Exposing bad pitch behaviour

The pitching process can be a gruelling task for agencies and clients alike. In making such a crucial decision on how to make your business and brand better, you would think that certain practices have been set in place to ease the entire process, but alas, the pitching process remains notoriously flawed.

Dragging timelines, unnecessary paperwork, mile-long and poorly written briefs, unresponsive clients – agencies have seen their bulk of pitch drama when it comes to bad pitch behaviour. So in the spirit of resolving the unspoken tension between rejected agencies and painful clients, agency veterans chime in on how to keep calm and pitch on.

Below are some recommendations and solutions from industry professionals to fix some of the more thematic traits that plague the pitch process.

Be honest – is there really a fair pitch going on?

Companies have long been guilty of making the review process purely ceremonial for the purpose of “transparency”. In their quest to appear democratic and fair, a company may call for a pitch only to already have a favourite in their pocket. (Read also: 4 signs the brief is made for the incumbent agency)

Fiona Bartholomeusz, managing director of Formul8 Singapore, recalls one such incident.

“We had a large private organisation awarding the work to an ad agency that didn’t even pitch for the project. Of course, everyone knew that the CEO had shares in that ad agency – it’s the worst kept secret in the industry, but we expected some professional courtesy that the pitch would still be for legitimate reasons.”

Tyler Muñoz, client services director for SapientNitro Asia Pacific, echoes this sentiment, taking a more sceptical stance on the issue.

“The RFP is not ‘real’ to begin with. There have been times when senior stakeholders are just ticking the boxes for their procurement team and have no intention of the work being awarded to someone other than the agency who has already been selected behind the scenes,” he explains.

“Similarly, some have used the RFP process to confirm another vendor’s proposed solution. These are time wasters for both the clients and the agencies.”

(Read also: Government tenders: What needs to be fixed)

To avoid these issues and detect suspicious RFPs, Craig Mapleston, managing director of iris Worldwide Singapore, recommends a few questions that any self-respecting agency needs to ask before getting involved.

“Agencies should ask, ‘Will the winning pitch response actually run?’ It’s important to know whether the pitch task is a test or a live brief. If it’s a test and will never run, you’re taking a big risk on ever getting any work produced if you win.”

Another key clarification pre-pitch should be: “Are the selection criteria clear and shared among all agencies?”

Mapleston says: “If this is a secret, or can’t be defined, then you’re back to pitch lucky draws, or pitches that have been decided before they begin. Insist on the selection criteria, and insist that all agencies are aware.”

Clients, please note, agencies are not your puppets. Adhering to a false sense of democracy under the guise of a pitch is an incredible inconvenience.

Changing minds – respect the agency’s time and talents

Bureaucratic idiosyncrasies are best kept behind doors. When it comes to altering brief objectives, it’s best to do it in a timely manner, respecting the time and money agencies would have to spend in fulfilling those expectations for you. (Read also: How to give a monster brief)

Bartholomeusz had an experience of a client changing the pitch’s brief objectives and target audience during the agency’s presentation.

“The CEO didn’t agree with his marketing team and decided the work wasn’t what he wanted because he wanted a different target audience and direction. We just sat there and watched him argue with his team. Brilliant.”

A major faux pas according to Bartholomeusz is giving an agency insufficient time to produce the work: “We’ve had clients ask for five concepts to be presented in three days! And this was a huge listed MNC.”

For this reason, Mapleston recommends dealing with decision-makers from the start.

“If the pitch has been ‘juniorised’ and the decision makers don’t appear till the last moment, then it’s probably not very important to the client’s business. Insist on knowing and dealing with the ultimate decision-makers from the beginning of the process.”

Transparency is needed

Being accessible and transparent in the pitch process is much like a sneak peek for agencies on what it’s like to partner up with your company or brand.

Mapleston advises: “Asking the client about the set budget must be a mandatory to participation. We know how important budget management is to every client, once they become clients. So why wouldn’t that be a critical assessment criteria during the pitch? You’ll also get another indication of importance and commitment to the job ever running.”

