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A good pitch: The agency’s perspective

The pitch process: fundamentally flawed or a regular epicentre of adrenaline, innovation and ideas? Either way – the reality is that no one has come up with a better way to connect PR buyers and sellers.

When asked about the biggest issue he has with the pitch process Graham Biggs, communications director at BMW Group, says “my biggest bug-bear is when, despite making it clear that the day-to-day account team is expected to present at the pitch, they (the account team) either don’t turn up or a token one does, who is clearly thought most likely to impress. The pitch is dominated by the slick ‘new business’ team, who you know will vapourise immediately after the meeting. Agencies that do this simply don’t get the business.”

For a client-side perspective, PRmoment recently interviewed Chris Talago, VP PR and communications JAPAC and EMEA at Oracle,on how Oracle structures its pitch process, but in this feature we’ll be looking at the pitch process from an agency perspective.

As agency Ready 10 founder David Fraser says: “Let's say I have done 1,000 pitches over the last 14 years or so. I have asked the client for feedback every one of those times, but I have never been asked for feedback from the client. That doesn't seem right because there's a fair number of times they have needed it!”

Agency Calacus managing director David Alexander adds: “A great many opportunities come from organisations wanting PR but without a brief. Calacus has a RFP template for clients who get in touch with us and do not have one, but a lot of the time this is not filled in with the detail we have requested.”

Alexander goes on to say that “The reality is that most pitches start with contact, then sometimes credentials, then an RFP then pitch.

Comparing the accepted pitch process in public relations to that of other marketing sectors suggests that PR follows a similar theme, albeit in a truncated sequence.

The stages of a pitch according to the IPA:

  1. Creation of brief
  2. Identification of long list of agencies
  3. Gathering credentials (RFP)
  4. Shortlisting
  5. Chemistry meetings
  6. Pitch briefing sessions
  7. Follow up Q&A session
  8. Tissue sessions
  9. Negotiations
  10. Pitch day

Often the pitch process for relatively small briefs is different to that of larger briefs. In the box below Laura Sutherland, chief at agency Aura PR, outlines how the process tends to work for smaller clients.

For a smaller firm the following stages tend to apply:

  1. Brief (sometimes – often it can be a call from the client and then I send over a brief template for them to complete)
  2. Long-list – again this may or may not happen. Sometimes smaller clients come to me as one of three agencies or practitioners after they have done their research on who they want to approach
  3. Credentials can be missed out as this is included within either the chemistry meeting or for very small clients, they are included in the proposal
  4. Sometimes there is the initial proposal development then followed by a pitch of their favourite two or three
  5. Often there is no follow-up Q&A
  6. Negotiations often take place after the pitch, once the client has had the proposal and presentation, because sometimes the client doesn’t really know what can be achieved until they hear it

PRmoment founder Ben Smith spoke to Ali Gee, deputy CEO at agency FleishmanHillard Fishburn, Laura Sutherland from Aura PR, Vikki Chowney, director of content and publishing strategies at agency H+K Strategies, Matt Cross, UK md at Hotwire and David Alexander from Calacus PR, on their thoughts about how the various stages of the pitch process could be improved.

1. Creating a brief

Ali Gee: Creating a good brief is probably the hardest thing for clients to do. In theory, it should be easy, but in practice, briefs rarely clearly represent what the key decision maker is really looking for. More often than not, the brief has had input from a number of stakeholders which sometimes means it reads as if it’s been written by committee. Then there’s what we call the ‘kitchen sink’ brief where clients keep adding in more and more considerations, requirements, ‘nice to haves’ and mandatories. I’ve found that the best way to respond to these is by arranging a call to talk through the brief and listen hard. If I could change one thing about client briefs it would be to ask that they answer the question we always start with: “What’s the change you want to see?” When you boil it down, this is the nub of what really matters.

2. Forming a long list 

Vikki Chowney: In terms of forming long lists, when clients get it right, it’s because they’re talking to people with highly creative, highly effective work in their portfolio. The key is also relevance and consistency here. You can’t gauge the abilities of an agency based on one mega-campaign from three years ago.

While it’s not always possible, the best long lists are also built via a recommendation, as with most things! Judging the potential suitability based on awards or size alone is often not the best gauge of an agency’s actual ability to deliver the work you need.

3. Gathering RFPs/credentials 

Vikki Chowney: In terms of collating RFPs and credentials; clients sometimes struggle with fully understanding their own brief or identifying the right type of agencies for their project. When prospects aren’t confident in their brief or when they connect with agencies that aren’t comparable, they will get a mix of responses that will likely make their evaluation process more difficult. They will end up with more options, but it could also lead to a delayed decision amongst stakeholders.

On a practical note, when gathering responses it's helpful when companies have a reasonable timeline and are open to ongoing conversations (tissue sessions, questions, feedback etc). 

