Pitching: End this practice

As advertising’s trade body the IPA moves to combat unethical pitching practices, Robert Gray asks if the PR industry would benefit from a similar advisory service

On 6 October, advertising sector trade body the IPA launched a service that will be the envy of the PR sector – a confidential advisory service to assist agencies that believe they have been asked to pitch on an unfair basis. 

Inefficient and unethical pitch practices are prevalent across the marketing services industry, and the IPA's move is sure to fuel
demand among PROs for a similiar service.

The IPA will support aggrieved member agencies by liaising with client bodies such as The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, making direct contact with the CEO of the client company to discuss the pitch process and, in the most extreme situations, publicly voicing concerns in the trade press. In other words, naming and shaming the worst clients.

IPA director-general Hamish Pringle says the service was launched because of evidence that problems with pitch processes were getting worse. He recounts one instance when the IPA was contacted by an ad agency involved in a four-way pitch for which the client wanted all participating agencies to sign a non-disclosure agreement. This proposed that all intellectual property would be assigned to the client for the nominal sum of £1.

Unofficial service
The PRCA does not offer an official service, but maintains that  it continually helps its members with pitch-related issues. Most
recently it joined Kinross & Render in a half-day conference with Siemens to discuss best-practice agency management.

The association offers advice through the joint industry guidelines on 'Finding an Agency' and 'Creating a Brief'. Nevertheless, there has been an increase in complaints from members. They are concerned about the increasing number of hurdles to securing business, and longer pitchlists, sometimes a result of procurement staff being involved.

'Clearly a problem exists,' says PRCA director-general and managing director Patrick Barrow. 'And we've worked closely with the IPA and others on joint guidelines explaining good and bad practice to clients – and, critically, why good practice benefits both agency and client. However, there is little that can be done to copyright an idea.

'In terms of showing teeth, I think the IPA service is limited,' he argues. 'The IPA suggests that it might go to the trade press but bad practice is very difficult to prove and we think this approach could be libellous. As far as writing to the CEO, surely he or she will back the marketing department because all they have to show is that they're protecting the client company's interests.'

However,  agencies' intellectual property is no less valuable, and no one wants to invest valuable resources in pitching for business it has no realistic chance of winning. 

At the start of the year, British Gas shortlisted Blue Rubicon, Freud Communications and Cohn & Wolfe for its home services account but, after pitching had taken place, decided to take the work in-house instead (PRWeek, 16 January).

Was this bad practice? It is impossible to say. It may be frustrating, but agencies are wary of publicly taking clients to task for bad practice, fearing that it may spoil their future chances of securing work. However, Blue Rubicon managing director Gordon Tempest-Hay says: 'Nobody wants to do a lot of work and have it come to nothing, but sometimes it happens. You just take it on the chin.' 

Most senior agency figures have pitching horror stories to tell. 'We recently did a major pitch that we now believe was a pure fake – the client never intended to appoint an agency,' says Huntsworth chief executive Lord Chadlington. 'Sometimes clients are less than honest with you.'

Adrian Wheeler, CEO of GCI UK,  believes agencies are affected
most by a diluting of resources and would welcome an advisory service for PROs. 'The worst thing about squandering consultancies' time is that it is unintelligent. It drains the industry of energy and resources that should be devoted to client work,' he argues. 'Would the IPA's protection scheme work in PR? I certainly hope so.

Anything that encourages an orderly market is good for us and good for our clients.'

Chadlington adds that he would like to see more clients pay agencies' pitching costs, believing that 'rejection fees' might at least go a small way towards reimbursing unsuccessful agencies for their ideas and making the agency selection process more robust. 

Another leading industry figure, Chime Communications chairman Lord Bell, says he has also had experience of 'fake' pitches – citing a recent example in the telecoms sector where he was sure the outcome was predetermined, with his group having no chance of success despite its best efforts. In Bell's view the problem is no worse now than it ever has been, although he believes things tend to deteriorate during a downturn, when clients generally have more time on their hands to look around.

