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The do's and don't's: Agency heads spill the tea on bad pitching etiquette

The do's and don't's: Agency heads spill the tea on bad pitching etiquette

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Pitches are never easy, and being informed that you’ve lost the pitch can be extremely disheartening. Some organisations sit agencies down to provide explanations, while some are far more callous in their approach.

"Sadly, most pitches fall short of what is considered best practice for R3", said Shufen Goh, principal and co-founder R3. 

At R3, clients are advocated to meet agencies face to face for a proper sharing of what the agency has done well and where they have fallen short.

Don't miss: Sham pitches: Why do they still exist?

"Most clients don’t do this, because conveying bad news is never easy, and most people are avoidant and struggle to be honest about shortcomings," said Goh. 

Where face to face meetings are not possible, a detailed email followed by a call is the absolute minimum a client should do, given how much effort goes into a pitch preparation for agencies. 

According to Goh, some good pitch etiquette includes:

  1. Keeping the final shortlist no more than three.
  2. Keeping the pitch ask reasonable and reflective of the job to be done.
  3. Making sure key stakeholders are properly engaged throughout the process.
  4. Making sure evaluation criteria is balanced, clearly aligned and communicated.
  5. Selecting a partner, not a campaign idea – it is easy to lose sight of this amidst pitch excitement.

Meanwhile, Khairudin Rahim, CEO of 4As Malaysia, adds that before a client undertakes a full-blown agency search, one should be absolutely certain that a pitch is warranted in the first place. 

"This should be discussed amongst all stakeholders before arriving at a decision to pitch. Many times, the answer lies in working more effectively with the existing agency and trying to 'rebuild' the relationship," said Khairudin.

"Thinking that a move to a new agency is not necessarily the answer. A client-agency relationship is not very different from a marriage. So before thinking about 'divorce', think about working on the marriage." 

Should clients decide to proceed with a pitch, the 4As advice to have a clearly written brief endorsed upstream by top management, identify and enlist the key decision makers, establish clear and objective evaluation criteria to judge and select and set a fixed timetable for the various stages of deliberations.

Following which, clients should fulfil the window period (usually within 30 days) after the pitch presentations to announce the decision and give the unsuccessful agencies the courtesy of constructive feedback on their performance.

Some bad pitch behaviour includes, unnecessary level of secrecy, bringing the decision makers only at the end of the pitch process and inviting the incumbent agency to pitch despite knowing the agency is not in an equal fighting chance, said Khairudin. 

Not developing a clear set of selection criteria and sharing these amongst all pitching agencies and having losers hear the bad news first from someone other than the client, are other forms of bad pitch behaviour. 

"Marketers should instead ensure all participating agencies learn of the result on the same day. After the review, do give each losing agency the “courtesy” of a full “lost order” meeting," added Khairudin.

We hear from industry heads in Singapore and Malaysia on some of the horrible etiquettes they've experienced during rejection, and how clients and businesses can do better to ensure better practice in the industry. 

Julie Chiang, Director and co-founder, APRW 

What are some horrible ways you’ve been informed that your pitch was unsuccessful?

When we follow up on the pitch and was told they have already appointed.

In short, we were not informed of the outcome.

Disrespecting the agency’s time and effort in the pitch process is painful for us – especially when the client is obviously requesting your pitch because they need to maximize the numbers. 

How could the organisation have approached it better? 

It is always nice to feel appreciated. Agencies took time and effort to put a pitch together and we deeply appreciate the respect clients show us through their willingness to provide constructive feedback. This feedback is invaluable to help us continuously learn and improve for our future pitches

What was the best way a client informed you of an unsuccessful pitch decision?

An email from the client to thank us and to inform us is appreciated. At the very least, we close the loop on our end.

What is one pitch etiquette you live by?

Effective pitch etiquette, for me, revolves around personalized communication and professionalism. 

Ashvin Anamalai, Chief executive officer, DNA Creative Communications

What are some horrible ways you’ve been informed that your pitch was unsuccessful?

