The Pitching Tango
Belle Charlene Kwan gets entrapped by the thrills of the pitch and learns the secret steps to reaching the crescendo of a perfect partnership.
IT TAKES TWO
Weeks of speculation send the office into a frenzy – when will the announcement be made? Who will be the chosen few? Who are the judging panel? And what will be the deal breaker?
No, this is not the anticipated build-up to the grand finale of Dancing With The Stars. The nerves and excitement around a pitch brief do, however, reach fever pitch (pardon the pun) at many agencies, especially when big brands decide it’s time for a new partnership.
It is, of course, a two-way street in the pitching process. While selected agencies frantically pull overnighters and activate their biggest guns in the hope of scoring new business, clients invest time and resources into sitting through rounds of presentations, while at the same time wondering whether perhaps their existing agency was good enough after all?
Leif Stromnes, managing director of strategy and innovation at DDB Group Sydney, calls pitching the “best and worst of times at an agency” – the best of times because, for a month to six weeks, you are absolutely focused and the team works really well on pitches, because it’s a compressed timeline and it’s how an agency works at its best. There is a time constraint, there is a common business goal, common objective and everyone’s dashing towards the finish line and when it all comes to an end, it is an amazing feeling.
“Of course, it is obviously hard work and it’s often over and above the current workload where you find yourself working much longer hours on a pitch than you would normally. But the team spirit, the camaraderie, seeing the clients’ reactions to your work, it is a wonderfully rewarding experience. It is the lifeblood of agencies.”
DANCE PARTNER WANTED
Research by the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) in 2003 found that most client-agency partnerships last just slightly over five years. Cleve Langton, former corporate executive vice president and director of business development for DDB Worldwide, wrote in the US ANA magazine that common values and a good cultural fit were what kept a partnership going. “Each side knows what’s expected, and both work at keeping the relationship together and ‘fresh’. It’s not so different from a marriage,” he stated.
Langton also noted that changes in management or agency staff are common reasons why pitch reviews occur, and encouraged clients to consider chemistry sessions with current agencies before deciding on a review.
Should a pitch take place, however, Langton advised that the reasons for choosing agencies during the initial stage of pitching vary vastly from the final decision. “The first meeting stage is very left-brain driven, evaluating agencies on the quality of the creative product, integrated capabilities, the professionalism of the team, the quality of the strategic thinking, relevant experience and so on. In the finals, all of those remain important, but chemistry becomes the lead driver in selecting an agency.”
Stromnes agrees, and recommends that both client and their selected few agencies engage in chemistry sessions before shortlisting to the final three to four.
DDB Sydney, however, is also careful regarding which pitch reviews to accept. “If a client is pitching every year, something is wrong. I refuse to believe that a client has to pitch every year. Once every three to five years is fine because it’s always good to stay refreshed, but once a year is just not right,” says Stromnes.
Colin Wilson-Brown, who runs The Clinic and is one of Australia’s leading pitch consultants, also recommends that existing agencies are given the opportunity to “put things right” before a pitch review is launched. “If you have and are still not happy, don’t include [the existing agency] in the review. Unless you are prepared to reappoint the agency, exclude them,” says Wilson-Brown.
He suggests that, instead of looking through a large portfolio of agencies, clients should draw up a profile of the ideal agency and then consider which agencies might fit that profile best. Reviews should also be done with consultation of the organisation’s marketing calendar, and should be held only during the least disruptive periods.
TO DANCE OR NOT TO DANCE?
Daniel Abraham, managing director of Platform (Brand. Design. Digital), a digital creative agency based in Sydney, explains that while his company is involved with an average of two dozen pitches every financial year, it has rejected a number of pitch invitations. “These rejections share the common reason that they did not meet our pre-qualifying criteria. [After] the obvious questions relating to budget, we tend to look at the collaborative arrangements between client and agency, and whether they mirror the same process as an actual project would in a normal arrangement. In my view, it’s important that both sides maintain their integrity of communication and collaboration standards during the pitch.”
John Speers, general manager of creative agency DDI, reveals that at his agency, selection of pitches is a careful process. “We’re pretty selective [about pitching] and choose businesses where we know we can make a fundamental difference. If we don’t think it’s right, we won’t pitch. Being selective means you can put in more – and this usually translates to results.”
Speers also explains that competitive business with an existing client’s requirements or ethical dissonance are two other reasons that his agency would decline a pitch invitation. “Being honest to yourselves and knowing what you can deliver against expectations is paramount,” says Speers.
Interbrand also turns down pitch invitations when the client is deemed to be unsuitable for the agency. Andy Wright, general manager of the Melbourne office, says, “We believe in creating brands that can truly stand apart in their category. If the team managing the brand isn’t prepared for change and a new way of thinking, then we’re probably not the best fit.
“There have also been examples where we were asked to finish another agency’s work or to hand over at a predetermined point to another agency. Again, we’re not providing our best possible value in these cases, so we may decline. And, finally, budget. We do get occasions where budget hasn’t been determined or the fee is unrealistic. We’re not overly expensive, but we do charge a competitive fee… if the client isn’t willing to recognise this, then it won’t make for a healthy relationship,” explains Wright.
