An inside look at the trials and tribulations of agency pitches, and making the final choice.
Massive in-house change is what led Intellisync to recently launch an agency review. The San Jose, CA-based company has recently undergone a name change, a change in management, and a change in focus. Formerly known as Pumatech, the company changed its name to Intellisync in February. Pumatech was known for developing technology that helped people use cradles to synchronize information to their PDAs. But through a series of acquisitions, the company's technology evolved, allowing users to synchronize information between all types of mobile devices and PCs. And with new executive management and investors on board, including new CMO Rip Gerber, the company decided the time was ripe for an agency review.
Choosing a new PR agency can be a lot like a roller coaster ride. Everyone lines up in keen anticipation and clamors to climb on board. And once the ride takes off, it can be a thrilling experience that lasts just the right amount of time or an exhausting ride with no end in sight.
Agencies are generally reporting that their new-business pipeline is more full than it was a year ago. But they are also noting that the review process is taking much longer than before. Companies still value intelligent communications counsel. But they have no qualms about taking as long as they need to make sure they are getting what they want.
Jerry Swerling, a PR management consultant and educator, says the biggest change he has seen recently is an increasing number of agency searches that also involve management consulting to develop a clear picture of the client's agency needs. But in the midst of helping a client recognize what it needs from an agency, Swerling says many reviews have revealed internal issues that had to be dealt with before a healthy agency relationship could start.
For more than eight years, McGrath/Power PR had handled Intellisync's PR. McGrath/Power did an excellent job, says Gerber, but he felt with all the recent changes, it was also time for an agency change. The company handled the review itself and did not involve search consultants.
"Intellisync is moving in a direction that appears positive," says McGrath/ Power CEO Jonathan Bloom. "We enjoyed the time we were part of the team. But we know any time there's new management, there's an eye on change. So we wish them the best."
Intellisync was looking for an agency that could help the company position itself in the face of all the recent changes, says Bob Moriarty, director of corporate communications. The company also was looking for an agency that could offer strategic insight on the corporate level, along with the tactical product PR.
"The strategic role is critical," says Gerber. "As we move into a market leadership role, strategy and execution need to be at a whole new level."
Gerber and Moriarty compiled a list of 22 agencies, based on agencies that had pitched the company over the years, as well as agencies who had a strong reputation in the technology industry. The recipients were a mix of global agencies, and midsize and boutique firms.
In general, clients are looking for a slate of firms that embody the notion of superior work, regardless of size, says Smooch Reynolds, president and CEO of search firm The Repovich Reynolds Group. The more entrepreneurial and independent-minded agencies tend to win out, she adds, largely based on their innovative and creative thinking.
"It's amazing what makes agencies stand out from one another," she says. "Agencies are really working hard to understand the breadth and depth of a marketplace, the client, and the client's PR issues. They're talking to journalists and analysts. They're coming in with a deep understanding of the company and its competitors."
Reynolds urges companies not to be afraid of agencies they are not familiar with. If an agency has the right mindset and creativity, it will figure out a prospective client's PR needs.
And while many PR agencies admit they practice very little of what they preach to clients, agencies should spend time branding themselves, advises Dan Orsborn, senior partner at search firm Select Resources International. He says so many agencies look the same, and having a distinctive brand can make all the difference as to whether they receive an RFP.
Many companies just aren't familiar with what is happening in the agency world these days, adds Swerling. Many also don't understand the agency business model and how to work with that model.
But in the end, companies are still looking at the people who will manage the account, not just the agency's brand, says Swerling. Smart people who provide insight and strategy are far more important than a brand when it comes to winning an account. And strategy is the major reason why companies should be seeking agency expertise in the first place. A company that looks for an agency to just handle grunt work and not provide strategy is not leveraging an agency's best assets, he adds. Most agencies provide good execution. The ones that thrive do so by also providing strategic counsel and insight that distinguishes them from the competition.
Responding to the RFP
Intellisync's RFP asked for general information, including services that will help Intellisync meet its communications needs. But it also asked for specific information, including the names and roles of each person on the agency's proposed account team, with specific and detailing information on what each person's qualifications were and what they would bring to the team. Agencies also were asked to cite knowledge and expertise in enterprise software, as well as other pertinent markets, such as the mobile and carrier markets. Agencies also had to outline the services they would offer at three monthly budgets - $15,000, $25,000, and $35,000.
"The ticket to the dance is being able to execute on the tactics," says Gerber, of what was required to receive the RFP. "We want the right kind of people with the right kind of relationships. But what's going to win them the business is strategy. This is an interesting space. Mobility is exploding. Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco, they're all preaching about mobility. So we need someone who is going to get people excited about what we have to offer. I'm looking for a partner, not a vendor."
