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Too many pitches are ‘beauty parades’ claim agency leaders

A third of PR and comms agency leaders say there has been a rise in clients favouring beauty parades at the pitch stage, according to the latest PR and Comms Tracker that pulses agency CEOs, MDs and board directors for their views.

Given how much time and effort goes into pulling a proposal together, not to mention the creative process, this will be a cause of significant frustration for many agencies out there. And, besides the draw towards the beauty parade, the stress doesn’t end there.

In 2023, have you seen more clients behaving poorly during the pitching process?


We've seen an increase in the number of agencies at the pitch stage - pitching against up to 12 others. Also, fewer prospects are willing to spend 20-30 minutes with us to test our thinking pre-pitch. The latter is equally limiting to the prospect themselves, so is hard to understand. Testing initial insights or thinking might feel like time prospects don't have, but it will always lead to stronger pitches and the right agency choice - whether us or others.

Pitch imperfect

One consultant said: "It is a huge challenge getting clients to make the final decision. There's a lot of promise out there but final decisions are getting delayed. I also see clients asking for pitches without having secured budget so agencies are pitching only to be told that until budget is released, it will go no further. This is poor behaviour in my eyes.”

Another agency director calling out poor client behaviour said: "Clients have always behaved in similar manners throughout pitches. Some are logical and thorough, but some are downright dishonest and rude. The majority seem to want to choose the best agency for their particular project for a reasonable fee, but quite a few of them just want ideas and plans and use them without paying a cent for it... That has been happening for decades and will continue to be so."

An agency leader was more resolute and commented: "We made it our policy some years ago not to pitch for work. We continue to tender for public sector contracts but will no longer spend the time and money giving away our creative ideas to businesses.”

The wider impact of tyre-kicking during the pitch process was summed up succinctly by this CEO: "As well as a longer 'shortlist', we're seeing prospective clients go through the entire process and then defer the decision or decide they don't have the budget to proceed after all. It not only has a detrimental impact on the business but on staff morale too.”

Post pitch

To make matters worse, the lack of feedback post-pitch isn’t forthcoming. Another PR and comms leader had this to say: "Noticed a sharp increase in clients who refuse to provide any feedback on pitches/proposals other than “we went with a different agency”.

The bottom line is that it is really tough out there and the pitching process needs friends. Regrettably, friends may be in scant supply in procurement where a key part of the decision-making process resides. The last word goes to this CEO: "Procurement teams continue to flex their muscles. This isn't always bad: some procurement teams understand the value that can be obtained from hiring the right agency, but others view marketing as a commodity and are starting a race to the bottom between some agencies.”

Methodology

The PR and Comms Tracker ran in December 2023 to circa 400 PR and comms agency CEOs and directors, based both in the UK and internationally.

Article written by Imogen Osborne, founder of The Pulse Business

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