At DDB Sydney, Stromnes explains that a pitch involving too many candidates warrants a decline as well. “If a client invited us to a creative pitch and then said there were seven other agencies involved, we would generally turn the invitation down. We are not in the business of a beauty parade.
“And I don’t believe a client can effectively evaluate more than three agencies creatively, because it then all becomes a blur. It’s much smarter if they get a feel of the agency by giving us a business problem to work on strategically, realise that they would work well in a partnership together, and then ask them to respond to their strategy creatively.”
Clients that are adventurous and keen on developing a relationship with an agency that goes beyond just solving a one-off brief appear to be the class favourites. “Working with brands that have ambitious growth plans, a track record of innovation or are seen as a leader in their market is highly motivating for us,” says Wright.
Relevance, according to Abraham, is also a key consideration factor. “No matter how good an idea is or whether it’s been backed with the right presentation methods, at the end of the day, relevance is key to success.”
“Our approach to pitching,” says Stromnes, “is that we would rather pitch strategically than creatively. Whenever we are pitching, I always encourage our client that instead of giving us a creative brief and have us come back with multiple creative executions, I’d rather they present us with a business problem and we will work with them strategically to solve this problem. We may show them how it might come to life creatively at the end via advertising or a video, but our massive preference is not to just draw pretty pictures and ask the client to judge our creatives, but rather to engage with our client in a strategic journey to show them how the agency thinks and works. And, just as importantly, it’s a way for us to determine whether we like the client, if we can work well with them and if we like the way they think.
“Ultimately, I think pitching is about both the agency and the client getting a chance to ask and figure out ‘can I work with these people, do I like them, how will they engage with [us], are they competent?’”
While agencies do not win every pitch they participate in, Stromnes sees each pitch that his agency accepts as a good investment and a learning opportunity. “If the right client in the right category comes up, one that will help drive the business in the right direction, I think it’s a very good investment for agencies to engage in a pitch. Pitching is an important investment for us and we put a lot of time, money and effort into winning new businesses.
“New business is the lifeblood of any agency. Every agency needs to be always winning new business to be vibrant and growing and if an agency isn’t winning new businesses, then it’s slowly dying.”
INVOLVING THE MATCHMAKER
With the pitch process demands time-investment and resources from both parties, the ‘pitch consultant’ is fast becoming a expected presence in the pitching game. In the US and the UK, most clients are already using pitch consultants, according to Wilson-Brown.
“Pitch consultants are not only experts in the agency market, but, because pitching is highly time-consuming, an experienced consultant can allow clients to concentrate on their day job while at the same time giving the clients the best advice on picking an agency,” says Wilson-Brown. “Good pitch consultants have worked in both agencies and marketing companies, so they know what it takes to build an effective client-agency relationship.”
Pitch consultants also provide advice on the structure of competitive pitch remuneration models and field questions and inquiries on behalf of the client from agencies trying to sell their services.
THE PERFORMANCE FEE
One hotly debated topic in the world of pitching is that of remuneration or should agencies be paid to pitch? Agencies not only invest staff, time, resources and money into a pitch, they also produce creative work that would not be used should the agency not win the pitch.
Stromnes says: “There is a growing trend where agencies are being paid to pitch and I believe this comes back to commitment from clients. When they are really committed to finding the right agency and want the selected few to put their best foot forward, then I believe that a fee will signal to the agencies how serious the client is about moving the business forward and growing a strong client-agency relationship.
“This, however, does not happen all the time, and should a brand that my agency is really keen on come up for review, our company would not hesitate to pitch for nothing. In fact, there are times when we decide to pitch proactively, when we approach the client and let them know that we have been thinking about their business and share with them our ideas.”
Abraham, on the other hand, has a firm belief that no agency should engage in a free pitch. “Unless there was some form of real value that an agency could walk away with from a free pitch, and this is rarely the case, I feel that agencies should be reimbursed. In most cases, free pitching undermines the professional process of interaction between marketer and agency,” says Abraham.
Speers reveals that, for his agency, clients rarely pay for the resources used in the pitch presentation. “However, that’s a gamble we take, and that’s why when we do agree to pitch, we do a great job and get a result. We have received pitch fees in the past, which are gratefully received, but the reality of it is that the fee will only pay for a fraction of what we put in. “Of course, we would endorse this as a regular practice,” he adds.
Methodologies and approaches do not necessarily warrant a fee, Wright believes, though when a strategic or creative pitch is involved, a fee should be agreed on. “If a client sees an agency’s track record, expertise and reputation as valuable, and understands that what the agency produces for the client is of high value as well, then it’s fair to expect a fee for this,” he says.
PROTECTING SIGNATURE MOVES
Should a client decide to provide a pitch fee for their selected agencies, does this mean that they hold legal rights of all ideas and creative work presented in the pitch, regardless of whether or not they are then used? Gary Rogers, managing director of Blueprint Law, advises that proper documentations from both client and agency are crucial in ensuring a smooth pitching process and, more importantly, to protect both parties from miscommunication and infringement battles in future.
