Analysis: When client politics spoil pitches

Last week saw the abrupt exit of Palm's PR chief amid an apparent internal dispute over an agency review. Alex Black unravels pitches disrupted by in-house wrangling, and asks how to spot the warning signs.

Losing a pitch goes with the territory for agency consultants. Hours, days, weeks of preparation and research can come to nothing when a rival pips you at the post. But what about when a pitch is lost for a reason unconnected with your presentation?

At the end of last month, Palm’s EMEA corporate comms and PR manager, Andrew Phillips, drew up a shortlist to replace nine-year incumbent Kaizo on Palm’s UK PR account. Bite Communications, Cohn & Wolfe, CompanyCare and Weber Shandwick were scrapping it out.

But as the process was drawing to a close, EMEA vice-president Roy Bedlow ‘put feelers’ out to three other agencies, and Inferno PR was ultimately selected (PRWeek, 9 June).

Speaking out
While many senior PROs have experience of pitches disrupted by internal strife, few are prepared to name names.

Weber Shandwick director Matt Warder declined to comment on the Palm situation, while Bite Communications MD David Hargreaves would only describe it as ‘not one of the most coherent processes that I have been through’.

The anonymity given by online message boards encourages people to speak out, however. ‘In our view, [the four original agencies] would be well within their rights to be rather pissed off,’ ran a comment on the blog, theworldsleading this week. Nevertheless, speaking to PRWeek,  Bedlow defends his right to be ‘110 per cent convinced that [Palm] is making the right choice’.

One of the people to pitch, CompanyCare director Kevin Taylor, says the process was well run at first. ‘Palm presented a good list of criteria and clear deadlines,’ he says.

However, the first danger sign was the time lapse between the sending of credentials and reception of the brief.

‘This could have signaled a difficulty in getting the brief signed off, because when it did eventually arrive, the rest of the process seemed to be concentrated into a smaller timeframe,’ Taylor explains.  ‘The deadline for submission of documents was the Easter Monday, which meant we worked through the Easter weekend.’

Suspicious circumstances
He adds: ‘We were then given a three-hour slot for the first presentations on Tuesday. Shortly afterwards, we were asked back to do a second presentation on Friday. But we were only granted one hour to deliver the same presentation [this time with Bedlow].

‘In future I’d dig my heels in and ask for another day with a longer timeslot.’

Internal conflicts nearly always happen behind closed doors, so spotting potential trouble is difficult. Often it is a case of trusting your instinct, but agencies should not be afraid to hurry along a stalled process. Assigning time, effort and staff to a pitch gives one the right to transparency from the client.

See theworldsleading.blogspot.com


There may be trouble ahead... other experiences of stillborn pitches:

Storm Communications MD Amanda Williams says: ‘Smaller agencies don’t have the luxury of dedicated pitch teams, and it takes a lot of work to put a good creative brief together.’

She recalls occasions when appointed agencies have been without an approved budget one month after their hire. ‘When the client starts avoiding your calls, it means something’s up,’ she advises. ‘Yet when a marketing department approves a budget but then gets overridden by the board, there’s little you can do apart from negotiate severance pay.’

Martin Ballantine, founder of Revolver Communications, says agencies need to be wary of pitching to too many people. ‘I once pitched to 13 people,’ he remembers. ‘They all had different opinions and agendas and it felt like they were all scoring points against each other.’

Firms owned by venture capitalists should be treated with caution, he adds. ‘One food company we pitched for was ready to appoint. Then there were rumours it was going to float and the management stepped in and cut the budgets. The marketing director was tearing his hair out.’

Nexus creative planning director Alan Twigg recalls being told he had won an account with a major photography firm, only to find out two hours later that the European marketing manager had overruled the decision.

‘These people forget how much time and effort we spend putting these pitches together, and just pull the rug from under us,’ he says. The lesson he took away from that experience was ‘always know the chain of command’.
He adds: ‘The nightmare scenario is going through a long pitch process and finding yourself in front of a new group of people in the final pitch. If they say “This isn’t what we wanted”, then you’ll be kicking yourself for not having looked high enough up the chain of command.’

BGB Communications director Helen Coop says companies with offices in different countries can also present a problem. ‘You can be appointed by a UK office, and be in regular contact with it, only for an overseas office to veto its decision. All you can do is make sure that contracts are signed ASAP. If not, you have to set yourself a cut-off point.’

Alex Young, head of PR at selection agency AAR, says one of the most important things in-house PROs can do to ensure a drama-free pitch is to ensure everyone on the client side is aware of the reasons for the review and the process behind it.

‘If the process is transparent and everybody is kept in the loop then there shouldn’t be any nasty surprises,’ she says.

‘I’ve worked with PR departments that didn’t want their marketing people to know they were conducting a review. If that happens, or if the chairman suddenly puts another agency forward at the last moment, then the company clearly needs to look at the way it conducts pitches.’

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