Sometimes I feel marketing departments try to get creative with it. Among them is the standard radio silence, or the classic “decision needs more time” that leaves you hanging with no closure, or my personal favourite, the-endless-revisions-only-for-the project-to-go-elsewhere.

How could the organisation have approached it better?

A clear, timely "no" is far better than these tactics that leave agencies feeling disrespected and wasting valuable resources.

For me, the sting of rejection from coming up short is inevitable, but organisations can certainly soften the blow with a more professional approach. Clear and timely communication is key. A quick update explaining a decision delay shows respect for the agency's time.

Consider offering honest feedback on the pitch.

Specific pointers can be invaluable for the industry as a whole, so that agencies can learn to keep up with expectations.

What was the best way a client informed you of an unsuccessful pitch decision?

The best rejections I've experienced were those that struck a balance between honesty and respect. A quick call or email from the decision-maker thanking us for our time and effort, along with a brief explanation of why our pitch wasn't chosen, was always appreciated.

Sometimes, they even offered specific feedback on what resonated or areas we could improve for future pitches. This kind of direct, yet kind communication allowed us to learn, move on quickly, and even maintain a positive relationship with the client for potential future collaborations. It showed they valued our expertise and the time we invested, even if we weren't the right fit for that particular project.

What is one pitch etiquette you live by?

One key etiquette we live by is that no matter how frustrating those bad rejection experiences can be, we always strive to give 100% in every pitch. It's a core principle for our team. We approach each pitch with the same dedication and enthusiasm, treating it like a million-dollar opportunity.

It's an investment in our own growth, and that commitment to high-quality is what keeps us sharp and sets us apart.

Syahriza Badron, General manager, FCB Shout 

What are some horrible ways you’ve been informed that your pitch was unsuccessful?

During a phone conversation regarding an unrelated topic, I took the opportunity to inquire about the progress of a pitch that had been ongoing for a month. To my surprise, I received a nonchalant response stating that a decision had already been made to engage with another agency, allegedly reached the week before, and I was supposed to have already been informed by the working team beforehand.

But the most shocking moment came when, after months of being kept in the dark and receiving the same "we haven’t concluded" response, suddenly, a campaign appeared out of thin air. When questioned, the blunt response was: "We did it ourselves, internally.”

How could the organisation have approached it better?

Maintaining professionalism is paramount from start to finish. Just as we expect punctuality in submissions from agencies, the client must extend the same courtesy by promptly conveying results by the specified date. If additional time is required, it is courteous to provide advance notice. It's imperative not to leave agencies in the dark. Additionally, constructive feedback is essential; it not only facilitates improvement but also enables us to identify areas for development should future opportunities arise.

What was the best way a client informed you of an unsuccessful pitch decision?

I value clients who demonstrate appreciation, transparency, and provide constructive feedback. It's encouraging when clients express gratitude for participation and offer constructive insights on why our proposal may not have been selected. This signals that they value our efforts and take our partnership seriously. Knowing this, we are more inclined to engage in future opportunities with them.

What is one pitch etiquette you live by?

Client seriousness is non-negotiable for me.

We must be confident they're fully committed to the pitch, not merely going through the motions. That's why I have a firm rule: no more than five agencies in a pitch, preferably fewer. A pitch should prioritise quality over quantity, reflecting the client’s commitment to the outcome.

I once attended a pitch briefing with 20 companies for a digital film project, encompassing creative agencies, media agencies, and production houses. Such scenarios are unequivocally unacceptable and pose a significant drain on resources.

Jacqui Lim, CEO, Havas Group Singapore

What are some horrible ways you've been informed that your pitch was unsuccessful? 

We already knew from other sources that we were not successful, but the client was still ghosting us in spite of multiple follow ups. Another negative experience was when the winning agency started poaching our talent to staff up for their new win and yet the client refused to confirm the pitch outcome.

As agencies we are usually resilient and aren’t frazzled by such experiences, but we wouldn’t say it was good ethics or practice. 

How could the organisation have approached it better? 

I think transparency and appreciation are always the best ingredients for a respectful pitch experience. Ultimately the agency invested a lot of resources and time behind pitches and have earned the right to hear honest feedback about their performance - the good, bad and ugly. That’s how we learn and improve our craft. It’s all about mutual respect and treating agencies as equals or partners too.

