Agencies point finger at procurement for drawn-out pitch processes

PR executives are taking note of the increasing commonality of large pitch processes involving 10 or more firms, fingering procurement as a driving factor.

PR executives are taking note of the increasing commonality of large pitch processes involving 10 or more firms, fingering the growing clout of procurement departments as a driving factor.

In March, eBay-owned online commerce company PayPal finished an RFP for its North American business that included 23 PR agencies. The brand eventually selected MSLGroup as AOR after looking at a vast number of firms to assess the competitive landscape and address business needs before final presentations.

Also, last month, Avocados from Mexico hired Ketchum and creative agency Arnold Worldwide to serve as PR and integrated AORs, respectively, after a review that started with 52 agency proposals. Applebee's, meanwhile, included 12 firms in its RFP last year before selecting Crossroads as AOR.

What's the magic number?

PRWeek asked industry insiders what they think is the right number of firms to invite to an RFP process

3-5: Justin McCarthy, VP of business development at Citizen Paine
6-8: Matt Shaw, director of communications for the Council of PR Firms
3-5: Jeff Wilson, director of business development at CRT/tanaka
5: Mark Sneider, president of RSW/AgencySearch
Less than 10: Anna Lingeris, senior manager of brand public relations and consumer engagement at The Hershey Company

One high-level PR agency executive says there is a “definite increase in the number of agencies being brought to pitches” because they are largely procurement-driven exercises. The executive recalls that in two recent major pitches, the client chose the incumbent after sifting through 15 or more firms in each review.

“It's an abuse, disrespectful, and a reflection of which the depths of professional respect have declined in this area,” the executive told PRWeek.  

A number of other agency executives say procurement is driving firms to expand their pitch processes to the point where they become unwieldy.

“It is certainly a growing trend that more agencies are being invited to pitches now, and why that's happening is because procurement typically is running the show when it comes to PR pitches,” says Jeff Wilson, director of business development at CRT/tanaka. “Part of procurement's job is to bring as many qualified agencies to the table as they can.”

He adds that procurement professionals do not necessarily have backgrounds in PR or communications, so the process of weeding out agencies isn't as decisive as it could be.

Ideally, Wilson says an RFP would have five agencies competing for business, and the RFI would invite no more than 10 firms to participate. 

Long pitch process

Thorough – or cumbersome, depending on your point of view – agency search processes from the past year.

Applebee's selected Crossroads as its PR AOR after inviting 12 agencies to its RFP process.
Avocados from Mexico Inc. hired Ketchum and Arnold Worldwide in May after starting a review with 52 proposals.
EngagePoint brought on TogoRun and Imre after a review involving at least a dozen other firms.
Legrand hired Sharp Communications after a search process that included 10 agencies in its first round.
PayPal named MSLGroup North American AOR in March after combing through 23 agency proposals.
The Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation appointed Ogilvy Public Relations AOR in May after an RFP with 15 firms.
Tyson brought in 10 agencies for a look before tapping FleishmanHillard for a range of corporate communications duties last July.

In May, The Hershey Company issued a wide-ranging RFI to find one or more PR agencies to handle global corporate communications, brand communications, and social media, and sources say more than 14 firms were invited to submit proposals.

Anna Lingeris, senior manager of brand public relations and consumer engagement at Hershey, says many businesses start with RFIs that can include as many as 20 to 30 firms because they allow companies to ask for specialized capabilities and get to know the agencies.

“In a day and age where firms across the board have integrated skill sets, it is a large challenge to identify core skill sets,” she notes.

While RFIs can include a considerable number of firms, Lingeris believes the RFP process should include less than 10 because they require a lot of work by the agencies, particularly procurement-run reviews that include various financial exercises and full creative assignments. She adds that reviews are also a lot of work for clients, so keeping them small is preferable for the in-house team as well.

Mark Sneider, president of RSW/Agency Search, says efficient RFP processes help companies avoid long, ongoing review processes that do clients a disservice and cause agencies to become bitter. The company generally reaches out to between seven and 10 agencies in the RFI phase, then shaves the list to five or less for the RFP.

Matt Shaw, director of communications for the Council of PR Firms, explains that the organization has noticed pitches including a greater number of agencies in recent years. He says he “can't see any upside to large pitches” for agencies or clients. The Council features an RFP Builder section on its website to help companies learn best practices when running reviews, he adds.

Shaw says the Council has known for several years that procurement departments run some RFPs and that their involvement has increased, but the organization is unsure as to whether this has resulted in larger agency pitch processes.

FleishmanHillard CEO Dave Senay also says he's noticed recent review processes run by rules written by procurement departments.

“It's in our clients' best interests that they are in the room and fully engaged to defend their own interests and to ensure some level of professional discretion, because in the end, it's the client who has to live with the outcome,” he explains.

This story was updated on June 14 to clarify the Council of PR Firms' observations about agency pitch processes.

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