“Should a client decide to pay agencies to pitch, the briefing document should explicitly outline issues of copyright and intellectual property (IP) rights to both ideas and creative work shared within the pitch process,” says Rogers.
“In usual circumstances, the agency owns the copyright of all ideas pitched and clients, in theory, should not be allowed to use these ideas unless there are specific agreements made between both parties.
“Agencies should protect themselves by addressing this issue upfront in their agreement to pitch, informing the client on what details and information remain the property of the agency until a partnership is secured. From the client’s side, confidentiality agreements should be drawn up on sensitive information that may be shared between both parties during the pitch process. This might include business figures, industry performance, past campaign performance figures – it should be in writing and properly documented on what information is expected to remain confidential and non-disclosed.”
Rogers does, however, note that there are common grey areas involved in the pitch process, a common one being the originality of ideas:
“Similar to the television industry where program ideas are being pitched to television producers or broadcasters, a submission agreement could be drawn up where agencies agree and acknowledge that their ideas proposed may not necessarily be original, and that the client may come across similar ideas and are not prevented from executing these ideas even under the circumstance that a partnership does not result from the pitch.
“At the end of the day, it does boil down to trust between the client and pitching agencies. An agency can trademark all their ideas or creative
executions, but it must be remembered this can be a costly and time-consuming process and can be rather unrealistic. I would advise that a confidentiality agreement be the simplest way of protecting both parties.” Rogers says that hiring a lawyer to draw up confidentiality documents would cost about $1000, but is an advisable addition to the pitch brief to protect both parties from future disagreements.
“However, I do understand that most agencies are cautious about addressing this subject upfront with a client during a pitch invitation, and prefer to just acknowledge that there is a status quo and industry practice in pitching that parties do not infringe on shared information,” he adds.
In his 20 years in advertising, Stromnes has not experienced any situation where his agency’s pitched ideas and creative work have been stolen after an unsuccessful pitch. “Unless the client specifies that the pitch works are theirs and they pay us a retention fee, we copyright all our pitched work, so that it’s ours until the client chooses to hire us. Once they have retained us, all intellectual property rights go to them.” Wilson-Brown also advises that even if a pitch fee is offered to agencies, “the agency should make it clear that acceptance of a pitch fee does not permit the client to use an idea presented” unless this has been specified.
TANGO FOR TWO
Like two dancers weaving magic on the parquet floor, the perfect client-agency partnership is formed through great chemistry shared during the pitch process.
“A great collaboration, where the client has enjoyed going through the pitch with the agency, they enjoy the way an agency works and thinks and approaches a business problem, is usually a healthy signal for a successful partnership,” says Stromnes.
“Unless you like your agency, unless you enjoy working with them, you’re never going to get the best results from your agency. I have never seen a client-agency relationship work when it’s based on animosity or bad chemistry. Unless there is a genuine relationship between agency and client, it’s just going to end up a waste of both parties’ time and efforts.” Abraham believes that a successful pitch comes down to asking the right questions at the right time and, ultimately, understanding what the client wants from their business. Speers agrees and believes that “good thinking, insight, strategy and ideas are prerequisites” for agencies entering a pitch with intentions of winning. Chemistry, adds Speers, must also be right.
Wright, who sat client-side before his involvement with Interbrand, acknowledges the frustration of agencies ignoring sales drivers and performance measures included in the brief. “They get carried away with the creative idea to the detriment of delivering on the KPIs that I have set,” he says. “Showing that you have made a significant attempt to understand the client’s business and situation it is in is crucial.”
STEPS OF THE FUTURE
Creative pitching, while still a crucial process between clients and agencies, may soon become just one of the various methods by which a partnership is formed. “I see a world where clients and agencies will engage in pitches to find out whether there is chemistry and whether they can work well together. Pitches will be for clients to evaluate the culture, thinking and operation procedures of an agency. That, to me, would be better than testing to see what pitches the selected agencies can draw in three weeks and then have them come back for a creative shoot-off,” predicts Stromnes.
Wilson-Brown also believes that creative pitching is no longer the only method of picking agencies. “Many clients like the idea of a creative pitch… the problem is that the agency usually doesn’t know the client well enough to get to the right solution, and it’s an expensive and time-consuming process for agencies. “Clients should consider other options as well. Can the decision be made solely on credentials and chemistry? Sometimes, yes. I have used strategic workshops with clients in which the agency can give you an insight into its abilities and what it might be like to work with, rather than show you what great presenters they are. Self-assured agencies like workshops and we have had some great results [with this method].”
When the lights come up and the theatrics are over, when the glittery costumes have been packed away and the music has been killed, what lingers on ultimately is the relationship that a client and agency has shared during their intimate pitching moments.
It is not an easy process, with endless nights of agencies learning to dance to the client’s steps, and clients sacrificing hours coaching agencies to the right beat. While both parties may lament the arduous process of getting through a pitch, Abraham believes, “When all things go right, and your stars align with one another, then it’s a beautiful win for both sides. It’s important to not let the joys of the win be soured by the process and challenges of getting there.”