Knowing where we did well also serve as a strong encouragement to the pitch team that while we didn’t win, there were certain areas that stood out to clients positively and all’s not lost. 

What was the best way a client informed you of an unsuccessful pitch decision? 

The client organised a very structured debriefing session to share honest feedback about all the areas that we did very well in and the parts we lost out. There was implicit respect and trust that we wouldn’t react poorly by challenging the scores or points they made. Instead, we took the feedback in stride and made it a point to also cascade this to the entire pitch team to share learnings and grow collectively as a team.

It was eye opening, allowed us to see our own blind spots and brought humility to the fore that sometimes there are others who do better.

All this helps us win the next round.

What is one pitch etiquette you live by? 

Choose pitches wisely and never be bitter no matter what happens. There’s always something we gain from the experience.

Gonzalo Olivera, Managing partner, Mullen Lowe Singapore

What are some horrible ways you've been informed that your pitch was unsuccessful? 

It’s never ideal to be informed about an unsuccessful pitch over email only, or finding out after weeks or months of being left waiting. We understand that it’s often a difficult conversation for clients to have, but it’s a part of good etiquette to spend some time and effort to communicate with agencies that have spent a lot of time and effort on the pitch.

How could the organisation have approached it better? 

Organisations should not discount manners and human relationships.

A pitch is a huge undertaking by an agency and requires a lot of investment from its people — it’s not something to be taken for granted. We urge organisations to be human during the pitch process. If it does not work out, take the time to give proper feedback. It that feels like a massive task, consider inviting fewer agencies so the process is more manageable.

What was the best way a client informed you of an unsuccessful pitch decision? 

These largely took place in face-to-face meetings, and where proper feedback was provided to our proposal.

What is one pitch etiquette you live by? 

When senior clients have asked us what’s the best way to run a pitch, we usually say five things, which are also things we use to assess pitches:

- Know what you are looking for. Go into the process knowing what kind of agency partner you need for your current needs, instead of taking the mindset of let’s see what the agencies can show us.

- Do not ask for confidential information from agencies, for example, about their client revenue, etc.

- Shortlist first based on a chemistry meeting, and/or existing work done for other clients. This is one of the most realistic ways a client can see what an agency is capable of.

- Spend proper time on the brief. A low brief quality will bring in a low-quality presentation.

You know your business better, you can’t expect agencies to know your business as well as you do in a mere three weeks. Share the most relevant and important information and make sure agencies have access to your knowledge to propose something that works.

Lara Hussein, CEO and founder, M&C Saatchi Malaysia

What are some horrible ways you've been informed that your pitch was unsuccessful? 

The pitch process urgently requires a re-evaluation and refinement to ensure fairness for all involved parties. It imposes significant strain on agencies, both in terms of cost and time investment. One of the most disheartening aspects is the lack of communication regarding the outcome—often, we only discover whether we've won or lost through unofficial channels or months later through procurement. I have experienced this many times and there have been instances where I only found out from the winning agency. This lack of transparency undermines morale and professionalism.

How could the organisation have approached it better? 

Streamlining the process and providing timely feedback, as some clients have done, fosters a culture of openness and respect. Embracing values such as transparency, honesty, and mutual respect is crucial for the industry to evolve and for the pitch process to be mutually beneficial and respected.

What was the best way a client informed you of an unsuccessful pitch decision?

It is always good to have an open engagement where timelines are respected, and we are told promptly win or lose and get appropriate feedback to help us do better.

Did you know that the average cost of preparing a pitch for a major advertising account can range from RM$10,000 to over RM$100,000? This staggering expense underscores the need for a more efficient and transparent pitch process.

What is one pitch etiquette you live by? 

I fully appreciate the requirement marketeers have to follow pitch process.

The single most important etiquette is 'respecting time'.

Only then can we have mutual understanding and appreciation of each other's business.

Jude Foo, General manager and partner, Nine:TwentyEight

What are some horrible ways you’ve been informed that your pitch was unsuccessful?

