PR TECHNIQUE: Same again? How to approach a re-pitch

Being the incumbent firm doesn't guarantee the client will keep you when the contract is up for review. As Douglas Quenqua finds, raising your game is key to re-pitch victory.

Being the incumbent firm doesn't guarantee the client will keep you when the contract is up for review. As Douglas Quenqua finds, raising your game is key to re-pitch victory.

To paraphrase Mel Brooks, it's good to be the incumbent. When re-pitching an account, there's no greater advantage than being the agency that already has the contract. "If you've done your job well, you should know the company inside and out," believes Harlan Loeb, Hill & Knowlton's director of national litigation services. "You know their assets, liabilities, clean laundry, dirty laundry. You should have palpable momentum going into the re-pitch." Joe Clayton, president and COO of Washington, DC's Widmeyer Communications, adds, "The advantages are that you've got a track record. You are a known quantity, and if you can point to results, a healthy relationship, and an ROI for the client, then you automatically have a leg up over anybody coming in from the outside." Except that not all re-bids are created equal. If you're dealing with a government client or a corporation with agency reviews etched into its contracts, then you can expect to deal with regularly scheduled competition from other firms, regardless of whether the client is looking to make a change. Then there are the other kinds of reviews - the kind that may actually put the incumbent at a disadvantage. "There's the re-compete scenario where the client isn't happy. Then there's the re-compete driven by the client hiring a new VP of marketing or CMO," says Stephen O'Keeffe, president of McLean, VA's O'Keeffe & Company. "Obviously neither situation is something you look to have happen." Problems with familiarity Other times, especially in a down economy, you may have a situation where a client is looking to downgrade its relationship with an agency. "Sometimes they may want to take you off strategy and just do the implementation," says Clayton. Indeed, Porter Novelli recently bowed out of just such a review. The American Legacy Foundation, an anti-tobacco nonprofit, began an agency review after four years with PN, but the incumbent removed itself right before the final cut after discovering that, in the words of a PN press release, "the Foundation's agency of record will provide implementation and tactical support, but little strategic counsel." The agency did not return calls for this article, but sources familiar with the situation said PN only learned of the restructuring after it had already begun the re-pitch. As the example illustrates, the most important decision an agency makes when asked to re-compete for business is whether it even wants to. "We once bowed out of a re-pitch because the toll the client was taking on our people was too high," remembers Clayton. "I'm virtually certain we'd have won the business again, but it just wasn't a healthy dynamic." If you are in a re-pitch situation where being the incumbent seems to be a strike against you, there are things you can do to increase your odds. "I would pull two or three people from different parts of the agency who had not been involved in the account to give it a fresh look and come up with some fresh ideas," Clayton recommends. "Sometimes things can get stale and you need to find a way around that." "You have to prove that you're not just going to rest on what you've already done," suggests Barbara Shipley, SVP with Fleishman-Hillard. "You have to demonstrate that you have a passionate team who's listened to the client over the years and is truly immersed in their business. There has to be value for the client in maintaining the relationship." When facing a re-pitch brought about by a change in leadership on the client's end, most agency heads recommend taking the time to get to know what that person is looking for. (A new VP of communications will often initiate a communications audit either to ensure the company is getting the best value for its PR dollars, or to install a favored agency from a past job.) "It's a good idea to get a feel for where that person is coming from," says O'Keeffe. "It's a simple truth that that person may have a preexisting relationship from a previous position, but that doesn't mean you cannot prevail. You need to be open to revisiting everything, showing that you're open to their ideas, that you want to focus on being their team." But even a mandated review, when there's no reason to believe the client wants to make a change, can present a challenge. As happy as the client may be, exposure to five or six other firms hungry for their business can't help but whet their appetite for change. In those cases, it's important to give them reasons other than your track record to stick with you. Raising your game "It's important to raise your game, and do it consistently with some initiatives you've undertaken months, if not a full year, in advance of the re-pitch," offers Loeb. "Remember, this company knows you, so raising that level can't be a transparent tactic. You don't want it to be obvious posturing for the re-pitch." H&K's Chicago office, where Loeb is based, even went so far as to bring in a third-party consultant to review its performance on a piece of business before going in to re-pitch. The move served a double purpose: The results proved to the client that H&K was doing the work it was hired to do, and it helped the agency identify areas in which it could improve. Finally, because reviews tend to happen every three to five years, nearly anyone re-pitching in 2003 is going after a piece of business won in a healthier economy. Hence it may be important to approach the client with a different emphasis. "If you're listening to your client, you should have a sense if their world has changed, and your program will need to change accordingly," says Shipley. "If you have a client with a $500,000-a-year budget to do X, and you start to see signs that that budget won't be there, you have to show how you can still help them achieve X." But the best way to hold on to business, says O'Keeffe, is to make sure the client is aware of your accomplishments year-round. "Through the course of the account, you must continue to report and prove the value you're adding and relate it back to their stated business objectives," he says. "You can place fantastic stories, but you cannot presume that everybody in the organization is aware of that." ----- Technique tips Do decide if the account will change significantly and if it's something you'll still want Do tie your accomplishments thus far to the client's business objectives Do raise your game. Show the client that they haven't seen everything you can do Don't rely solely on your track record Don't suddenly promise your client better service in the re-pitch. Begin new initiatives ahead of time Don't allow the client to lose track of your accomplishments during the year

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