Pitch (im)perfect: managing a pitch

Client-agency relationships, even the best and most successful of them, don’t last forever. There are many reasons why a client may choose or be forced to look for another agency partner. But whatever the reason, the process of appointing a new agency usually involves a competitive pitch of some sort.

A competitive pitch can be part of the process of ensuring that marketing budgets create maximum value for the brand concerned; they can provide more effective creative and/or media communications solutions, more harmonious or constructive working relationships, or produce greater cost-effectiveness. All of which is a good thing, with one important caveat: that the process is planned and managed appropriately.

When it’s not—either by the client or the agency—a huge amount of time and money is invested and often misapplied. If the process is faulty, it can lead to unproductive solutions that have to be undone at further expense and disruption to the brand. The increasing involvement of procurement in the area of agency relationships, while often enriching the process with additional expertise, can sometimes add a further layer of complexity to the pitch process.

Fever pitch

The purpose of this article is to reflect on the pitch process and outline some thoughts around what makes a good pitch for both the agency and client. It includes findings from two surveys undertaken by CAANZ of its members over the past 18 months on their experiences. It therefore reflects an agency-centric view of the world, but is also informed by my long experience as a senior client. It also references what is generally recognised as global best-practice

So, firstly some facts about the costs of pitching in New Zealand.

In the first survey, undertaken by CAANZ in 2012 to understand the costs involved in pitching, revealed some interesting facts. Large agencies incur average costs of just under $400,000 on a medium to large pitch (based on rate-card charge-out rates and actual hard costs incurred) and smaller agencies incur up to half of this amount.

These costs are mostly made up of hundreds of hours from many people across the agency, from planners and creatives to account service and media; the time is taken in responding to RFPs, credentials presentations, market research, creative and media strategy development, tissue sessions and creative development etc.

Therefore, in the situation of a medium to large pitch that involves four agencies providing full creative solutions, the collective investment by agencies in the process can easily top $1.5 million. And these costs are only for a medium to large pitch. The very biggest pitches can be somewhere significantly north of these numbers.

To pitch or not to pitch

As a client I often used to think that agencies were sometimes their own worst enemies when they over-engineered their creative presentations with elaborate bound books of the work or went beyond the terms of the brief etc. There is some truth in this, but agencies will always put their best foot forward and, in the grand scheme of a pitch, these costs aren’t particularly significant.

Notwithstanding the costs, there are very few agencies that would say they don’t want to be involved in the pitch process. From the agency’s perspective, pitches provide a chance to compete openly for business, they enable agencies to grow and challenge for more business, ensuring the vitality of the agency sector, providing new resources and wider choice for clients.

Pitching is a significant cost to the industry, but it is an important process for both agencies and clients. The problem is that these high costs are exacerbated when a pitch is poorly planned or executed or involves more agencies than is necessary.

The challenge for agencies and clients alike is therefore a well-run process that is fit for purpose and gives the client the right outcome.

To that end CAANZ undertook a second survey recently to understand agencies’ experiences of actual pitches in the New Zealand market over the past 12-18 months to gauge real life examples of good and poor pitch practices. The objective was to identify common themes that either lead to great outcomes for clients and agencies, or sub-optimal ones.

The results were interesting, and it is fair to say that most agencies feel most pitches are pretty well run. There were however a number of pitches that weren’t. And they had a number of common themes and issues that can be largely summed up in the following six points.

Briefing. A brief that isn’t well thought through is unlikely to lead to an outcome the client is looking for. A poor briefing process can take many forms, from lack of clarity to paucity of information. Instances in the survey included briefs that were delivered by email with no opportunity for discussion, to other briefs that ran to no more than a single short paragraph, thereby providing insufficient information for agencies.

We believe a clear brief is critical to a successful pitch. The risk of a poor brief for the client is that there is no basis to evaluate and compare the responses of the competing agencies.

Communication and access. Poor communication from the client during the process and lack of availability to answer questions was another common theme. In some cases the agency didn’t get to meet the marketing team and dealt solely with the client’s procurement function. In one instance the client specifically prohibited the agency having contact until the creative presentation.

We believe the best pitches allow appropriate time for the agency and client to get to know each other and discuss the task. Not to do so makes it very difficult for the agency to get a true sense of the client’s business or the task. It also makes it very difficult for the client to assess the chemistry between them and the agency and to get a sense of how the agency naturally acts.

Timeframes. Some pitches allowed too short a time frame to allow an adequately researched and developed response to the client’s brief (as little as a week from delivery of the brief to creative presentation). Conversely there were pitches that dragged on for months longer than were indicated at the start of the process.

We believe timeframes should allow sufficient time to perform the task required and should be clearly outlined up front and adhered to as far as possible. Where delays occur it’s preferable to keep the agencies abreast of the reasons and what the revised timelines might be.

Fit for purpose process. Another not uncommon issue was a pitch process that required time and effort by the agency that was out of all proportion to the size of the business on offer. Giving the agency too many tasks or multiple briefs (five or more in some cases) to respond to was another common concern raised.