From experience, the rejection part is likely to be similar to how the pitch was conducted in the first place.

So, if there was a detailed process from the start (briefing, timelines, introductions) then it’s likely that when it comes to the announcement of results, agencies will be notified accordingly and in a timely fashion.

How could the organisation have approached it better?

⁠The brief and evaluation criteria are probably the most important parts of a pitch and should be the most detailed and transparent of any documents shared with the agencies. For example, it’s understandable if a brand is cost-conscious and is sensitive to pricing, so lists down pricing competitiveness as 50% of the selection criteria. It shows what the brand or business prioritises which may not excite most creative agencies but at least it’s clear who they want as a vendor.

What was the best way a client informed you of an unsuccessful pitch decision?

One of the best experiences (though I wouldn’t say best because we did lose the pitch) was a pitch last year, where even though it was led by a brand’s regional procurement team, their procurement director spent time going through what we did well in, what we didn’t, and had an open Q&A with us after notifying us that we didn’t get the business.

On a personal level, I was really impressed because the procurement department is typically very process-oriented, so for them to spend time having a semi-casual conversation to share learnings and show us the data to back it up was something totally unexpected, and very much appreciated.

What is one pitch etiquette you live by? 

There are two things I enforce when we are doing pitches. One, keep the pitch team well fed and hydrated. Most pitches are like marathons and the teams running it can only complete it well if they have the energy and morale to.

Two, our response should always be the most creative solution to the business problem given to us, rather than one that is convenient.

I can rest easy not winning a pitch if the feedback was that the prospective clients find our proposal too creative or we’ve done too much, but if the feedback was that your proposal was pretty much like everyone else’s then we truly don’t deserve the business.

Kimberley Olsen, Co-founder, new business and content, Yatta Workshop 

What are some horrible ways you've been informed that your pitch was unsuccessful? 

You know, it's pretty disheartening when you (and your team) have put your all into a pitch and then you're met with stone-cold silence. Clients who seem to forget about you as soon as they've got what they need. They disappear without a trace, only to pop back up a year later because things didn’t work out with their current agency and act like nothing happened.

Another example is when clients say they're not into your creative direction but end up using your ideas anyway. Why not just be upfront about it?

And let’s not forget being invited to pitch when they already have someone in mind but are just looking to fill up that extra spot. It's like being led on, and we all know that’s not a great feeling.

But I would have to say that the worst pitch experience I've had involved two organizations. We poured our hearts into the submission, went through multiple rounds of proposals and presentations, only to be informed months later that they decided to call off the pitch with no proper explanations or even a hint of remorse. How do you even begin to explain to your team?

How could the organisation have approached it better? 

Advising someone on how to improve their pitch response feels a bit like trying to teach common sense—it's kind of a hit or miss, you know? It's mind-boggling how some organizations completely overlook the effort agencies pour into their pitches. It's not rocket science to send a quick thank you or even some constructive feedback. If agencies can invest days or even weeks to put together a proposal for you, what’s five minutes of your time to write a note?

Honestly, maybe it's a blessing in disguise - dodging that bullet might just be the universe doing you a solid to save you from a potentially painful relationship.

What was the best way a client informed you of an unsuccessful pitch decision? 

I’ve had amazing clients who actually picked up the phone to thank us personally for our hard work, or when they take the time to dig into our proposal and offer constructive criticism. Even a simple email saying why we didn't make the cut means a lot. It's those little gestures that reassure me our efforts haven't gone unnoticed and everyone moves on a positive note.

Every pitch is a chance to grow and improve. So, honest feedback, even if it stings a bit, is gold to me. It helps us pinpoint where we missed the mark and fuels us to come back stronger next time.

Bring it on – lay it all out, costs included. We're here to learn and evolve.

What's one pitch etiquette you live by? 

Honestly, I don't see it as "pitch etiquette," more like common decency. I mean, who needs a manual on how to reply to an email?

Related articles: 
Can you really do anything when your pitch idea gets stolen? 
Reflections: How Malaysian agency folks prep before a massive pitch  
Pitch rituals: Agency heads on celebrating (or picking themselves up) after a gruelling pitch 

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