Matt Cross: It is really the RFP stage which so many clients get wrong though. Here’s my top five things which will guarantee to piss agencies off: 1) No budget…don’t expect agencies to throw figures at you. Decide how much you value communications and be transparent 2) No clear objectives linked to business objectives. We want to drive your business forward not just act as a mechanism for getting vanity coverage. When we see an RFP with nothing more than “raise awareness” we start to get jittery. And closely linked to that… 3) An insistence on using coverage volumes as the primary KPI. There is no joy here for anyone – in 2004 we had little choice of ways to demonstrate our value but in 2017 we have agreed as an industry to up our game and you should too. Let’s chat AMEC and real measurement. 4) No opportunity to speak to other stakeholders in the business…particularly those which hold the purse strings. By talking to all of the key decision makers and budget holders, we get a real feel for how marketing and comms aligns with the business and always get additional insights which inform the pitch  5) Getting the “just email us the pitch and we’ll let you know if you’ve won” request. We love to talk. We especially love to talk about the proposals which we have sunk blood sweat and tears into. Not getting a chance to strut our stuff, see how the ideas land and answer questions in person usually means we’re going to pull out of the process and doesn’t set things up nicely for a long successful relationship.

4. Shortlisting

Ali Gee: Given the costs involved in pitching, I think it’s fair to expect agencies to enter a four-horse race. Particularly if the competing agencies are in their usual competitor set. What’s more than a little bit disconcerting is when a client has either multiple agencies on the shortlist or has one global, one start up, one hot shop and one independent or medium-sized agency on the list – then it’s hard to know what to conclude from your competitor set. 

5. Chemistry meetings 

Ali Gee: Ooh, these are tricky to get right. A few years ago, I heard a former colleague declare “it’s just a chemistry meeting”. In my view, there’s no such thing. Chemistry meetings can make or break pitches. It can be won or lost in that meeting. And what’s tricky is knowing how much to show and share. Some agencies show creative work, others present strategic routes. Others just ask questions. One way in which clients could really help is to be mindful of the amount of time allocated for the meeting in relation to the list of topics they want covered – there’s a tendency for clients to experience the fire-hose from the agency when, again, taking time to listen to what the client is looking for is invaluable.

David Alexander: I have had TWO chemistry meetings ever when pitching for new business. Even with huge briefs I find it very unusual. It certainly gives the opportunity for building rapport with a prospect, understanding what they want and starting to guide them about what they may need – often what they really need does not occur to them.

6. Pitch briefing session and follow-up Q&A sessions

 David Alexander: Usually prospects are very helpful in providing answers. We had one example recently though where the prospect gave very little away about some details. We feared from the start that this was a tick-box exercise and that the incumbent would be retained and so it proved.

7. Negotiations

Laura Sutherland: Negotiations are difficult when clients don’t indicate a budget. I normally provide my day rate plus a proposed retainer fee, then outline other costs for creative activities. More often than not, with the brands I work with, negotiations start with the managing director or PR director (or equivalent). Negotiations work well when you’re talking at board level and not with management. Value can be misinterpreted when the consultant/agency doesn’t directly work with the board, often due to lack of understanding about the role of PR, how it’s integrated, measured and evaluated.

Some businesses charge the finance director with managing the process and this can be tricky if there is a lack of understanding.

As I’ve said for years, PR has a big job to do in business, ensuring through its practitioners and agencies that everyone outlines measurement and evaluation from the start, so there is a clear understanding of expectations. Whether it’s financial or about the overall strategy, negotiation skills are essential in PR.

8. Pitch day

 Ali Gee: Pitching costs agencies tens of thousands of pounds in time, production, costs and research so it can be disheartening to be asked to “keep it to an hour including questions.” I was once asked by a global company to present plans for 16 brands in a country a long-haul flight away in a one-hour slot. It really helps when clients look engaged, smile, nod occasionally, and as a minimum, acknowledge the huge amount of work that has gone into getting that far. I’ve had clients take calls, arrive half way through the pitch and one even fell asleep mid pitch (I promise it was him, not us).

 Laura Sutherland: As we all know, pitch days can be nerve wracking. From the start of the pitch process, the client should make expectations very clear as to who is involved, what will happen at each stage and who will be present.

I once walked into a room for a pitch with a big brand and there were about 15 people around the table! We thought there were only going to be five, so we had three people go in.

I used to work in an integrated agency and what worked well was the way advertising used to pitch, with visuals, concepts and campaigns. All too often PR can come into the room with standard bullet-point, power-point presentations and it’s rather boring.

Good pitches work when everyone is engaged, enthused by the proposed work and everyone has a clear idea of what would be delivered and the impact it would have.

9. Appointment

Laura Sutherland: Assuming you’ve gone through the whole process and you’re going to be appointed, the waiting is the worst part. Often you assume you’ve not won if the client doesn’t contact you within a few days with a query or the news.

Again, appointments have to be added into the original briefing materials, what the process is, who is involved, how long it will take, etc.

First, always have a contract in place. Second, remember, a contract is a two-way binding document, so it’s your opportunity to ensure all the elements of the contract are included within the client contract. Don’t sign anything if you’re not 100% happy with it.

Along with appointments come familiarisation meetings, getting to know the brand and its people. Ensure you are firmly steeped in the brand before starting the work. Have everything clear in your mind and if there is anything that needs to be explored before the contract commences, bring it up early on.

Ali Gee: Winning is wonderful – let your agencies celebrate that win publicly. And if you have to make the call to tell them they’ve not won, try to avoid saying things like “you came a close second”. It’s rather like hearing “it’s not you, it’s me”. It doesn’t ease the pain and it’s not likely to always be true!

A Good Pitch is produced in partnership with

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