As clients compile increasingly lengthy lists of potential firms, differentiating your offer can be tricky. David Ward offers tips to help an agency stand out
While the economy continues to pick up and give more companies the confidence to solicit outside PR help, the competition to get that piece of business may be fiercer than it's ever been.
Large national agencies are more willing to go after smaller accounts. At the same time, a greater number of boutique and mid-size companies now harbor national ambitions. But Bill Imada, CEO and chairman of the IW Group, says he's also noticing an increased willingness of traditional marketing firms to go after PR work.
"We're seeing ad agencies, promotional agencies, and viral marketing companies all competing for PR-related projects," he says.
That competition can change the dynamics of pitching new business, Imada adds. "We're going to do a lot more pitches where the director of advertising or the CMO is involved," he says. "It's not unusual to have the ad agency, or the direct marketing and direct mail companies have representatives at pitches."
Scott Signore, principal at Boston area-based Matter Communications, says that this means any pitch for new business has to take the big picture into account.
"Typically, a lot of firms will be narrowly focused and speak only of achieving communications goals," he says. "So one of the ways we try to differentiate ourselves is by tying what we do to achieving real business goals."
The one thing clients have gotten savvier about is PR firms that use top executives to win the business, and then pass off the account management to underlings.
"You should always be able to tell the client that the people sitting around the table will be the ones doing the account work," says Michael Olguin, president of Formula PR.
Melanie Wilhoite, GM of Edelman's Seattle office, adds that today's clients also want to know how you measure ROI.
"You need an answer that goes way beyond counting media impressions," she explains. "You've got to show them that no matter what program you put together for them - online activities, sampling, etc. - you are going to work with them to come up with the best metrics that are both qualitative and quantitative."
As far as the actual presentation materials go, Imada says a static PowerPoint presentation won't cut it.
"We've been using video," he says. "Even among my competitors, I'm seeing a lot of more streaming technology or they set up a website that could be used in a presentation with all sorts of fun viral marketing ideas and music. The clients really like that multimedia approach."
Wilhoite says a flashy presentation alone won't win an account, but stresses that any agency pitching new business has to show that they're comfortable with the tools of modern technology.
"There is a lot of online buzz out there - blogging, online chat rooms," she says. "So when you go into a pitch, the more you show that you understand and can use these new technologies to generate buzz and word of mouth, the more excited the potential client will be."
Every pitch should also include some strategies and potential campaigns for the prospective client. The danger, of course, is that an agency could end up providing some of its best ideas and insights for free to a company that may use some of them even if it ends up hiring someone else.
"That's a risk that you take in the new-business process," explains Christine Bock, MD of Costa Mesa, CA-based Bock Communications. "What we try to do is share a good amount of information, but not too much. We're pretty up-front about that. We tell the clients that once they sign the contracts we'll be willing to dive even deeper and come up with a strategic customized program."
At a minimum, most prospective clients will want to know a PR firm's current roster of accounts and they'll want permission to talk to one or two of them during the selection process.
"If recommendations or referrals from current clients are requested, you have to think about who you're going to use and warn them," says Wilhoite. "We have clients that are happy to give a recommendation for us as long as we let them know the people on their team aren't going to be the ones working on this new business."
Imada adds, "You can also add how your existing client base might integrate into a campaign that you'll be doing for that company. For example, how a potential banking client may be able to work with your client in telecommunications."
In the current competitive market, some companies may use the selection process to pressure agencies to lower the monthly retainers they traditionally charge. But conventional wisdom recommends against trying to differentiate your agency based on price.
"Everyone is price-sensitive, but that's more about value," explains Olguin. "So we try to turn that around and ask the potential client what their budget is. You never want to leave money on the table and you never want to sell yourself short. We tell clients there's no value in trying to hide that figure because we're going to develop a plan that makes sense for that brand and that budget."
Finally, it's important to remember that any new-business pitch meeting should be more about rapport than about bombarding a prospective client with information and ideas.
"At least 50% of it is chemistry," says Imada. "So you want to leave them with the feeling that they'll enjoy working with you and that they won't get burned by working with you."
Do leverage new presentation technologies - including video, graphics, and music - to show that you know not only the company, but also its target audience
Do bring a full team to the pitch. Most clients want to meet both senior executives and the day-to-day account managers
Do talk about the big picture, stressing how your agency can help a company reach not only its communications goals, but its overall business objectives, as well
Don't try to differentiate on price. Clients who work this way will often turn out to be only a short-term proposition
Don't take it personally if a client opens up your account for review. Look at it as an opportunity to reaffirm the work you've done and the value you'll provide in the future
Don't wait for the formal pitch process to contact a company. Look for ways to get your name known, even if the company seems to be happy with its present firm