CHOOSING A COMMS AGENCY: The art of pitching

Budget freezes and a wave of reviews mean agencies need more than just the best creative and original ideas to scoop new business

Attracting new business has been tougher than over the past year. The traditional summer lull ended with the US-led global recession followed by 11 September. Even if that economic downturn didn't wholly hit the UK, it inspired enough caution in marketing and communications chiefs to freeze budgets and plans to review agencies.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. In the last few months reviews have picked up again, with consolidation of large rosters a key trend.

The purse strings on budgets seem to have loosened and clients have begun to dip their toes in the agency market.

That optimism is tempered by three provisos: firstly, much of the new business out there is still project work, rather than clients looking for long-term relationships; secondly, there is also evidence that many clients are indulging in window shopping without committing to an actual review; and finally, clients are becoming much savvier about putting a squeeze on fees. 'There's a far more price conscious client out there,' says Tom Watson, PRCA deputy chairman.

So, given the fact that an agency must generally pitch for four clients for every one it wins, agencies have to identify which clients are actually serious about wanting a new agency.

Picking which potential client to invest pitch preparation time in depends on the extent to which the agency's experience, size, and style matches that of the client. In many cases the agency may also stand a good chance because of a prior relationship between one of the directors and the client.

'We might well choose not to pitch where we know that another agency on the list is best mates with a newly appointed client,' says John Rivett, Hill & Knowlton deputy chief executive.

Then there's the tough area of deciding whether to repitch for a current client. Given the amount of agency market research going on by clients at the moment, this issue has even greater prominence than usual.

In some cases, less confrontentational clients probably put their current agency on the pitch list solely because they want to avoid the confrontation of telling them they're fired. But in others, where, for example, the brief has changed, the incumbent has at least as good a chance as any new agency.

Once an agency is committed to getting involved in the pitch process, there are a number of elements, both strategic and tactical, which will increase its chances of winning the business.

Stuart Pocock, partner at Agency Assessments (see panel, p12), believes that some agencies having new business success at the moment are winning because of their emphasis on planning - not just the careful art of pitch preparation, but the kind of account planning that the ad industry has always specialised in. This means investing in robust research to get a far deeper appreciation of what is going on in the client's market and the minds of its key consumers.

'It's all about using the planning function to get much more involved in the client's business affairs. Some of the newer agencies are employing some very bright thinking on this issue,' he says.

Evidence also suggests that the more successful agencies are exploiting the credentials stage to float creative ideas and not simply to demonstrate their suitability for the job.

But according to many clients, this can be a mistaken strategy. At the credentials stage, the agency is probably better demonstrating its commercial understanding of the issues, and building up a relationship with the client.

Without these fundamentals there is no point in flaunting creativity.

As well as leaping on to creative ideas too early, many agencies also fail to realise that spending the entire creds meeting talking up their experience and skills is a bad move.

'There's always been a tendency for agencies to talk about our world,' says Anna Burns, Ketchum new business director. 'Infact, we should always talk about their world, and try and involve the client in that process as much as possible.'

Burns has used various techniques to engage clients in discussion at cred meetings. For a recent pitch for a company in the construction business she asked the client team to fill in a questionnaire to discover more about their motives, and set up a workshop session with them to test the initiative of the agency team and focus the clients on what they wanted.

'I don't think we (in the agency world) should assume there are any rules about who sets the agenda of creds meetings. Clients respond well to an agency with the imagination to vary things a bit,' she adds.

Thirdly, the old chestnut that clients ultimately choose agencies whose people they get on well with has never been truer. They want an agency team whose members they trust and regard as confidantes (at least the senior executives).

This is hard to project in a pitch, but can be communicated gradually through client contacts. Agencies are gradually learning the lesson that it makes much more sense to regard the pitch as only the culmination of a process, rather than a make or break performance.

Ogilvy creates an extranet for each of the clients it is pitching for, loading up all the research and preparation work it conducts as it does it. Rob Shimmin, managing director of the agency's global corporate practice, also makes a point of asking the client for as many meetings as possible with all relevant people from the company, including heads of overseas offices.