Companies would be wise to set the bar high when it comes to strategy and creative ideas, says Orsborn. Agencies have to be great tactically, and most are good. But clients are frustrated when agencies are not as strategic as they should be and also get frustrated when they feel they do not have the senior counsel they seek. Orsborn says more and more companies are placing an emphasis on strategy and senior counsel during their reviews.
Prospective Intellisync agencies were given two weeks to respond to the RFP. Some bowed out because of conflicts or because they couldn't meet the deadline. Intellisync received 15 RFPs back, and after culling through all the responses, Gerber and Moriarty narrowed the list down to five agencies - Burson-Marsteller, Cohn & Wolfe, FitzGerald Communications, OnPR, and Schwartz Communications.
Gerber said some of the larger firms couldn't respond within the two-week window, and "some of the larger firms - but not all - in general had some of the least creative and original ideas. Many of their responses looked like boilerplates."
"Too many [agencies] still don't understand that boilerplate copy in new-business proposals means death," concurs Swerling. "They may as well not even bother sending it. Why? Because when a number of such documents are compared on an equal footing, as they are in my reviews, those that are tailored to the client's needs and situation stand out, while those that rely on a boilerplate look like total duds by comparison. No one expects them to do original documents for every opportunity, but it's just not that hard to come up with ways to make the client feel special."
The smaller firms, in general, were more responsive, adds Gerber, and demonstrated an understanding of Intellisync's strategic issues and a deeper understanding of the market.
Agencies were given about two weeks to develop their 90-minute presentations to Gerber and Moriarty, as well as the company's CEO and head of sales.
It's wise to involve various stakeholders throughout the company, says Swerling. Companies are much more conscious of the relationships between the PR agency and various internal stakeholders, including executive management and sales, and recognize the benefits of involving those people in the process.
Companies need to make sure they test the agency teams properly and equally during those presentations, urges Orsborn. The whole point of the process is to create an "apples-to-apples" environment that will give the company the clearest comparison.
Crafting a memorable presentation
When it came time for the presentation, Gerber said they ran the gamut from incredibly strong to disappointing and disjointed.
One agency's presentation was very strong, Gerber says, with thoughtful analysis and creative ideas coupled with knowledge of the enterprise and carrier sectors, and demonstrated how it would get results through a synchronized communications plan. He also cited the agency brought in a good team with "great energy."
"They really thought outside the box," Gerber says. "They created story engines for getting coverage. There was a lot of energy and intelligent commentary, and the team leader did a great job of leading while letting other members of the team really contribute to the discussion."
What this agency was missing, though, was knowledge of competitors, and it had little knowledge of the carrier market, he added.
While the first team was "elegant and graceful," the next agency was the complete opposite, says Gerber, pointing out that there was very little chemistry in the team.
"They almost looked irritated," says Gerber, adding that the presentation was mostly a PowerPoint rehash of the RFP, which revealed that the agency didn't seem to know as much about the market as its RFP response had implied.
Swerling points out that agencies by and large are relying less on PowerPoint presentations and focusing more on personal interaction, comments that highlight the differences between the first two agencies.
The next agency suffered from the same awkward chemistry. Gerber cites a great RFP from this agency, but little follow-through when it came to the presentation. He says the team was not very knowledgeable about Intellisync's space, and the program concepts were completely off base.
"They had ideas that were cute and creative, but how does that help my sales guy close the Vodafone account?" asks Gerber. "Besides, my CEO would have destroyed them."
The fourth agency gave a good presentation, but also failed to go beyond what was already in its RFP. They had good, solid people presenting good insight, but Gerber says he was surprised they didn't project more energy or enthusiasm.
Orsborn says he is still surprised by the number of firms that don't listen to what the client wants during the pitch and do not pay attention to the parameters that are set up by the client.
The agency that won sealed the deal not so much by what it did in the presentation, but what it did after. Cohn & Wolfe - the winner - had a very strong, enthusiastic team that gave an impressive presentation, says Gerber.
"What was great was their deep expertise in mobility, carrier, and enterprise issues," he adds. "Most of their folks came from an enterprise background, so they came with some great qualifications. There was a seamless dialogue around the table. They spoke to reporters and analysts about us, and provided some real qualitative analysis, which is something we would have had them do when they started. Then they presented quantitative metrics, comparing us with others. They talked about our effort to own a share of the mobility market and shape the future of mobile enterprise, which was dead on with what we are trying to achieve. And everything was a team effort."
Gerber planned to bring C&W back, along with one or two other agencies, for final presentations. But C&W beat him to the punch. Gerber mentioned to each of the agencies that he would be out of touch for a day or two on the East Coast for a presentation to a carrier.
