The problem with pitching

Imagine the situation: you’re approached by someone who says “Hey, make me a suit.  When you’ve finished, bring it to me at a time that suits me, I’ll try it on and if I like it, I’ll get my colleague to beat you down on price and then I might buy it. I’ve asked several other tailors to do the same thing because I like to keep my options open.”

Or imagine a first date at which someone says “We’ve never met.  Go ahead and organise a really lavish wedding ceremony.  I’ll turn up at the altar and if I like the look of you we’ll get married subject to a 30-day cancellation period. If not, I’ll eat your lobster and leave. I’ll be visiting other altars as well.” 

Welcome to the world of competitive PR pitches.

In the last four weeks we’ve been invited to pitch by four big brands.  It’s a great feeling when the invitation arrives.

They’ve chosen us!

Of course, it’s just the start, like the Reader’s Digest letter that says I may have won $1 million.

Then we start to get into the detail.  There’s a request to fill in a 64-page document, submit a set of indicative ideas, a deadline, a portal.  Several days of intensive effort later the submission is made and we wait.

Quite often (mostly) we then get invited to do a full-blown presentation.  We invest several more days of heart and soul and team effort, working out a core insight, developing a theme, pressure-testing the implications and the opportunities, carrying out market research, boiling it all down into a captivating 45-minute story, etc.

Off we go and we present.

Unless we have a pre-existing relationship with the particular business, we almost always lose.

Afterwards we sit around a table, talk it all through, try to figure out what we should have known and what we could have done differently.  We always ask for detailed feedback, and occasionally we get it –  there wasn’t enough detail; there was too much detail; you were too adventurous; you weren’t adventurous enough; we’ve decided to stay with the incumbent; we’ve had a change of strategy and we’ll be back in touch next year; you didn’t convince us you could deliver, we didn’t like the colour of your shoes.

The current pitch process can suck the life out of small agencies.

We’ve got better at spotting the bear traps, we ask questions up front to establish whether we’re up against large agencies (deep pockets, a presentation factory, Hollywood smiles, skilled at bait and switch).  We’ve turned down opportunities where we’ve established that we’d have to kill a savvy goliath or two to get through – or where the process is driven by the stipulations of procurement rather than the desire of the communications or marketing team who are perfectly happy with their incumbent.

But the fact remains that ten days of effort isn’t a workable expectation given the odds of success.

[Sometimes, too, we’ll hear afterwards on the grapevine that there was a personal relationship with one of the agencies or an NED at the company who was also an NED at the chosen agency.  If we’d known all that in advance we wouldn’t have participated.]

We’re not sure this process works in the best interests of the businesses we’re pitching to either; if might feel good to be flattered but we all know what happened to the emperor with no clothes.  Quite embarrassing.  It also sets up an emperor/flatterer or master/slave dynamic at the outset, which isn’t great.  What we think clients are looking for is a trusted advisor.

Some form of competition for work isn’t a bad idea, of course, but I think there’s got to be a better or fairer way.  Here are my thoughts to open a discussion:

  1. Businesses shouldn’t invite agencies to pitch unless there’s a level playing field. Those onerous requests for fully-costed and timetabled plans?  They’re unfair.  Only agencies with dedicated presentation teams can meet your expectations on these – and anyway, what’s the point?  As a veteran, I know that any plan in PR and brand communications will only end up with 10-20% of it executed anyway.  Things change.  PR and brand communications, like news and events, are vitally fluid.
  1. Businesses should consider paying small agencies to pitch if they’re going to be battling larger agencies. A contribution to the costs of the process doesn’t seem unreasonable if you’re inviting a small boutique agency into the process.
  1. A pitch is fair if it’s a battle of ideas. Not egos, hidden politics, ideas farms.
  1. Pitches should involve a reasonable amount of work. How can expecting a small agency to do ten days’ work and then be told “no” by email without so much as a word of feedback despite chasing be fair.  It’s so tempting to name businesses that have the discourtesy to do this.  Of course I won’t, but hopefully they’ll see this and behave a little less shabbily next time.
  1. Businesses should be transparent about the size of the other agencies in the process and the number that we’re competing against.
  1. I also think there’s some paperwork that the potential client could do: perhaps signing a document that confirms that there are no preexisting relationships that create a conflict of interest or that the process has been forced upon the comms or marketing team by procurement who are insisting that costs are benchmarked, etc. In other words, we’re looking for confirmation that there’s a genuine appetite and a need for a fair and transparent contest.

How about this as an alternative process (?):

Clients would meet with agencies and decide which ones they would be prepared to work with.  At the meetings in the agencies’ offices they’d check out their personalities, their approach, their experience, their financial background, their policies.  They’d then work out a shortlist.  Next, they’d arrange a simple contest:  The agency can send one person to the contest with a brain and a pen and nothing else.  That person would be the proposed account lead.  Everybody sits in a room.  On each desk is a short brief.  The agency representatives have two hours to write a submission.  After that, the submissions would be assessed, debated and the agency would be appointed.  The upside is that it’s shorter and it gives clients a better idea of how their chosen partners will think on their feet.

What do you think?  I’d welcome your views.



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