Should clients invite more than five firms to pitch for business in person?

Clients should invite as many firms to pitch in person as they feel is appropriate.

Yes

Heather Kernahan, SVP, Eastwick Communications
Has spent more than 15 years in senior marketing roles in the technology industry

I've spent most of my career in-house at technology companies, and I've always been responsible for agency selection, management, and performance. This past year, I joined a strategic communications firm, so it's fun to see the world from the other side.

I believe that hiring a firm is a key decision for any company with serious growth plans – one of the most important you'll make. Because of the strategic nature of agency partnership, it is critical to bring in more than five agencies to pitch for your business. Here's why:

  • More information is better. When making a decision to partner with an agency that will support your growth plans, take in as much information as possible. Meeting with more than five agencies will give you a breadth of information and ideas to work from when making your final decision.
  • Now is the time to meet everyone. Your PR team can research agencies – awards won, client lists, and media wins – but until the agencies come and present their ideas, you do yourself a disservice to rule anyone out.

    I once cut out an agency in the pre-selection phase and ended up meeting its team at an industry event. I was so impressed with the team I ended up bringing them in, and we worked together for many years.
  • Unexpected connections. You never know where a conversation will take you. I've had the best serendipitous moments when the agency I'm meeting makes a connection I had not thought of and ended up in a new collaboration, partnership, or alliance.
  • Chemistry is everything. Sometimes you need to kiss five or six toads to find your prince. You may have a good rapport on the phone, but the feeling can be different in person.

    Clients think they don't have the time to meet more than five agencies or that their criteria are so well defined that they have the right short list. Take the time now to meet all the key agencies and then select a partner for the long term.

No

Marc Berliner, VP, business development, Cone Communications
Almost two decades of experience in pitching new business for clients and firms

A thoughtful strategy not only defines the best PR programs, it is also a key tenet to live by in an effective pitch process, whether you are the client or the agency.

A good search will begin with an RFI phase with 10 to 12 agencies, chosen through client research. The second step, a written RFP process, should narrow that to about five agencies and the final in-person presentation should include about three firms.

By inviting more than five agencies to this pitch, the client team can become overwhelmed with information and reach the point of exhaustion in the process. Small internal factions and lack of consensus among the client team is also possible. Consequently, the final agencies presenting may not be reaching an engaged audience.

A pitch process that includes too many firms has the agency asking itself some critical questions. Does the client really know what it wants? Is the client just covering all bases without clear direction – has it properly communicated what it is looking for?

Is it worth it for us to participate? Time spent doing a thorough job by both the agency and the client is considerable. If the odds of winning are less than 20%, agencies are likely to question whether that much work is worth it. Some top prospects may choose not to participate, and the client could be left with just agencies that are desperate for the business. With too many respondents, an agency might wonder if the client will be a good partner and respects the volume of work, or, perhaps, it does not understand PR or the process.

How much effort is the right amount? Given good odds, agencies will go the extra mile for the pitch. But with really low odds, an agency may put “just enough” effort into their response and the client will lose out on the level of thinking and strategy.

Passion for the project is of paramount importance to both the client and the agency, and it shows in the pitch process. Invest the time upfront developing a thoughtful and focused process and you will get the best results.


PRWeek's View
Clients should invite as many firms to pitch in person as they feel is appropriate. But they should keep in mind that large, lengthy pitch processes will scare away some agencies that have been burned by past haphazard reviews.

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