4 signs the brief is made for the incumbent agency

Pitching for new campaigns or clients is a key and regular part of agency life. But these are also a costly and laborious affair, and smart agencies know when to draw the line. (Read also: Agencies, stop pitching for every account)

It is not hard to imagine the frustration and even offense, agencies feel when they discover the brief was actually made for the incumbent.

Stories of how the previous agency has been tipped off to key information such as budget restrictions, or even told before hand that the pitch is already theirs abound - to the outrage of other pitching agencies.

Sony Wong, CEO of Omnicom Media Group (OMG) relates one incident he experienced. “The incumbent was given the “secret” brief on the side to plan for a full year campaign, different from the actual pitch brief which was either a case study or a campaign. We got to hear it from media vendors.”

Such incidents are common. But because many companies require their marketing teams to run statutory pitches or reviews on a regular basis, it can be hard for an agency to tell the difference, minus the occasional insider info that might or might not come.

Here are some key warning signs, as told to Marketing by several senior agency professionals:

(While these points can’t be conclusive in themselves, if you see all of them happening at once, it might be time to walk away.)

1) If the brief is too brief

Watch out if the brief has way too little information, say agency professionals. A loose brief can means no one else knows the requirements or KPIs to win it – leaving only the incumbent with the inner working knowledge of the client, says OMG’s Wong. Or otherwise, an open brief with very little detail can point to the same thing, adds Wong.

Another senior ad agency professional said: “If the brief is not clear on whether or not they want to move from their present positioning (usually indicated by the tagline) and any question on it is met by "the agency can propose"…”

However, the same professional also said that this may not be enough to make that conclusion, as bad briefs are common: “90% of the briefs are so bad that it's as hard for the incumbent as a new agency to tell what the hell is being asked for,” he said.

2) If there’s a lack of proper investment from the company in the pitch

If it appears that there’s a lack of investment of effort in the pitch from the client, that could be another sign. “If the decision makers are absent throughout the process, except for a brief appearance at the pitch itself where they look like they'd rather be somewhere else,” said one local creative agency founder, who preferred to be anonymous. Otherwise, they don't want to spend time with agencies after the briefing, he added.

3) If the brief has glowing reports of the incumbent’s work

Around a decade ago, the novel Bridget Jones’ Diary popularised the term, “mentionitis”, the condition someone has when they’re in love with someone, and can’t stop bringing the person up in conversation.

The same goes for the client – look out if the client keeps bringing up glowing reports of work with the incumbent – it might mean he or she’s not quite willing to let the relationship go just yet. “Things are obviously going well,” said the ad agency professional. If the incumbent has also been winning the past three or four pitches in a row, that could also be bad news for you.

4) If the brief sounds like it’s describing the incumbent

This is probably the most obvious sign – if the brief sounds too much like it’s describing the incumbent.

Wong says to look out if pitch brief detail deliverables are tailored to incumbent’s strengths – “including specific team structure and personnel, in background and experience.”

“I remember a few years ago when I was invited to pitch for a regional destination marketing council. They had been using an agency for a long time hence I was naturally excited and started to read through the documents. After about half an hour and maybe 80 pages later, I came to the qualifying criteria. One of the many said that one important prerequisite was that the agency must have a core team of five that worked on the account for at least two years in last five. We did not participate,” Havas WorldWide’s client service director Lionel Goh says.

But while you might see all these signs in a pitch, this might not mean it’s game over for you.

“I’ve been in pitches where the client has tipped us off that they mean to re-appoint us, but end up changing their mind when another agency makes a better pitch,” says the local MD of a network media agency. “So you never know.”