He said one of the four other agencies followed up with a call asking if there was anything else it could provide. But C&W also had a message waiting for Gerber when he got off the plane, telling him to check his e-mail - the pitch team had drafted a three-page plan of ideas to present to the carrier for his meeting.
Gerber said he mentioned his trip to plant a seed, that it wasn't really a test for the agencies. But when C&W came through with three pages of talking points, Gerber says his mind was made up.
"You always need to have some kind of follow-up," says Annie Longsworth, MD of C&W's San Francisco office. "It has to go beyond just asking if there is anything more you can do. [Gerber] told us he had to write something on the plane, so we helped him the best we could. We tried to anticipate his needs."
It's important to start any potential agency-client relationship on the right foot by responding immediately to an RFI or RFP, says Longsworth, at the very least saying you received the RFP and you would get back to the company soon. Longsworth says that she replied within an hour of receiving the RFP.
More and more companies are looking at chemistry these days, and Longsworth agrees that what looks good on paper has to look great during the presentation, particularly the rapport between team members.
"Every client has something they don't tell you they want," says Longsworth. "So you have to be equally smart and creative, and go beyond the basics. We may not have all the answers, but we can demonstrate our ability to get there."
"You have to have the right people with good chemistry," she adds. "And while it's good to have in-depth knowledge, you can't go in with every answer. But that is what the give and take is for, and that's why you shouldn't be so dedicated to a presentation. You should see where the conversation takes you. It's really a balance between the right knowledge and the right people."
Learning from the process
Gerber walks away from this search with some pointed advice.
"I wouldn't outsource a search to someone," explains Gerber. "It's about the people, the chemistry, the team environment. You need to see for yourself who is going to bring that to your team."
Swerling understandably disputes that notion, arguing that it is vital to facilitate the creation of healthy relationships through a combination of counsel, rigorous process, and industry knowledge. The client has the opportunity to be as involved or uninvolved with the agencies as he or she desires during any of the searches that he manages, Swerling says.
And assuming agencies can deliver on tactics, as they should, companies should place a premium on chemistry, creativity, and content, adds Gerber. Agencies should also pitch to win. While that might seem obvious, Gerber says a half-hearted effort will reveal itself to be just that.
Anyone who has been in PR for any amount of time knows that agencies cannot respond to every single opportunity that comes knocking, he adds. So pick wisely - otherwise it's a waste of the agency's time, money, and effort, not to mention a waste of the client's time.
"It was a lot of work, staying up to 4am reading RFPs," says Gerber, "trying to distill the boilerplates from the strategy. But it was also fun, and this is an investment that is well worth the effort."
Procurement: Better the devil you know
Procurement is a fact of life. As companies cracked down on their marketing budgets, procurement has become a steady, and not always welcome, presence in PR agency searches. But it's something the PR industry is starting to come to terms with.
"I don't think procurement's involvement has changed much over the past year," says Lou Capozzi, MS&L's CEO. "What has changed is PR firms' abilities to deal with it. Things are settling down now. It took procurement a while to figure out we don't sell widgets. So I think procurement's involvement is more positive and constructive."
Procurement often comes in at the very end when budgets start being discussed. But when consumer electronics retailer Circuit City launched an agency search in January, procurement managed the review.
"I know some people don't view procurement being involved as the best thing, but we were very happy to have them manage the search process," says Bill Cimino, director of corporate communications at Circuit City. Having procurement manage the review meant Cimino and his team didn't have to sweat the details, from scheduling meetings to researching an agency's financial information.
"It enabled me to focus on the firm, and their people and talent," Cimino adds. "I don't think it hindered us at all. Procurement was very objective. This enabled us to really manage the process in a way that respected everyone's time. And we've been very happy with Fleishman-Hillard. We've been working with them for several months, and they've brought a lot to the table."
But Circuit City might be in the minority. Many companies resent the involvement of heavy-handed procurement people, says Jerry Swerling. They want to get their new relationships off on the right foot and know that squeezing firms isn't the way to do it.
Companies that approach an agency review with an eye on strategy first, not budget, "recognize that pricing shouldn't be the driving force in choosing an agency and are finding ways to hold the procurement people at bay," adds Swerling.
But the involvement of procurement, a relatively new phenomenon, is not a bad thing for the industry, says Capozzi. Accountability is good.
"Any major agency involved with larger scale clients better know how to deal with procurement people," says Capozzi. "Like any other negotiation, they need to understand the company's reasons for involving procurement and anticipate those concerns."
MS&L has avoided procurement marginalizing and commoditizing PR during reviews by making sure procurement understands the services the agency provides and what it does on a larger scale.
"We're still insisting that they accept the notion of hourly rates, and we don't disclose individual salaries," says Capozzi. "The procurement process really varies from client to client, and it's mostly a back-end process. Their being involved is not so bad, as long as they understand the process."
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