But he acknowledges there is a fine line between courting and pestering the client: 'Our rule is that every point of contact you have with them, pre-pitch, should add value. For example, we might e-mail the client's finance director to let him or her know that we've added a video on the site explaining how we manage budgets.

'We also come at the big idea gradually, with as much input from the client as possible. This reduces the chance of standing there red-faced at the pitch realising that your idea is totally off base. But more importantly it makes the client feel part of the solution, and hence brings a sense of team even before the pitch,' Shimmin adds.

Although this is particularly recommended for big global pitches, the point holds true for smaller reviews.

But however much an agency tries to reduce the reliance on the actual pitch, the physical presenting of the agency, its people and ideas will always form the major part of the process. It keeps account executives up at night, can often send clients to sleep, and is the focus of much discussion on effective tactics.

PRWeek spoke to a range of clients to discover what they would like to see more and less of at pitches. Unsurprisingly, the biggest whinge concerns the make-up of the agencies' pitching teams. Clients are not impressed to see anyone at a pitch that doesn't have a clearly defined reason to be there.

In many cases this means getting less experienced agency staff involved.

This is risky, although given that they have to learn some time, account executives and managers should be given every opportunity to get their hands dirty on the pitching circuit. The key to getting the best presentation from more junior staffers is to encourage them to relax and be themselves, allowing their passion to shine through.

A close second is the complaint that agencies don't demonstrate enough creativity. Clients report siting through far too many pitches where agencies talk about what many consider basic PR skills their skills and the strategies they would employ, but when it comes to actual creative ideas the locker is empty.

Techniques employed on the day can make all the difference between a tortuous and pleasant experience for the client. Powerpoint gets a bad press these days from almost everyone, with clients bemoaning agency staff's over-reliance on it. So many pitches fail to ignite any interest because clients have been forced to watch a series of people read off slides that they can see anyway.

Many people from both sides of the agency-client world report that one of the most important pitching skills to develop is the ability to read the style of a panel of clients that you have probably met for the first time that day. You need to know your stuff to such a degree that you can assess your audience quickly and switch the style of the presentation.

Surprisingly, many agencies fail to use the brief already provided. Unilever UK communications manager Clare Maynard was one of a team that conducted a pitch during the summer, for an agency to handle PR surrounding the company's sponsorship of Tate Modern's Anish Kapoor installation.

She recalls being surprised how some agencies insisted on making a heavily corporate presentation, despite her advice to them that she wanted to see maximum creativity:'The agency that we eventually appointed was so passionate about the project they could hardly stay in their seats!'

But it's good to bear in mind that judging agencies is such a subjective process - you cannot plan the perfect pitch. GCI UK chief executive Adrian Wheeler recalls losing a pitch once because the client didn't like the fact that an account manager tapped her foot on the floor throughout the presentation.

Despite this element of chance agencies can load the dice in their favour by studying the form, getting the right team on the job and identifying the best ideas.

TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED

'We were doing a pitch at our offices when one of the senior agency managers staggered back from the pub and banged on the window to be let in. Despite his shouting and knocking, we pretended he was a madman and ignored him until he went away. It must have worked as we got the business.'

Tony Bilsborough, ex-agency account executive, now media relations chief, Cadbury Trebor Bassett

'Two of us were in Coventry, pitching to three people for the account of a software company. My colleague had just started his part of the presentation when the CEO and the finance director (male and female) started holding hands. Shortly afterwards they started snogging. The other client had obviously seen it all before and ignored it, and my colleague somehow managed to continue presenting. They hired us on the spot!'

Chris Hewitt, managing director, Berkeley Public Relations

'My colleague John Brill took a call from a Japanese auto company who wanted us to devise a programme for one of their cars, the Starion. However, because of the man's accent, John thought he had said "stallion" and we created a whole set of creative ideas based on ideas of horses prancing around. When we got to the pitch and saw the correct brand name we looked at each other in horror. We ended up just presenting our research on the car market, and needless to say, didn't win it. So the moral of the story is - always get a written brief!'

Adrian Wheeler, chief executive, GCI UK

'Several years ago I was at Weber Shandwick and we were pitching for the BT corporate business. Our contact there was quite a young guy who was a lot less corporate than his colleagues. He advised us to be 'as wild as possible', saying that they were really looking for creativity.

