Imagine someone says to you: "Make me a suit. When you’ve finished, deliver it. I’ll try it on. If I like it, I’ll beat you down on price. I’ve asked several other tailors to do the same thing."
Or imagine a first date saying: "We’ve just met. Organise a lavish wedding ceremony. I’ll turn up and if I like the look of you we’ll get married, subject to 30-day cancellation. If I don’t, I’ll eat your lobster and leave." Welcome to the world of competitive PR pitches.
It’s a good feeling when the invitation arrives. They’ve chosen us!
Of course, it’s just the start, like the Reader’s Digest letter: YOU MR THOMPSON may have won $1m.
Days of hard graft later the submission is in. We wait. Mostly we’re invited to do a full pitch. We invest more days.
Then we present.
Unless we have a pre-existing relationship, we almost always lose. Afterwards we try to figure out what we could have done differently.
We sometimes get feedback: not enough detail; too much detail; too adventurous; too tame; we’ve decided to stay with the incumbent; a change of strategy; we’ll be back in touch next year; you didn’t convince us, we didn’t like the colour of your shoes.
A pitch can suck life out of small agencies.
We’ve got better at avoiding bear traps. We’ve turned down pitches where we’d have to kill a savvy Goliath or two to get through – or where the process is driven solely by procurement.
Ten days of effort isn’t a reasonable expectation, given the odds. We’re not sure it’s in the interests of the businesses we’re pitching to either.
It sets up a master/slave dynamic at the outset. What we think clients are looking for is a trusted adviser.
We expect to compete for work, but I think there’s a fairer way:
1. Businesses shouldn’t invite agencies to pitch unless there’s a truly level playing field.
2. Businesses should consider paying small agencies to pitch if they’re going to be battling larger agencies.
3. Pitches should involve a reasonable amount of work.
4. Businesses should be transparent about the size/number of agencies in the process and any pre-existing relationships.
There’s paperwork that potential clients could do too: a document that confirms there are no pre-existing relationships and that the process hasn’t been forced on the comms team by procurement.
Finally, how about this alternative process: clients meet agencies and decide which ones they like.
They check out creds, approach, experience, financial background, policies, etc. They then work out a shortlist.
Next, they arrange a simple contest: the agency can send one person to the contest with a brain and a pen and nothing else.
That person would be the proposed account lead. Everybody sits in a room. On each desk is a short brief. The agency representatives have two hours to write a submission.
After that, the submissions are assessed, debated and the agency appointed. The upside is that it’s shorter and gives clients a better idea of how their chosen partners will think on their feet.
What do you think? I’d welcome your views.
Hamish Thompson is managing director of Houston PR