The Pitching Survey: From bad briefs to stolen ideas, frustrations abound on both sides of the process

Inadequate briefs, stolen ideas and 14-way pitches were some of the major concerns raised in a new pitch process survey conducted by PRWeek UK and the PRCA.

Agencies bemoaned idea theft (©ThinkstockPhotos)
Agencies bemoaned idea theft (©ThinkstockPhotos)

The survey, conducted between 6 and 21 April, was designed to lift the lid on the successes and failures of the pitch process, and uncover whether or not changes need to be made.

In total, 140 agency-side and freelance PRs responded, while 26 in-house comms professionals answered separate, albeit similar questions. 

Brief issue

The survey reveals agencies are particularly critical of the briefs from clients, with roughly 71 per cent saying they are not satisfied with the quality. Just over 10 per cent say they are satisfied with briefs, while 19 per cent gave no firm opinion.

Of the 71 per cent who are dissatisfied, 30 per cent say this is because briefs are "too broad", while 41 per cent say briefs that do not include a stated budget are inadequate. 

James Hickman, director at Hatch Communications, says the brief "seemed to be" the biggest issue with the pitch process.

Hickman says: "Rarely do we receive a briefing document that has clarity on what is required, objectives and success metrics. Clients need to be more focused on what success looks like rather than expecting agencies to provide creative platforms based around a very woolly brief."

Meanwhile, just 50 per cent of clients say they are typically satisfied with the quality of pitches (the remainder gave no opinion); suggesting agencies need to up their game too.

Ian Crowder, who heads comms at the AA, says proposals do not always reflect the potential shown in creds and chemistry sessions. He says this "underlines the importance for agencies to fully understand the brief, ask questions and not make assumptions about the business or its place in its market".

Speaking to PRWeek ahead of the survey launch last month, Alex Grier, managing director of Frank PR, says the pitch process had "changed a lot" in the past few years. "It grew up, became formalised and some of the fun got lost in all the process. And there can be a lot of process," Grier said.

He said once invited to pitch, some of the briefs could be so prescriptive "that it was hard to see where any creativity could be injected".

Idea theft

Agencies and freelancers also accuse clients of stealing their ideas, despite failing to win the business. Almost 70 per cent of respondents make this claim in the survey.

PRCA director-general Francis Ingham says the practice is "completely unacceptable". "The PRCA created the Ideas Bank to give agencies the opportunity to keep a permanent record of their pitches to stop this from happening. It's idea theft pure and simple, and it needs to stop."

Only four per cent say they are sure clients have not used their ideas, while 30 per cent say they do not know.

Time stamp

Elsewhere in the survey, agency-side and freelance PRs reveal they are dissatisfied with the time given by clients to prepare for a pitch.

Of the respondents in this group, only 23 per cent say they are satisfied. Thirty six per cent say they are not satisfied, while 41 per cent opted to give no firm opinion.

More than two-thirds of respondents (68 per cent) say they are typically given two weeks to respond to a brief, while 13 per cent are given a month and 15 per cent are given a week. Three per cent say they are given less than a week and one per cent say they are typically given more than a month to respond.

Asked how much time they would prefer to be given, 50 per cent say a month, while 41 per cent say two weeks. Only six respondents (five per cent) say one week, whereas four respondents (four per cent) say one month.

One agency PR says: "Preparing a proposal that is as realistic and thought-through as it is ambitious takes more than one or two weeks of whoever happens to have time."

Another says that in order to produce a good pitch, agencies need to fully understand the objectives, which are "rarely given in a brief", and need time to conduct research - while managing existing workloads.

Paul Lucas, director of consumer PR agency Fever, says that too often, pitches seem rushed with short pitch deadlines and imminent "go live" dates. He says this leaves agencies "little time to put forward propositions that stand a chance of working through the line and maximising ROI".

In response, the majority of in-house respondents (60 per cent) say they typically give agencies two weeks to respond to a brief. Twenty per cent say they offer one month, while 10 per cent say they offer one week. The remaining 10 per cent say they do not know.

Value-improving process

Meanwhile, half of in-house PRs say they are satisfied with the pitching process, while the remainder chose not to give a firm opinion.

When asked what could be improved, 90 per cent say agencies need to work on their knowledge of the client's sector. Forty per cent say agencies need to work on their creativity, while 30 per say personal chemistry could be improved.

Worryingly, only 22 per cent of in-house respondents think agencies deliver on expectations set in pitches. Two-thirds admit they "sometimes did", while 10 per cent say they did not.   

Numbers game

Agency PRs were also torn when asked how many firms they thought were typically invited to a formal pitch. Almost 50 per cent believe between one and three agencies were invited, while 47 per cent think the number is between four and six. No respondent thought 10 or more agencies were invited to a formal pitch.

One agency-side respondent, who asked to remain anonymous, says they were recently invited to a 14-way pitch. They say: "There is no joy to be had there. Granted, this is unusual but I don't think any agency should pitch against more than two other agencies. It is just laziness from the prospect."

Another anonymous respondent says their main frustration was the number of other agencies they typically compete against. "It's usually too many and that amounts to a lot of wasted time and effort for everyone," they say. 

By contrast, 90 per cent of the 26 in-house professionals who responded to the survey say their company typically invites between one and three agencies to a formal pitch. The remaining 10 per cent say it is typical to invite between four and six agencies.

Follow the money

The cost of pitching was also questioned during the survey. Richard Fogg, CEO of specialist b2b technology agency CCgroup, says pitching is a "very expensive" way to win business.

He says: "Even small pitches consume £5,000-£10,000 of billable time, which means you're looking at a long time before making a meaningful margin. But while everyone else does it, you have to. And someone always will."

Ongoing frustration

Ingham admits the pitching process is a source of ongoing frustration for clients and agencies. He says: "It is high time that both sides consider reviewing it to ensure the industry is using its time effectively to create well-thought out and creative campaigns."

To improve the process, Andy Sawford, managing partner of political comms agency Connect, suggests pitches focus on a real campaign or a scenario, "rather than covering the same ground as a written proposal".

Despite much of the doom and gloom, however, Aduro Communications founder Natalie Luke says pitching is the lifeblood of any agency and one of the main reasons PRs prefer agency life to in-house.

"The rollercoaster thrill of the pitch is an absolute highlight," Luke says.

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