides. At the end of those two months, you decide which of the two makes the most sense to commit to based on thinking, cultural fit, ideas, achievement and commitment to the brand. You have to put in time and money but you end up with the best partner and that should lead to a longer-term engagement."
And it’s understanding the nuances work styles, personalities and culture that Andrew O’Dell, CEO at Pereira & O’Dell, sees as the key to more a more valuable pitch process. "The biggest issue with most reviews is it doesn’t simulate a real working relationship and that can be a big business hazard for clients in the long-run. Compensate the top two finalists for a 3-6 month period and engage them on a real assignment, not pitch. Both agency and client will benefit from the extra time spent building the relationship and developing work. At the very least, a more informed and confident decision can be made by both sides."
It’s easy for agencies, hungry for accounts or eager to work with a hot-shot client, to think they have little say in pitching matters. But not so, say these agency leaders.
Amalgamated CEO Brian Martin says that often companies enter the pitch process as if it is a beauty pageant looking to take home the crown. But that’s missing the point. "Winning the pitch is merely the beginning of a (hopefully) long relationship," says Martin. "That relationship is going to have significant ramifications on your firm’s future. So don’t approach the pitch prepared to jump through every hoop the client puts in front of you. Approach the meeting as if you’re looking to hire them. Be thoughtful and ask good questions. But most of all, be ready to walk away if the answers you receive in the process aren’t what you want to hear. A partnership is only good if expectations on both sides are in alignment."
"You are hiring each other," says Co’s Rosemarie Ryan. "It’s important that both parties are honest with each other about their hopes, dream, worst fears. More critically, it’s important that they are honest with themselves about whether that’s something they can live with."
Another way of looking at this same idea is to consider soliciting creative partners not within a pitching framework, but as if you’re hiring a key member of your team. "The best thing that could happen to the agency/client relationship is stopping the pitch process altogether," says Jeff Jones. "Clients should hire agencies following the same process they use to add a marketing executive to their team. Just like great marketing executive candidates, many agencies have the right credentials but very few are the right fit for the organization. Even the best pitch process today does very little to assess fit from both perspectives."
Tom Denari, President and Principal, Young & Laramore echoes the sentiment. "Recognize that agency relationships are just that—relationships. Instead of having the agencies spend ungodly hours developing a campaign that might never be used—or worse yet, might be very ineffective—have the actual working team commit to a two-day session of intense interviewing," he says. "Interview the agency principals individually. Find out what they believe in. What are they in the business for? Are they going to sell out? See if their stories match. Make sure you can work with a group that might present something you won’t like, not just something you do."
Transparency is a beloved buzzword, often devoid of any meaning. But when actually applied, it can foster a sense of common respect—no matter if the outcome works in an agency’s favor.
McKinney’s Jeff Jones asks that clients be clear about their intentions—whether they’re looking for a new partner or just simply fishing for ideas. "Both are OK. It’s only a problem when you are not transparent because it is obvious to agencies. We can tell based on the list of agencies you are talking to and the overall tone and structure of the process."
Peter McGuinness, CEO at DDB Chicago says, "Be honest with those who don’t have a shot so they can bow out early and with some dignity."
For AKQA’s Bedecarre, transparency meets a very pragmatic need: "Agencies must balance the costs of time and resources put into a given pitch against the potential benefits of winning the business. If the odds of winning are 1 out of 2, your expected value of the pitch is 50% of the assignment. If the odds are 1 out of 6, then the expected value drops to 16.7% of the assignment. Agencies should be willing to put 3 times the effort into a pitch against a single competitor compared to a 6-way shootout. So if clients narrow the list of finalists to 2 or 3 agencies, the results will be stronger."
And if the odds don’t stack up in an agency’s favor, Big Spaceship’s Lloyd-Jones simply asks for honest feedback. "Thorough feedback is the least a client can do to those agencies that didn’t make it. It respects the amount of effort put in and helps an agency improve for next time or at least understand why their pitch didn’t win."
Mother’s Loyland adds its incumbent upon all parties to ensure they’re painting an accurate portrait of their skills. "A pitch is really just a shorthand way to see if you have found the perfect collaborator. Sometimes this pure ambition becomes muddled because clients want to be someone they aren’t prepared to be, and agencies want to win new business by being someone they are not. This will always prove to be a waste of time and energy for both the client and the agency."
Unless you’re Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, getting lost in translation is the farthest thing from romantic. In the pitch scenario, when the agency is unable to ask direct questions of key clients, any communication is open for misinterpretation.
"When a company decides to change agencies, it is usually looking for a better way forward. Quite often, RFPs state that clients want to 're-invent’ the brand, or 'challenge the status quo’ of the category, or 're-capture’ market share, or appeal to a new or expanded target. These bold moves require change, but when it comes down to it, big moves may not be supported by the ultimate decision-makers," warns 180 Managing Partner/CEO Michael Allen. "Therefore, all stakeholders need to own the RFP, evaluation criteria must be clear, and it should be evident who has the final say. Everyone needs to make time for the process to work."