Likewise, clients need to be honest about their business goals and expectations by communicating with agencies openly about the eventual budget. Clients should be forthcoming about any issues that they foresee, and ask for the agencies’ help.

According to Bartholomeusz, clients should not be asking the agency to produce work across APAC only to reveal they do not have the budget for such a task.

She says: “Some clients have told us, ‘We don’t have a budget, it depends on the creative work’. Please note, we are ad agencies, not magicians.” (Read also: Why it’s bloody hard to prevent idea theft)

Transparency is key to opening up the communication lines on both sides.

“When an agency asks you, ‘who else is pitching’, please don’t decline divulging,” Bartholomeusz says, since the information may actually add to the quality of the pitching process.

“Knowing who is in the fray allows each agency to work out its pitch strategy better because we would know how we stack up against the competition. It’s a very small market, we would find out anyway, so what’s the big deal? We’re not going to voodoo hex the competition.”

An open mindset is key to helping your business. For Muñoz, ad agencies exist for a reason, that is to inspire you to open up your horizons.

“Many times you have an idea of what you want, but let the people behind the vision inspire you. Perhaps, the solution could be bigger than what you initially considered.”

The ‘fish market’ for agencies – do you really know what you want?

Having the ideal brief is more than just having the right team to prepare it. The brief should include a clear set of evaluation criteria that clients should ideally adhere to.

One of the things clients are guilty of is, “Making it a fish market and opening the pitch to 25 agencies,” Bartholomeusz says.

“You’re not going to get any serious contenders because the professional agencies will never pander to that kind of scenario. More isn’t merrier.”

To guarantee a more fruitful partnership, clients should do their homework and first assess if a particular agency is a good fit before inviting them to pitch. This saves time and energy for all parties. Perhaps schedule some face time with your potential business partner, after all, you need them to believe in your version of the greater good to take the business further in the most authentic and believable manner.

Bartholomeusz advises: “Be selective, do your homework and find out which three agencies really have the experience or knowledge and team to do the work for you, call those guys in. You will get better results from a more motivated bunch.”

Mapleston agrees with this view and recommends that agencies be aware of the reasons behind the client’s invitation to pitch.

He says: “It’s not just a good ice-breaker to understand how the client has come across you and what they believe makes your agency suitable. It’s also a fair assessment on whether the client has done their homework, whether you’ve got a real chance of winning, or whether you are just making up the numbers.”

Like Bartholomeusz, Mapleston believes in quality and not quantity. Agencies should be wary if there are more than four agencies pitching.

“The rule of four means that all four agencies can present in one day, and the likelihood of information overload is reduced. Once you get beyond four agencies, presentations will be shared across a couple of days, some clients will be present at all, others will drop out.

“With four or less agencies, it also indicates that the client has a fair idea of the right type of agency for their needs. With more than four, you start to get into pitch lucky draw territory once again.”

Seek improvements

To ensure the best pitch practice for both clients and agencies, the call for better regulations in the industry has been met with resounding enthusiasm. For example, clients should be timely with their notifications and notify all the agencies regardless of their appointment. They should manage the announcement to ensure that all agencies receive detailed and constructive feedback.

Muñoz says: “The industry would be better served if there were better regulations around the conflict of interest for competing clients.”

Bartholomeusz cites the example of 4As Malaysia’s strict enforcement of pitch fees amounting to RM10,000 per pitch paid by the client to the agency.

“Clients don’t realise the amount of man hours and costs involved in a pitch. Not forgetting the opportunity cost of doing other paid work,” she added.

For instance, the body issued a stern letter to MAS to pay pitch fees to participating agencies.

4As Singapore can follow in Malaysia’s footsteps in helping agencies defray costs of pitching, says Bartholomeusz.

Since its mission – according to its site – is “to advocate the role of advertising by providing leadership and promoting knowledge, skills and professional enhancements to serve our members and the community”, the 4As can potentially do more to resolve the discrepancies between client perceptions and agency realities.

(Read also: Does the 4As have any influence?)

Will the 4As carry real influence to reform the pitching process and advocate the rights and sanity of agencies and clients alike? Only time will tell.

[Image from Shutterstock]