Putting the fizz back into new biz, by Graham Goodkind, founder of consultancy, Frank PR
1st October 2013
One of the things that has been getting me down about the PR industry over the past couple of years is how the excitement and enjoyment is gradually evaporating from the new business process. It has become much more of a demoralising and depressing part of the job. The reason being that the pitch process has changed beyond recognition from what it used to be and is making what once was a fun and exciting element of working in PR nearly as boring as Tiger Woods finds having just one woman.
From a personal point of view, I've always loved the whole pitch process. It's the ultimate competitive arena of our industry. PR agencies as gladiators, entering the Coliseum of the client, great ideas as our weapons, with only one of us left standing at the end in a battle to the death.
The whole build up: brainstorming, planning, frantic presentation writing and rehearsing. Then there's nothing like the pitch itself to get the adrenaline pumping. You hear some great stories from pitches, war stories that get told for years later. Then of course there's the phone call to say you've won it and the whole agency erupts with joy. Or there's the low of a loss and working out how to break the news internally, trying to put a positive spin on it through gritted teeth. The rollercoaster of emotions that make this job what it is, what we come into work for.
But a lot of this has been taken away, particularly over the last few years. In the quest for process, clients are, unwittingly I think, eradicating some of the passion.
It all starts with the NDA and that sets the tone. A bland and standard contract that basically says if you tell your Mum anything about this client's business then your tongue will have to be removed and your hands cut off and sewn back on the wrong way round. Expecting to now be let in on one of the biggest secrets known to mankind, you sign it and receive a brief, err, much like every other brief you see, except this time the client's product is 25 per cent bigger/lasts 25 per cent longer/costs 25 per cent more (delete as appropriate).
Nowadays, you are also prevented from finding out who you are pitching against. That used to be the really good part of the new biz process. To know you were up against your mates or ex-colleagues would add extra spice to affairs. And when you were up against your previous agency that always brought out an extra 50 per cent in you, those are the ones you really, really want to win. In a funny sort of way, by keeping the identities of the contestants confidential, clients might actually be losing out on the extra effort an agency will put in to beat one of its main rivals or one of the big boys. I know that at Frank PR we always raised our game when we knew we were up against agencies we truly respected.
It was also great fun to see the other agencies as you were walking in or out of a pitch presentation. You would have that little moment of banter in the reception area if you knew the people taking part. If you didn't stop and talk then you'd turn your walk into a swagger as you went past the next pitch team on deck, throwing a smug smile that said “we've just gone and nailed it loser, what have you even bothered to turn up for?”
Nowadays everything is so confidential and covert. You get smuggled in and out of buildings by the client like a grade A celebrity does by his or her entourage trying to escape the paparazzi. Clients go to great lengths to ensure you don't even breathe the same air as another agency involved. The process is now even more secure than Andrew Bloch's hairpiece.
There are also now more hoops than a game of Sonic the Hedgehog to jump through in the process, so it just drags on. There seems to have been more stages in the process invented, drawing it out even more: the RFP response with tons of detail, a written credentials submission, a credentials presentation, a chemistry meeting, sometimes case study presentations, the pitch, usually a pitch round two, sometimes a round three and then the “making sure we got the right agency” meeting. After that, there's also the negotiating the contract and fee meeting with procurement, and the batting back and forth of the agreement with legal teams. And there's probably even more too that other people have experienced.
Pitches have changed too. Gone are the days when you just went in and did what you felt was the right response to the brief. When you were allowed to express yourself and your agency's personality. Now, commonly, there's a strict agenda to follow. Time limits and allocated slots for certain things: 10 minutes for introductions, 15 minutes for Q&As etc., etc.
We've had pitches before where we had such a strong idea that we just hit the client with it and we were done and dusted in half an hour. Now you feel that you've got to string something out for the full 90 minutes you've been allocated or you'll be marked down.
And then there's the finding out if you've won or not. Email has crept in as the communication channel of choice for an unsuccessful pitch attempt. Call me old-fashioned, but the courtesy of a phone call is the least that can be done, particularly when it must be obvious the amount of time, effort and money that has been invested by an agency.
Again, I don't think it’s because anyone sets out to be rude, I think it is because putting it in writing is a process thing, so that feedback follows the same format and everyone gets the news at the same time. It's in the interests of fairness I guess, but previously a detailed phone call would give you a lot to think about and usually learn from. Once you've had the bad news email the last thing you want to do is then call the now ex-prospect back for a proper debrief.
And finally, how long does it take to make a decision? It gets me thinking about how drum-and-bass duo Chase and Status put it in their 2011 song, Time: "Cause I don't have the time and I don’t have the patience, what do you take me for? Why must I wait? 'cause while you decide I'm fucking suffocating."
Back in the day, well not actually so long ago, I can recall a few occasions where we got told in the pitch that we were definitely going to be hired, when we'd come up with such a good idea that the client wanted to buy it there and then or when the chemistry and vibe was just so good that you knew this agency/client relationship was going to do great things working together. But now, with the process as it is, gut feel and instinctive decision-making by the client are frozen out. Assessment sheets, once a novelty, are now profligate. The result is that agencies can now wait, literally months, before a decision is made, as Chase and Status put it, suffocating.
To reiterate, I genuinely don't think that clients, their procurement teams or the new business intermediaries realise that they are spoiling anything. There's nothing sinister or nasty about their behavior, lack of respect for agencies is not the issue at all. I find procurement people and intermediaries, on the whole, to be very good at what they do and they play a valuable role in some cases. I just don't think they understand the toll that the stringing out and over complicating the pitch process is taking on agencies. Not to mention the curtailment of fun and competitive spirit that could get them even better agency responses.
Graham Goodkind, Founder, Frank PR