Welcome to the world of competitive PR pitches

You wouldn't treat your tailor or your new lover this way so why is it OK in competitive pitches, asks Hamish Thompson of Houston PR.

Competitive pitches: there must be a better way, writes Hamish Thompson
Competitive pitches: there must be a better way, writes Hamish Thompson
Imagine someone says to you: "Make me a suit. When you’ve finished, deliver it. I’ll try it on. If I like it, I’ll beat you down on price. I’ve asked several other tailors to do the same thing."

Or imagine a first date saying: "We’ve just met. Organise a lavish wedding ceremony. I’ll turn up and if I like the look of you we’ll get married, subject to 30-day cancellation. If I don’t, I’ll eat your lobster and leave." Welcome to the world of competitive PR pitches.

It’s a good feeling when the invitation arrives. They’ve chosen us!

Of course, it’s just the start, like the Reader’s Digest letter: YOU MR THOMPSON may have won $1m.

Days of hard graft later the submission is in. We wait.  Mostly we’re invited to do a full pitch.  We invest more days.

Then we present.

Unless we have a pre-existing relationship, we almost always lose. Afterwards we try to figure out what we could have done differently.  

We sometimes get feedback: not enough detail; too much detail; too adventurous; too tame; we’ve decided to stay with the incumbent; a change of strategy; we’ll be back in touch next year; you didn’t convince us, we didn’t like the colour of your shoes. 

A pitch can suck life out of small agencies.

We’ve got better at avoiding bear traps. We’ve turned down pitches where we’d have to kill a savvy Goliath or two to get through – or where the process is driven solely by procurement.

Ten days of effort isn’t a reasonable expectation, given the odds. We’re not sure it’s in the interests of the businesses we’re pitching to either. 

It sets up a master/slave dynamic at the outset. What we think clients are looking for is a trusted adviser.

We expect to compete for work, but I think there’s a fairer way:

1. Businesses shouldn’t invite agencies to pitch unless there’s a truly level playing field.

2. Businesses should consider paying small agencies to pitch if they’re going to be battling larger agencies.

3. Pitches should involve a reasonable amount of work.

4. Businesses should be transparent about the size/number of agencies in the process and any pre-existing relationships.

There’s paperwork that potential clients could do too: a document that confirms there are no pre-existing relationships and that the process hasn’t been forced on the comms team by procurement.

Finally, how about this alternative process: clients meet agencies and decide which ones they like.  

They check out creds, approach, experience, financial background, policies, etc. They then work out a shortlist.  

Next, they arrange a simple contest: the agency can send one person to the contest with a brain and a pen and nothing else.  

That person would be the proposed account lead.  Everybody sits in a room. On each desk is a short brief. The agency representatives have two hours to write a submission.  

After that, the submissions are assessed, debated and the agency appointed. The upside is that it’s shorter and gives clients a better idea of how their chosen partners will think on their feet.

What do you think? I’d welcome your views.

Hamish Thompson is managing director of Houston PR

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