Ian Williams, head of PR and communications at financial advice site allaboutmoney.com, has worked both on the agency and client side. Here he offers his top tips for running a smooth pitch process:
The brief doesn’t need to be pages long. Make sure your brief is honest, it should reflect the reality of your business – not how you’d like it to be. Give the agencies the opportunity to question and, if required, meet others within the business. Don’t overdo the briefing meetings though. I remember a pitch where the client wanted us to meet about 17 people and they all had a different opinion on what was required.
Give the agencies enough time. Sure they can probably turn a pitch around in 24 hours if they need to. But you’ll get better quality if you allow at least a few weeks for the process. And last, but not least, only start the pitch process if you intend to hire an agency at the end of it. Don’t use a pitch process as a way of convincing internal stakeholders to do PR.
Keep an eye on agencies that are doing good work, or running campaigns you admire. Read the trade press, check out the Holmes report cards, plus keep an eye on who is winning awards. If you need more help, remember the PRCA agency finder service.
If there are specialist agencies in your sector make it your business to know them all. Don’t have too many on the shortlist – four ideally, but no more than six. Having a big global agency and a one-man-band on the same list may make it hard to compare, but don’t pick too many similar agencies.
It is better to guide the agencies towards the type of budget you have in mind. There’s nothing worse than having £100k to spend, but the agencies wow you with £500k ideas.
The pitch day
Ask for the team that is going to be working on the business to be at the pitch. Then ask yourself if you can envisage working with these people. Are they going to challenge and inform your thinking, or just reinforce your own views?
Be fair. Give all the agencies the same amount of time, run the sessions to time. Everyone involved in the decision-making process must attend all pitches.
Be sensible about the number of pitch meetings. Agencies will submit to however many meetings you ask for, but why waste their, and your own, time?
I like to structure the post-pitch discussion around key points and get people to score against them. For example, you could score on understanding of business, knowledge of market, the team, quality of the ideas and measurement.
After the pitch
Give feedback – you owe it to the agencies to call them promptly if they haven’t won, and give them feedback. As an agency MD it was amazing how many people couldn’t bring themselves to call you with the bad news – man up clients!
I remember a pitch when I was at Lansons where we got through to the final two and the client said that they were going to go out for a drink with the two agencies and then choose. Sadly we lost. I Don’t mind losing on my professional skills, but losing on my drinking and social skills was a blow!
Agency heads give their tips for conducting a fair pitch:
Jennifer Janson, managing director of Six Degrees:
“In terms of criteria for selecting agencies to pitch, personal recommendation has got to be a strong contender, in addition to finding agencies in your market sector.”
Eddie May, co-founder of Threepipe:
“There’s nothing worse than putting all your effort into a pitch, coming up with a brilliant strategy and creative ideas, only to be told that you didn’t win because your agency is too small/too big/not global enough/not local enough or some other factor that was not apparent from the outset.”
Andy Turner, founder of Six Sigma:
“The best way to choose a PR agency is through referral from someone you respect. And it’s not so much whether pitching is fair, but whether pitching is even appropriate”
Claire Bridges, founder of AgencyforAgencies:
“The amount of time PR agencies are given is often ridiculous. I would say two weeks is average which is nothing compared to the ad agencies, who get months. Even if you have sector experience it's no time at all to give the brief proper consideration and thinking time.”
Jill Hawkins, director of PR agency Aniseed PR:
“Most journalists will be happy to recommend PR agencies that are good to work with. I have been involved in pitches where the agency that scored highest in the pitch was dropped as a result of scathing reports from journalists.”
Kate Hartley, partner at Carrot Communications:
“The kind of pitches I dread are those where the PR manager gets credentials packs from 10 agencies, and blocks you from talking to the decision maker. You might find out – too late – that the decision maker needs something totally different.”
If you want your PR pitch to be a robust process, that stands up to the to procurment process for example, you can use a Find a PR Agency scheme, like the one that PRmoment.com operates in partnership with the PRCA. These are normally free from the point of view of the client but the winning agency pays a standard rate of commision for the lead.
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