In the wake of complaints from some public relations consultancies about
the Royal Mail’s recent review, we look at whether it is possible to
design a completely pain-free pitch
It’s hard enough when an agency puts its heart and soul into a new
business pitch, only to come away with nothing. Harder still when the
agency believes the appointment process was flawed or, worse,
But although agencies often grouse about their clients’ peccadilloes,
public protestations that pitches or reviews have been carried out
unfairly are not that common. Consequently, when it does happen it
causes a stir.
So it is with the Royal Mail, whose external PR review was described by
one participant - Paragon Communications chairman and chief executive
Julia Thorn - as ‘farcical’. Paragon had been one of Royal Mail’s
incumbent agencies for the past three years but failed to make the
shortlist in the review.
So does Paragon have a genuine grievance? Or is it simply a case of sour
grapes? And are there lessons to be learned - for clients and
consultancies alike - from the way Royal Mail is handling the affair.
Before an attempt can be made to answer those questions, we need to
examine how Royal Mail has been pursuing its review.
In short, it is seeking two agencies - one to fulfil a consumer PR
brief, the other for business communications. Royal Mail paid the PR
Register, which is part of the Advertising Agency Register, to help it
draw up a list of suitable agencies. According to its general manager
Suzanne Finch, PR Register then approached about 20 agencies, including
most of the incumbents, asking them to submit credentials tailored for a
‘service sector’ client but ‘not telling them who the client is’.
A six-strong Royal Mail panel then assessed the submissions, using a
scoring system based on 11 criteria, to whittle down the number of
agencies to eight. The panel had brief meetings with these agencies
after which it drew up its shortlist of four.
‘I thought it odd that they went to the PR Register,’ says a director at
one of the agencies involved. ‘My gut feeling is that an organisation of
that size should have a person who knows the industry well enough not to
‘But you have to say that in the scheme of things it has been pretty
open and fair. If you’re going to bring in outsiders it’s only right
that everybody should start at the same point.’
Others agree that the scoring system used by its review panel was
actually very fair.
So, what’s all the fuss about? The problems, it seems, lie with the
rigidity of the approach and the high-handed way in which the services
of incumbent agencies were dispensed with.
Flare PR had been working on Royal Mail’s redirection business for three
and a half years but was not even approached by the PR Register. It was
notified out of the blue - just a few weeks before the expiry of its
contract on 1 April - that its relationship with Royal Mail was not to
‘The problem is we had no communication of how the review was going to
be carried out,’ says Flare managing director Caryl Skelton. ‘We were
informed at the end of September that one was going to be carried out
and since then we’ve had no communication with the review team, until we
heard we hadn’t made the shortlist. It’s not good industry practice.’
Another agency director, who wishes to remain anonymous in the hope of
being given future work by Royal Mail, says: ‘It’s a very strange way to
proceed. Our client contacts knew less than we did about the process.’
Julia Thorn, Paragon Communications chief executive, whose agency was
at least contacted by the PR Register, also takes issue with the fact
that Paragon was not told it was being sounded out vis-a-vis an existing
client. If it had been, she says, its response would have been
In response the Royal Mail has always stressed it sought to select the
shortlisted agencies in the fairest possible way and involved the AAR as
an independent assessor. Its spokesman points out that, although the
incumbent agencies did not know the Royal Mail was the AAR’s client,
they had been advised of the review and should have been expecting an
So is it all just sour grapes? Perhaps just a little. What is undeniable
is that the Royal Mail has touched a raw nerve.
Others on the client side highlight the inevitable tension of the review
process. As Jill Rawlins, head of PR at Somerfield, says ‘the key to a
fair pitch is to be ‘as up-front as possible’, but she acknowledges that
‘you are always going to upset people however hard you try’.
Rawlins says she prefers to go on recommendation rather than mechanisms
like the PRCA listings or the AAR.
She also confesses to being a ‘coward’ over giving unsuccessful agencies
full feedback, saying: ‘I do tend to pull my punches because I don’t
want to upset people.’
Robert Browne-Clayton, chief executive of IFA Promotion, has just
completed his own review of agencies using the PR Register (story page
1) and says before it was enlisted he had been ‘flooded’ with ‘mind-
In this case incumbents were advised of the re-pitch and of the AAR’s
pending approach but, Browne-Clayton says he can see some value in
‘If you were a tough cookie and you wanted to put agencies on the spot
it might be best not to tell them,’ he says.
Perhaps the most telling comment from the Royal Mail is about how the
review was received by agencies in other marketing disciplines. A
similar review, for the Royal Mail’s above-the-line agencies, had, said
the spokesman, attracted ‘a high level of praise from advertising
PRCA guidelines: dos and don’ts of agency reviews
* Don’t ask more than five agencies to pitch.
* Establish what you want from your agencies before briefing them.
* Make sure that all agencies are given the same brief.
* Don’t arrange for agencies to pitch if you are not serious about
appointing one - don’t just trawling the market for ideas.
* Don’t expect detailed recommendations unless you are willing to pay
* Don’t ask an incumbent agency to repitch if you have already decided
to ditch it.
* Don’t drag out the pitch process. Make a decision as fast as you can.
* Have the courtesy to tell unsuccessful firms why they failed to get