PITCHING: Online pitch

'Chemistry' die-hards will be sceptical, but experience shows online pitches can work, says Mark Johnson

Gearing up for a pitch is both exhausting and expensive. Some agencies spend almost as much time campaigning to get a foot in the door as they do servicing existing clients. And all a client wants from a pitch is to find the right partner with a view to a long-term relationship; something that is easier said than done. Wouldn't it be nice if most of the work and cost could be taken out of the traditional beauty parade?

Creativebrief, a new online procurement service that goes live in February, claims to do just that. Describing itself as the world's largest extranet in the PR industry, it aims to cut out some of the more laborious stages of business pitches across the creative industries, including PR. It does this by giving agencies the opportunity to showcase their work and people to potential clients, who can then invite them to pitch for a brief - online if they want.

A tool with no third parties

The question creativebrief raises for the PR industry is this: could PR pitches be conducted entirely online?

The service differs from traditional agency sourcing, in which a third party acts as matchmaker. Instead, it is an interactive procurement tool with no third parties involved.

Creativebrief founder Tom Holmes says: 'It is purely subscription-based; there are no finder's fees or split commissions. Companies can go online, phone the agency direct if they wish and do online filtering to dig deeper into the market. It means that when buyer and supplier get together, much of the due diligence and homework is already done, saving time and energy.'

By the time the service goes live in February, says Holmes, the site will encompass 850 PR agencies in 24 countries, partly through its partnership with the International Communications Consultants Organisation (ICCO), which is encouraging national PR associations to sign up.

ICCO secretary-general Simon Quarendon says the reasoning behind supporting such an ambitious project is to level the playing field between the large global agency networks and the small independents when big clients begin inviting agencies to tender.

'Creativebrief acts as another market mechanism on an international basis,' he says. 'If a small agency has a cogent proposition, is financially stable and can meet the client's needs, it should be able to pitch for the business.'

Not everyone is convinced that PR pitches online will be anything less than problematic, however. Nestle UK senior press officer Deborah Tilley is charged with identifying suitable partners for the firm's permanent roster of between five and six agencies.

'We tend to go out and find the agency we want to work with before we've got a brief,' explains Tilley.

She says that online sourcing offers little benefit to Nestle's procurement strategies. 'I keep an eye on the market at all times to see which agencies are doing good work,' she says. 'I often read the trade press, and I go to events and talk to people. That's where you get the honest opinions.'

Nevertheless, successful PR pitches have already taken place online.

In October 2003, Northamptonshire Partnership appointed Nelson Bostock Communications to promote broadband services to residents and businesses in the region.

No face-to-face presentations

The search, selection and three-way pitch took less than six weeks to complete, but no face-to-face presentations were included. 'Practically the whole process was conducted online through creativebrief, with final selection conducted using teleconferencing,' says Northamptonshire Partnership ICT and broadband development manager Jane Moch. 'We found that it all worked very well.'

The initial reason for sourcing online, Moch says, was time constraint.

She concedes that had the brief been more complex, face-to-face meetings would have been essential. Nevertheless, her experience points to the potential of online PR sourcing.

Unsurprisingly, the agency that won the brief is upbeat about the process.

But although Nelson Bostock Communications joint managing director Martin Bostock extols the benefits of online pitching, he still has some reservations.

'The benefits for a client are obvious,' he says. 'If the online service is a truly comprehensive one, it's a good way of shortlisting agencies, and this is how I think the service will be used. But it must be comprehensive.'

There are reasons to believe the online pitch could become commonplace.

After all, stories are already pitched to journalists online, so why not pitch for business online too?

Iron out price inequalities

In theory, there are other benefits. Carried out online, the pitch process is demystified, the pace of transactions increases and pricing inequalities are ironed out.

One senior communications director is less convinced of the benefits.

He says agency selection is not something that should be rushed.

'Encouraging a fast response is not necessarily a good thing,' he says.

'A pitch requires a lot of thought. A downside might be that you're not getting due care and attention. Face-to-face is key to that.'

Jackie Cooper PR founding partner Robert Philips warns that online pitching could lead to the increasing commoditisation of PR.

'Conducting a pitch online wouldn't capture the art part of the "art and science" of PR,' he says. 'It will reinforce the perception that PR is a commodity.'

Philips's concerns don't rest there. The lack of face-to-face communication, he warns, means a consumer account for a high-profile brand would create problems when it came to selecting appropriate agency staff.

'Brands need to have some sort of emotional connection with consumers,' he says. 'I wonder if an online pitch could dig deep enough into the emotional side.'

He adds: 'With brand PR, PROs need to be ambassadors for the brand as the people on the frontline, whether they are the brand owners or the agency staff on the account.'

Demand for specialised services

On the other hand, one of the arguments in favour of online pitching is the increasing rationalisation and consolidation of supply chains by large multinationals, which has led to a demand for more specialised services across the board, including marketing services.

Online pitching could help when sourcing for specialised briefs, according to Prudential UK director of PR James Murray.

'An online beauty parade would be a good step towards cutting out the most repetitive point in the process and the one that probably puts most PR directors off seeing agencies - the credentials presentation,' says Murray.

'If you had a specialised brief, then it would be helpful.'

Some agency managers also see the benefits of online sourcing of specialist skills. The managing director of one PR agency believes the pitching process could be streamlined by using online procurement.

'With the pitch landscape becoming ever more competitive, agencies do seem willing to speculate to accumulate, although there is a need for them to be cautious as well,' she says. 'The cost of pitching can mount up quickly, and if clients can be more specific about their requirements from the start of the process, this preliminary viewing stage could develop to play an important role in eliminating agencies that don't fit the bill.'

The RED Consultancy managing director Mike Morgan goes even further than that. 'People buy people, not just ideas,' he argues. 'This process would only ever be effective as a way of creating a shortlist for face-to-face pitching.'

Although accessing past agency work online might conceivably cut down on time constraints when it comes to shortlisting agencies for pitching, for some there are no shortcuts to finding the right team with the right chemistry. And that is something you cannot find through a PC. L

FOR - Sheryl Seitz, managing director, Bite Communications

'There are definite merits in using the web to facilitate the pitch process.

From an agency perspective, your credentials are readily visible to a prospective client at the outset, a time when the client might be scanning agencies or selecting a shortlist. Harnessing the power of the web, these credentials can include case studies that use advanced technologies such as Flash and streaming video or audio. The client can remain anonymous while initially viewing agencies and asking questions about pricing structures, case studies and so on. Both client and agency benefit from savings in time and resources at this early stage of the pitch process.'

AGAINST - Paul Charles, director of communications, Eurostar Group

'Online pitching will face a difficult birth. Whatever the merits of using a central online database to obtain information quickly, the idea of discussing briefs online won't take off. I'm a firm believer in choosing suppliers either through word-of-mouth recommendation or having worked with them in the past. Seeing the colour of their eyes is also crucial.

You cannot beat face-to-face contact - you can discuss ideas and witness a reaction at the same time. The best (and worst) ideas can come from even the briefest aside made at a meeting. Online pitching removes the flow of creative juices, potentially eroding the best ideas.'

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