'A shallow, time-wasting beauty parade' - what agency leaders really think about pitching

Is the pitch process fit for purpose? PRWeek approached agency leaders to find out what they really think, in the first part of a series that investigates pitching.

Is the pitch process fit for purpose? (Photo: Getty Images)
Is the pitch process fit for purpose? (Photo: Getty Images)

At the PR360 conference, the pitch process took a beating. It was described by Taylor Herring boss James herring as a ‘shit show’ and ‘broken’, while Man Bites Dog CEO Claire Mason wants it process to be binned and replaced with more novel ways to choose agency partners.

From chemistry sessions to bloated shortlists, PR chiefs reveal the good, bad and downright ugly of pitching

Herring and Mason’s views are not unusual. Agency leaders privately bemoan the constant, resource-intensive merry-go-round of pitching, with many complaining about the role of procurement in driving down costs, as well as 'shortlists' of agencies that hit double digits, and drawn-out processes that can last for up to a year.

Today, PRWeek begins a deep dive into pitching to find out what agencies, clients, procurement and consultants think about the process.

This will include several features that look at the parts of the process that work well, and where there is friction, the roles of different players and what needs to happen to improve it.

In this first feature we have asked several agency bosses and new business leads whether they believe the process is fit for purpose. Of this small sample, 60 per cent believe the process is not fit for purpose, 30 per cent think it is and the others say it is hit and miss.

In the ‘not fit for purpose' camp, agency leaders have described it as a "shallow, time-wasting beauty parade", a "source of immense frustration", "expensive", "time-consuming" and  "probably the most fucked-up part of our industry".

Others are more upbeat, and suggest that, for the vast majority of clients, "the pitch process is perfect".

Here’s what agency leaders had to say: Is the pitch process is fit for purpose?

Andrew Bloch, co-founder and managing partner, Frank

When a pitch is run well, I think it is a fair way to appoint an agency. The problem is that many pitches aren’t.

Nik Govier, founder and CEO, Blurred

Sometimes but not always – often top-heavy people in the room and the client doesn’t see the team they’ll get. Also, clients get a tonne of ‘free’ thinking that an agency can never make the money back on.

Joe Mackay-Sinclair, co-founder and ECD, The Romans

For the vast majority of clients, the pitch is perfect. Select the agencies making the sort of work you like, ask them what sort of work they could make for you, hire them if you like it. What’s wrong with that? There’s no buzz like the just-won-a-pitch buzz. The industry would be vastly poorer and vastly duller without them.

Mark Stringer, founder and CEO, PrettyGreen

No, it’s fundamentally broken for both clients and agencies, It’s simply a shallow, time-wasting mutual beauty parade. The perfect embodiment of Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results".

James Gordon-MacIntosh, co-founder and managing partner, Hope&Glory

Generally speaking, yes, it is. When it’s done well, a pitch process with a clear brief from an end-client with all the relevant decision-makers in the room, an opportunity for questions, perhaps a tissue meeting to get feedback on first thoughts or ideas and then a pitch to an engaged audience (rather than people hidden behind laptops or checking their mobile phones) – followed by the money conversation - works. Ideally, over a three- or four-week period (depending on scale). The problem is that this process isn’t one that is always followed. That all-too-often turns a pitch processes into something between a bun fight and a shit show.

Christine Jewell, managing director, 3 Monkeys Zeno

A few get it spot on and are open to conversation and discussion as part of the pitch process – and give outline budget, too – but so many don’t. So, on balance, the pitching process is generally not fit for purpose. It's a source of immense frustration.

Sam Ingleby, head of corporate, Portland

It’s obviously a highly contrived situation, but in as much as it’s a fair competition and it forces both parties towards clarity of argument and thinking, I don’t think it’s too bad a way to make a decision. It can also be a lot of fun and helps bind you together with other colleagues.

Jo-ann Robertson, partner and CEO, Ketchum

The pitch process is one of the many reasons people love agency life – it’s an exhilarating experience and offers a rapid learning curve to consultants at all levels. However, the process can more often than not become problematic, mainly because it often relies on one-way communication from the agency, especially post-pitch. It is also heavily procurement-led, as opposed to being driven by the communications team, who must eventually decide what they need from a strategic or creative standpoint and what’s going to have maximum impact on their business.

David Fraser, founder and managing director, Ready 10

Since I started in PR, almost everything about the industry has changed –  the only thing that has remained the same, by and large, is the pitching system. It simply can’t be that the right solution for so many modern marketing problems is this weird, long process that ends in a beauty parade of four or five agencies shooting ideas in the dark like we’ve always done. Particularly in this blended comms world that’s ever-moving and requires dynamic answers to complex problems, it feels like it needs a shake-up.

Emily Caroe, founder and director, Mallory Group

It can be an expensive and time-consuming experience if there isn’t a strong process on both client and agency side, and only fit for purpose if there is transparency and a genuine desire to find the best fit, not a fishing expedition to squeeze incumbent agency fees or to put the frighteners up them.

Jim Rothnie, business development director, McCann Manchester

The vast majority of the time the pitch process works and works well, but it is down to agencies to push back on requests and behaviours that are unreasonable or unacceptable. After all, unreasonable behaviours and requests rarely improve with the familiarity of a business relationship if you win the pitch, so best to set the framework of expectations from the outset. And if you don’t like things and there’s no flexibility from the client, be prepared to say no. The outcome may surprise you.

Richard Moss, CEO, Good Relations

Some pitching processes are better than others - it’s a bit like comparing apples to oranges.

Oli Goss, co-founder, Olley Goss

It can be an antiquated process – briefs are often turgid tomes that can over-elaborate, but still be too vague. They should have clear objectives up front, defining exactly what the client wants to achieve. Be it boosting sales for a specific product or service and/or changing brand opinion for a targeted audience.

Ruth Allchurch, managing director UK, WE Communications

There’s room for improvement in the modern pitching process. At times, it feels very far from being a "process" at all; instead, it can be haphazard, chaotic and ambiguous. To help drive out inefficiencies, bad practice and disappointment, clients and agencies must agree from the get-go what will be delivered and when.

Martin Ballantine, managing director, Piracy Corporation

The pitch process is probably the most fucked-up part of our industry. Apart from, maybe, those agencies who still use AVEs.

Over the coming days, PRWeek will dive deeper into the parts of the process that cause the agency leaders gripes, pitch horror stories, and ways the process can be improved. This publication will also gather the views of other players in the process.

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