12 ways the pitching process could be improved in PR

Winning new business, what’s not to love? Well, not winning new business! It is so disappointing after investing time and money in a pitch to hear that you haven’t got the business. Okay, not everyone can be a winner, but the pitch process can be improved so that there aren’t quite so many losers and the process wastes less time and money on both sides. Here pitching pros offer advice to help clients get better results and to improve the odds for agencies.

What clients can do

Give enough time

Sarah Alexander, new business director for conversion agency UNLIMITED: “For any good pitch process, you need two things: time and communication.

“Time is needed to first qualify the opportunity - we won’t go for briefs we know we can’t deliver expertly on. Once qualified we need at least two weeks to research details such as audiences, talk to media, develop strategy, and then use our cutting-edge tools for insights and creative expertise to answer the original brief and brand challenge.”

Ask the right questions

Sarah Alexander: “Communication is key. Before, during and after. Ask ALL the questions, use those tissue meetings and build chemistry. And more importantly give feedback if we weren’t successful so we can learn from it. Because without that knowledge we can’t improve.”

Don’t ghost the agency

Sarah Alexander: “Finally, a plea to the industry: for pitches to really be improved, we always want to know if we haven’t won the business so, please don’t ignore us. A lot of time and effort goes into a pitch process and it’s not fair on the team that worked so long and hard on it.”

Bev Noble, client director at agency Milk & Honey PR: "I'd love to see a voluntary commitment for guaranteed meaningful feedback after the new business process. There's nothing more disappointing - or frustrating - for an agency than to put all that creative flair and planning smarts into a pitch, only to receive a one line 'no thank you' reply. Or occasionally, no reply at all.“

Focus on a few agencies

Isobel Coney, managing director at PR agency RED Consultancy: “Don’t ask every agency in town to respond - do your research and ask a targeted few. Set a real-world brief and encourage agencies to be imaginative in how they respond (the world doesn’t begin and end with PPT). If you’re procurement, understand you’re buying people, not product and adjust your thinking accordingly.“

Do a trial run

Louise Winmill , managing director at PR agency Portland: “Having sat both sides of the table in pitch situations, what’s clear is that in a good agency partner you want a team of smart thinkers and keen problem solvers; a team that will act as a true partner - providing first-class strategic advice when it’s called for and solid delivery when that’s required. Above all, you want a team that can flex in line with changing client needs and which thinks clearly and cleverly on its feet.

“In my experience, the best way to test this (not to mention the less time intensive for clients and agencies alike) is for agencies and clients to come together and experience working jointly through a live and previously unseen brief. This has been a successful approach for us before as it enables the client to really see how our team thinks and, crucially, how it gels with the client.”

Shalon Kerr, founder of collective agency PR-it: “The optimal solution for both parties is to engage in a no-strings-attached trial project. Clients can experience an agency’s work quality and team first-hand while receiving a piece of work they’re actually going to use. Before PR-it, I participated in many pitches where we won, but then the big ideas were tossed aside. The client just wanted to see how we think. With a trial project, there’s no wasted work. Agencies are compensated for what they produce and they don’t have to heavily invest in pitching, which forces agencies to deprioritise existing client work and stress out their team in order to grow.”

What agencies can do

First of all, have an honest chat

Nick Braund, founder of PR agency Words + Pixels: “The simplest and most effective approach is an initial honest chat. There’s no pitching at this stage, we are just chatting as experts in our space. The most important question we ask all potential clients is ‘what is PR success for you?’. When we know this, we use it as our north star to create a bespoke scope of work that will actually make an impact to their end goal. This way, everyone is aligned on success by the time we share our thoughts on how to get there.”

Understand your client’s thinking

Celia Clark. International client engagement director at PR agency Team Lewis: As agencies, we must keep delivering great work and putting a value on our time. Question and understand the nuances of a brief. Get into the heads of the client team and what it really needs.”

Get a conversation going

Rebecca Oatley, co-CEO of communications agency Wilful and founder of agency Cherish PR: ”The best potential clients should be prepared for agencies questioning the brief, and many extensive RFPs detail what PR needs to achieve and who to target, which is completely understandable. However, an ongoing conversation before the pitch process often reveals so much more about the focused business aims for PR and a direction for the proposal.”

Be a partner, not a servant

Celia Clark: “It’s easy to slip into a master-and-servant relationship, but ultimately it’s about developing a trusted partnership. And at the end of a successful pitch, it’s important that both parties actually want to work together.”

Manage expectations

Neil van Ginsburg, managing director at content agency Preen: “Pitches could be improved by managing expectations from the outset that the process should be about building a chemistry and working on solving challenges together, rather than necessarily coming up with the answer in the pitch itself. There's often the perfect world pitch response and then the reality of what is actually needed for the client after the pitch is won. Tissue sessions are another tool that is often under utilised in getting a steer and correcting rather than a big ta-da moment on the day.”

Spell out all costs involved

Bev Noble, Milk & Honey PR: "The bottom line is, more and more briefs (and yes, I absolutely include B2B in this) are asking agencies to pitch creative campaigns that have the agility to work in a fast-changing media agenda. If that's the ask, then in response there needs to be an acknowledgement of the time and skills that go into delivering on that."

Use case studies

Jon Card, media strategist and the author of How to Make Your Company Famous: "I think the easiest way to win new business is to show potential clients case studies of work you did with others. A story of how you helped a client is very powerful. Especially when it's presented next to the pictures of the coverage and successes they've obtained.

"I recommend agencies obtain direct quotes from their clients, talking about the transformation they underwent with their help. There's no better salesperson than a happy customer. We ask our clients three questions for a case study: What was the problem you wanted us to solve? What was our solution or how did we help you? And what was the outcome or where are you now?”

Finding the perfect agency and then maintaining a fruitful relationship takes time and hard work on both sides. But like all worthwhile relationships, the more that both partners put in, the more they will receive.

If you would like to hear more on this subject, listen to this podcast  where Kat McGettigan, founder of consultancy Fine Lines discusses pitch techniques for agencies.

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