As John Matejczyk says: "Always have the person whose yes’ matters in the meeting. Unfortunately, everyone’s 'no’ matters; few clients’ 'yes’ matters. That’s who has to be in the meetings, making the decisions—not just about what agency to hire but what work to create. When I look back on the biggest hits of my career, without exception, we were dealing with the decision makers from the very first meeting. No escalation. No ‘go sell it through the business units’."
"Do clients really buy the pitch?" Dan LaCivita, President of digital agency Firstborn says no. For him, the pitch is created inside a bubble, with the focus on creating the perfect pitch as opposed to the perfect solution to the client’s problem. From there, the initial creative idea often ends up looking nothing like what was presented. "As we know, once the pitch is won, the idea(s) presented are often tweaked and altered, 'Frankenstein-ed’ together leaving the agency with only a shell of the once amazing concept that supposedly won them the business in the first place," he says. "I think there needs to be greater value put on not just selling an idea to the client, but on also selling the approach to an idea. Seeing how an agency thinks when developing creative solutions to real business problems is extremely valuable for a client looking for a long-term relationship."
Beth Waxman-Arteta, CMO of JWT North America agrees. "It’s fair enough to qualify an agency based on its previous work, but focusing on how it thinks about the direction of the client’s business will help both the agency and client determine if they are a good fit. Instead of discussing the past, agencies are better off highlighting their critical thinking skills and a future vision for the client."
She suggests a simpler RFI process, one that gets straight to the point: the client. "Wouldn’t a process that covers the basics and brings clients face-to-face with prospective agencies earlier on in the game be the most effective use of our time? I had the good fortune to participate in a review last summer that ran exactly this way, and it was a refreshing experience for everyone at the agency. The process moved straight from RFI to chemistry meetings, where the client stopped us short and said: "Forget your presentation. Obviously we know you can do all that—let’s just talk." They got to know us better much faster by asking direct questions about their challenges and how we’d solve them. Agency experience does matter, but it materializes much faster and in the most relevant ways when clients ask us direct questions about their business and how we envision the future.
McKinney’s Jeff Jones is blunt when it comes to the sticky topic of intellectual property. "Approach the topic of IP like a real partner. It’s an arms race for intellectual property in today’s business world, and it is no exception for agencies. Clients who take hard stands on IP ownership are fundamentally not respecting the agency business model and are setting up the relationship to ultimately fail. Agencies may say yes initially because they need to grow, but win/lose relationships on IP are an ultimate recipe for failure."
For whatever reason, talking about money is a delicate conversation that most people dance around. But in the pitch process, it’s crucial to talk about… right away.
"Knowing that you are in the right ballpark will save a lot of time and effort. Everything is always negotiable, but if there’s a serious gap between your budget and their rough price, better to know before you fall in love," offers Sam Wilson of Wolff Olins.
Jones is once again straightforward in his call for the straight goods on money. "Don’t make the budget a mystery. In today’s world, there is no way the budget is not known. Every marketing P&L has a line item for agency fees. It could save a lot of time and lead to a better decision if clients were clear about this.
John Matejczyk has an even more radical—but ultimately intriguing—idea when it comes to talking money during the pitch process. He suggests paying agencies to pitch. "It’s not just that a pitch is an enormous drain on an agency’s resources. It’s also that significantly compensating an agency for the pitch process will clarify your own thinking about who you really want to be working with. No one writes large checks to an agency who is there just to ‘round out the list.'"
If much of the input has centered around building productive relationships, some call for complete forthrightness when it comes to what’s exactly expected of the pitch process, like the duration of the pitch and the agencies competing, both of which DDB’s Peter McGuinness think should be limited.
"People spend hours working through financial and legal contracts and little if any time on a contract for the relationship," says Co’s Rosemarie Ryan. "Spend a day on what success looks like, for the business, the team, the individual. What are some things you should always do/never do?"
Donna Wiederkehr, CMO, Aegis Media North America says, "The best processes start with clients clearly defining their objectives, which must be well thought-out and actionable. It is important for agencies to have a clear understanding of why the business is going in for review, why the client is considering a change in agency, what the client wants to accomplish with this pitch process, etc. While these questions may seem intuitive and inherently basic, they are absolutely fundamental to the process."
For 180’s Michael Allen, even with a clearly defined, streamlined process, spec work should never be a part of the equation. "Spec creative work rarely wins pitches and is usually created in a vacuum (with little client involvement). Besides, it isn’t needed to evaluate an agency. Clients are savvy and know a lot about different agencies and the work they are capable of creating. If clients are unsure and need a test drive, start with a project.
Finally, having an eye to the future helps keep what can be a long, laborious process moving forward. Says Amalgamated’s Brian Martin: "Pitch meetings tend to start more broadly and progressively focus in on the core issue the client is looking to solve. So, give the client a sense of what you will deliver in the next meeting. The client will feel as if you understand their business better because you are going deeper than the others. And, by having that next meeting before you are actually asked to have the meeting, you will be better prepared with what to do with that next meeting."
Beth Waxman-Arteta of JWT adds that it’s important to "keep in mind where you want your business to be in the next several years—and get to that point right away. Asking your potential agency partners to explore and dream with you about the future is a step toward bettering the pitch process."