So we let rip, hired an actress to give us pitching tips, threw out the overheads and brought in lots of props. Unfortunately, when we got to theoffices for the pitch we realised that our contact was only one of 12 on the panel - and the rest were grey, suited 50-somethings. Unsurprisingly, our highly creative pitch wasn't at all what the majority wanted and we lost to an agency that took the dull approach. The moral? Be sure that you aren't dealing with a renegade client.'

Philip Dewhurst, ex-director of Weber Shandwick, now group director of corporate affairs, BNFL

TOP PITCHING TIPS FROM THE FRONTLINE

Ash Coleman-Smith, managing director (consumer), Cohn & Wolfe. The agency has won business worth £400,000 in the past three months, including Drambuie

'Don't worry about the other agencies you're competing against - too much time mulling over what they may be planning takes your eye off the ball.

'Concentrate on what the client wants. Make sure that the whole team understands exactly what the client's objectives are before everyone starts firing off ideas.

'If you're not 100 per cent sure what is required you'll end up with pink elephant ideas that won't be of any use. Keep the thinking clear and simple. There are an infinite number of creative and strategic solutions to a brief but only a limited number of tactical options available in PR - don't try and overcomplicate something straightforward.

'Lastly, make sure you listen carefully to the client. There may be something that's really important to him or her but, for whatever reason, they haven't actually written it into the brief.'

Sheryl Seitz, managing director, Bite. The agency has picked up £700,000 worth of new business in the last six months, including Sun Microsystems

'Rehearse your presentation again and again, infront of the mirror if necessary. Performance could well be the only thing to set you apart from the competition, and yet a rehearsal often gets skipped in favour of spending more time on the content. Remember the old adage that an audience's view of you is 60 per cent body language, 30 per cent intonation and just ten per cent what you say.

'Put as much effort as you can into researching the people you will be presenting to. We use the internet, their PAs (if possible), profiles in trade publications, any public speeches they have made, as well as trying to get inside info from people who know them.

'Finally, try to find media opportunities for the client you are pitching for. Even if it's not particularly relevant to the actual task they've briefed you on, it helps convince them that you are on your toes.'

Rob Shimmin, managing director, global corporate practice, Ogilvy PR Worldwide.

Ogilvy has won £2.9m worth of European corporate accounts in the last three months, including GE, Nortel Networks and Qantas (John Travolta's Spirit of Friendship Tour)

'Why waste time presenting the client with research on what they already know? At the start of the pitch process we ask them what they would like us to conduct original research into - their choice of issue is often very illuminating and helps direct our thinking.

'If you've prepared a Q&A sheet for the pitch, but the client hasn't asked some or all of those questions, present them with the document at the end. They'll be impressed with your honesty and with anything that helps them make their decision.

'Finally, remember that there's a big difference between the creativity of the presentation and the creativity of the ideas. All the dancing girls in the country won't save you if the ideas aren't up to the job.'

Morgan McLintic, business development director, Lewis Communications.

Lewis has won £800,000 of new business in the last two months, including the Adobe account

'When you're putting together your pitch team, bear in mind that the most important thing is to get the chemistry right between the clients and the agency team. So try to match them in terms of age, sex, sense of humour, even nationality. Clients are far more likely to respond positively to a team that they feel are like them.

'Also, keep the presentation entertaining. The last thing clients want is death by Powerpoint, and they'll remember far more if they are relaxed and enjoying the proceedings.

'Lastly, be brave about giving candid views of the business from partners, employees, media and customers. You'll never know more about their business than the clients themselves, but you're in a good position to offer a new perspective.'

Jason Gallucci, managing director, Piranha Kid. The agency has won £300,000 worth of new business in the past four months, including next year's UK launch of Ford's Streetka

'Paying careful attention to managing time is one of the most important things to consider while you are preparing for a pitch. So set up a timeline, which sets deadlines for everything. Build in a false end deadline and appoint someone to manage the process. That person can also be responsible for orchestrating all roles - making sure everyone knows what they are responsible for completing.

'Consider original ways of visualising your ideas. We have done entire pitches presented on video. These have worked well because clients remember images easier than words. Anything that makes the presentation less about reciting is a good thing - we're not actors and shouldn't be just reading out lines.'

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