The panel, hosted by Signal Media head of agency Eilidh Macdonald, was comprised of Man Bites Dog CEO Claire Mason, WE Communications MD Ruth Allchurch, Thomas Cook Airline head of external comms Lorna O’Neill and Taylor Herring CEO James Herring.
They said increasing influence of procurement has commoditised PR and communications and there are better ways for clients to choose agency partners.
Herring pulled no punches in a blunt assessment of the state of pitching in 2019.
"The modern state of procurement is a shit show. Finding a new agency and a great creative partner to work with has always been a very long, drawn out and complicated business and procurement have made it far far worse," Herring said.
"Most of the people recruited into procurement are there to get a good deal and they are commodity purchases, so the people you are dealing with have spent the morning buying photocopier paper and hand towels.
"How do you justify or price a great, game-changing business idea that is going to change somebody’s reputation and drive sales?"
Procurement 'dehumanises' pitches
Herring (above) said the pitching process is "broken" for three main reasons. Firstly, he said, "who decided that six agencies was a good number to have in for a pitch? It’s a terrible number. Herring said that after three presentations, clients are fatigued and have already seen "450 Powerpoint slides" and are "ready to die", and agencies who come in afterwards have no energy in the room.
"[Procurement] tries to dehumanise the whole process about how it is being done and it starts with a spreadsheet with lots of tabs," he added. "When it comes to asking questions that are relevant to the brief, you are getting very short, factual answers back to them and very often they are being shared with all of the other agencies."
Herring said there is a movement away from human contact and chemistry.
The third area that infuriates him is screwing down agencies on hourly rates before the brief has even been handed over to agencies.
"How can it possibly work when someone is stripping you down on price before they’ve even seen an idea?," he added.
Herring used the analogy of trying to build a dream home but without involving an architect or a structural engineer with sufficient experience.
"They are setting up themselves for a massive fall," he added.
‘Rip up the pitch process’
Man Bites Dog's Mason (above) agreed that the pitch process should be binned and believes there are better ways.
"I think we should kill the pitch process," she said. "This all comes back to marketing and PR being seen as a cost centre, rather than a revenue generator, and that’s why evaluation is so invaluable.
"I think we need to rip up the pitch process and start again and say ‘what are our objectives, what kind of partner are you looking for? You are looking for someone you like, respect, trust, who adds value that you and your team can collaborate with who is credible with the stakeholders in your business. The pitch process is not a way of measuring any of those things, it’s keeping them at arms length."
Mason believes other techniques, like live challenges, ideation workshops, test projects or phased briefs are far better ways of choosing a suitable agency partner.
"If you want the best possible partner, this procurement-led way isn’t the best way to find them, because any agency worth their salt will say I’m out if you present them with a 300-age RFP."
Agencies offer ‘a different lens’
Thomas Cook Airline’s O’Neil (above) – the only client-side panellist – believes its a matter of "ripping up the rule book of what we think we should be doing" and that it's also incumbent of agencies to get to know in-house teams better.
"What I’ve found since I’ve gone client-side is that sometimes agencies don’t think that the in-house comms team can bring the level of value that an agency can," she said.
"The reality is the in-house comms team will always be closer to the business than an agency and have that depth of knowledge and a seat at the table with the board. [Our external partners] can’t understand exactly what’s happening in our business at the moment, but what’s really valuable in the corporate side is having an external point of view to look at it from a different lens and be the eyes and ears outside of this world that we are in at the moment."
WE Communications boss Allchurch (below) believes the problem is more pronounced in global pitches.
"Is the pitch process dead? I guess there is what we want to happen and the reality of what is happening. Having been involved in a lot of global pitches in the last year, I think that’s where the big issues lie," she said.
"They are often looking for networks, agency partners in different markets. How on earth do you drive chemistry quickly and efficiently and get under the skin of a business when you are across a myriad of different markets with cultural nuances.
"It’s very challenging to do away with a spreadsheet and not have procurement involved."
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