We believe the demands of the pitch process should reflect the size of the business on offer. Pitching is a high cost exercise, especially if creative development is involved, so it seems only reasonable that the level of effort required matches the commercial reward on offer for the agency.

Decision-making criteria. Having clear decision-making criteria that are shared transparently with all participating agencies was not always part of pitch processes reported in the survey.

We believe it should be made clear at the outset of the process. Everyone should understand the rules the game is being played by. This allows an agency to evaluate their suitability for the pitch and gives them clear visibility of where and how to deploy their time and resource. Perhaps more importantly, from the client’s perspective it makes their decision easier, as the criteria are clearly defined. This can be of real benefit when the decision is being made by a range of internal stakeholders.

Commercial negotiations.  The survey found cases where, at the end of the process, the client and the preferred agency were unable to agree commercial terms. The result is a significant amount of wasted time for both parties, and no doubt a good deal of frustration on the part of the client.

We believe the procurement process should ideally either be handled upfront or in parallel with the pitch process for short-listed agencies. This allows for a client to exclude an agency, or an agency to withdraw from the process at any time if they can’t resolve the commercial relationship.

In addition, I.P. ownership post-pitch must be agreed up front and if the client wants to own all the ideas they should reasonably expect to pay for them.

There may be mitigating circumstances for each of the instances referred to above, but the outcome is that they make the task unnecessarily difficult for agencies and lead to outcomes that may not be the best ones for the client.

Interestingly, there were a small number of paid pitches referred to in the survey, and without exception they were reported as being well run, whether or not the agency completing the survey won the business. Paid pitches are increasingly common in international markets and while any payment will never cover the agency’s costs, enlightened clients are increasingly considering a pitch fee of some kind to recognise the agencies efforts and cover hard costs.

Looking at the options

Running a pitch is an important task for any senior marketer. It is a big job that takes significant time and resource for the client organisation. But there are alternatives to going to a full pitch and some things to think about before you do.

Firstly, it makes sense that both sides try to make the existing client-agency relationship work before deciding on a pitch. With an effective review system in place that underpins the relationship, more can sometimes be lost than gained by changing agencies. International experience has proved that long-term relationships benefit the health of a brand.

Secondly, if a pitch is necessary, ask what type of pitch is required. A full creative or media pitch may not always be the appropriate solution.

If the challenge is a new creative and/or media approach, or simply a new assignment (e.g. a new brand) a “full” pitch is not the only option. Even if the client decides to talk to other agencies, a fully-fledged creative pitch may not be necessary. It can be more productive to limit the pitch assignment to a strategic response backed up by credentials and chemistry sessions rather than a full creative or media response.

Other process options to selecting either a creative or media agency can include:

  • 1. Looking for agencies with particular knowledge and experience of the business sector.
  • 2. Reviewing the reputation, creative work and case histories of candidate agencies.
  • 3. Working meetings with the proposed agency teams and management.

If a pitch is appropriate, there are benefits for everyone involved if it is a well-run process. Agencies are able to do their best work, put their best foot forward and apply effort appropriate to the size of the business on offer. And clients get a better strategic and creative response, along with a stronger sense of the agency and its people, which enables them to make a better choice of agency partner for their business and brands.

Advice from afar

For anyone considering a pitch process there are a number of useful guides available online. In its ‘Guidelines on client-agency relations and best practice in the pitch process,’ the Word Federation of Advertisers and the European Association of Communication Agencies narrowed it down to the 20 key principles that should guide the organisation and execution of a competitive pitch.

Before the pitch process

1. Always try to make the relationship work before resorting to a pitch

2. Make a priority of dealing fairly with the incumbent agency

3. If at all possible, avoid a full creative pitch, which can be costly and time consuming for both parties.

Getting started

4. Form a cohesive multi-discipline decision-making team

5. Use additional consultation if there is no internal pitching experience

6. Before calling a pitch, be very clear on your communications objectives, to

   enable you to specify the agency’s role, scope and budget

7. Establish a firm and realistic timetable

8. Be clear about policy on communicating with the press and internally

Briefing and selection

9. Write a clear, concise and well thought out brief

10. Ensure that the criteria for evaluation/decision-making at each stage of

      the process is clear and agreed by all parties in advance, to take you from

      consideration list, to long list, to short list

11. Be disciplined about RFIs (request for information) and RFPs, (request for proposal) if used

Managing the pitch process

12. Be open about the issue of pitch fees and expenses

13. Use “chemistry” meetings to get to know agencies

14. Creative pitches; use “tissue meetings”—if there is time—to help the creative development process

Making the decision

15. Be formal about scoring and evaluating the pitches

16. Conduct pro forma contract discussions to manage expectations, and avoid embarrassment after the pitches

17. Offer the losing agencies a debrief


18. Manage the pitches sensitively, and treat documents with respect and absolute confidentiality

19. Be scrupulous on intellectual property issues

20. Manage the transition and hand-over process with care

  • Paul Head is the chief executive of CAANZ. 
  • This article originally appeared in the November/December edition of NZ Marketing. 

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