Pitching: Business as usual?

It is inevitable that a client will review its PR account sooner or later, so what can an incumbent agency do to make sure it retains the contract? Mark Johnson investigates the problems of repitching for business.

A new year is a time for building on previous successes. Plans are being hatched and funds have been set aside for this year's campaigns.

But spare a thought for the PR agencies that were told about the dreaded review before Christmas and will be expected to repitch for their clients' business over the coming weeks.

Repitching can be one of the most traumatic periods in the client-agency relationship and something agencies try to avoid at all costs.

Repitching is like a renewal of nuptial vows, says one agency head - you both know each other well, but the trouble is that knowledge includes all the limitations as well as the good bits. The trick in staying together is essentially to keep it fresh, mutually beneficial, and the best partnership combination possible.

But, like marriage, keeping the client-agency relationship fresh requires extra work that should never be taken for granted.

Surviving a review is sometimes one of the biggest challenges for an agency. As Hotwire PR managing partner Kristin Syltevik says, it is best to avoid a review in the first place. 'The less you pitch, the better.

There's widespread belief that success is about pitching, but it is not.

Success is about keeping clients,' she says.

There is no escaping the fact that cold calls and sales letters cross clients' desks more frequently than any PR agency managing director would like to admit. And this is expected to continue as a trend, especially as close to half of the in-house PROs questioned in a report by The Survey Shop admitted they took documents 'on spec' when building pitch lists.

Two fifths cited being influenced by 'phone calls from agencies' for the same purpose (PRWeek, 15 October 2004).

The survey of 204 senior in-house PROs also found that only 30 per cent of relationships last up to four years without a repitch - so, inevitably, one is on its way soon.

The best strategy agencies can take towards preparing for the inevitable is to understand why their client might call for a repitch and then to avoid the obvious pitfalls the situation presents.

There is some guidance as to why organisations hold reviews. With some, procurement policy mandates a certain review period for retained supplier relationships. In such cases, all companies entering such contracts know that every year or so, they will have to reprove themselves against rivals.

But The Survey Shop's PR 2004 report also revealed that a lack of fresh ideas was the most common reason for calling a review. Dissatisfaction with an appointed agency was the main reason why 21 per cent of respondents decided to hold a repitch, while, encouragingly, only six per cent pointed to value-for-money issues.

But how does an incumbent agency hold on to a piece of business in a repitch? The experienced Euro RSCG Leedex MD Brian Beech offers some guidance here.

'The biggest danger in a repitch is the fact you know the client too well,' says Beech.'It is an unenviable position to be pitching against unfettered minds in that situation. There is a danger you will get the brief (and be negative), while the other agencies might come up with some creative ideas that impress the client.'

Syltevik agrees. She describes this process as 'going native'. 'You become the client. You forget you're not there to always agree; you are there to challenge, consult and work with the client,' she says.

Syltevik's remedy is to bring fresh talent to the account team to provide an 'external' point of view, reassess and redevelop the proposal, and avoid the danger of limiting creative thinking through overfamiliarity.

Experience counts

Food giant Nestle takes a different view. 'I often look to retained agencies for consistency,' says Nestle UK communications and corporate affairs director David Hudson.

He points out that brand managers at large FMCG companies tend to have short tenancies on each brand, and so any expertise built up within an agency account team becomes an automatic strength in a repitch.

'Eighteen months to two years for a marketer to be on the same brand is usually good going these days. Often the agency can have greater knowledge of the brand and longer experience of the issues, so that becomes very valuable to me,' he adds.

Coca-Cola GB director of public affairs and comms Tim Wilkinson says that although importing fresh talent into an account shows the agency recognises the need to keep its team fresh and energetic, the advantages and disadvantages for the incumbent in a repitch virtually balance each other out.

'We always have a number of people involved from our side so there will always be many views to mitigate any in-built prejudice,' says Wilkinson.

'This is to ensure we give the incumbent and the fresh agencies a chance to put their ideas in the best possible light.'

Despite such reassurances, when a review leads to a repitch, the incumbent can face a period of serious doubt about its chances. As Wilkinson says, it can lead to a sense of 'disempowerment'. Beech describes the request to repitch as 'a shot across the bows' to the agency. He adds that the invitation need not always be accepted either.

He says: 'There are times when you should just shake hands. You've got to reinvent yourself after a long period working with a client. That's just business.'

But the incumbent should never forget there are many advantages to its position. Hudson explains that some of the essential selection criteria required to work with a company such as Nestle are most readily apparent among incumbents.

'I'd expect an incumbent to have a much broader contextual understanding of how the brand fits, not just into its particular category, but within the whole corporation. It would need ideas on how the brand can affect the whole corporate reputation,' he says.

Whatever strategy is adopted by the agency, Beech warns: 'No consultancy can afford to be complacent (in a repitch). It's like any relationship - you have to invest in it.'

RECENT REPITCHES

- Consumer Kellogg's handed Munro & Forster the lion's share of its UK PR account in November, ending its long-standing relationship with incumbent Hill & Knowlton.

- Public affairs Bell Pottinger Public Affairs took over lobbying efforts on behalf of mining giant Rio Tinto in November after GPC International declined to repitch.

- Financial Brunswick and Invensys parted ways in August when the firm decided to review its relationship. Invensys hired The Maitland Consultancy in September.

- Public sector The Meat and Livestock Commission reappointed Good Relations for consumer PR, and B2B Communications for trade PR, in November.

- Technology Peoplesoft, the world's second-largest maker of enterprise software, appointed Brands2Life in August to explain its £1.7bn acquisition of JD Edwards last year. Insight Marketing & Communications decided not to repitch having worked for the company since it launched ten years ago.

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