Bell, however, believes the PRCA should not follow the IPA's lead. 'The IPA is trying to prove it exists to satisfy its members,' he argues. 'People have moaned about the pitching process as long as anyone can remember. I think a pitch advice service is an interference in a free market. I don't believe in interfering regulatory bodies. I don't think it's wrong to lay down guidelines and give advice. But trying to regulate the process of pitching seems to me to be fatuous.'

Manning Selvage & Lee London chief executive Nicholas Walters believes the issue of unfair pitching will never be totally resolved. He estimates that around 85 per cent of the pitches in which MS&L takes part are well ordered and well managed.

Those that 'look like trouble', he says, are often easy to identify, and there is always the choice to decline to pitch. He recalls at least four occasions this year when the agency walked away at the start because it did not like the process.

'It is virtually impossible to copyright an idea and fairly difficult to prove malpractice even if one wanted to,' adds Walters. 'However, we do make sure that our copyright is on all our documents, and if we felt that our ideas were very obviously being used then I would be more in favour of the name-and-shame route than legal action.'
Other marketing communications sectors have also looked closely at pitch issues. Design agency trade body British Design Innovation has just published a 'Pitch Versus Productivity' research study – it found that 63 per cent of agencies have been involved in free pitches where the opportunity was withdrawn by the client post-pitch for reasons such as lack of budget or change in business or marketing strategy. The average number of man hours spent on free pitching per year was 608.

Musical lead
Intriguingly, although the IPA's activities are currently the focus of attention, it was another trade body, the Marketing Communication Consultants' Association, that pioneered a pitch protection scheme last year, inspired by the work of the Performing Right Society in the music industry.

Agencies using MCCA's Pitch Protection scheme register a pitch as confidential and list their ideas with a firm of lawyers, which issues a certificate that can form part of the pitch document. 'It totally changes the dynamic of the pitch conversation,' says MCCA managing director Scott Knox. 'Instead of clients focusing on implementation, they often say "we need to sit down and talk about your ideas, because if you have taken the trouble to protect them they must be important".'

The MCCA offered to collaborate on Pitch Protection with the IPA and PRCA, and Knox was disappointed when the former decided to plough its own furrow. Whether the PRCA holds further discussions with the MCCA on the matter remains to be seen. But with other trade bodies already having formalised pitch protection services, the PR industry will surely be keeping a close eye on how successful they prove to be.

'But that was my idea...'

Gordon Beattie, chief executive, Beattie Communications

'We only work for clients that we like and would not go to the pitch stage if the client gave off unscrupulous or unprofessional vibes. Most clients are honest but there are wide-boys out there who want to steal ideas from agencies. These people should be blacklisted, with agencies knowing that they deal with them at their peril. The PRCA could carve out a sterling role for itself in weeding out the rogues.'

Janet Awe, director, Awesome Communications
'I have had experiences of going into a pitch and realising that the client is not
looking for a new agency – they are on a fact-finding mission, looking for ideas
they can use in-house. On one occasion I pitched for some business, didn't get it and 10 months later saw the campaign and thought, 'hang on, that's my idea'. It is galling and upsetting.'

The Smaller-Agency view

Ross Furlong, managing director, Furlong PR
'We rarely go in for formal pitches these days – we find networking far more fruitful. If there is a genuine need for PR and the client likes what you have to say, it will often give you a one to three-month trial immediately.

'However, some of the pitch documents we get through ask for a phenomenal amount of detailed response for little reward. I had one recently from a company that wanted three written proposals demonstrating what we could do for three different budgets (small ones). This would be followed by two interviews and a final presentation. Three other agencies were also invited to pitch and there was an incumbent. The words "high-hanging small fruit" sprang to mind. We politely declined.'

Victoria Franklin, managing director, Premier Relations   
'The worst scenario is when a pitch drags on and every time you meet a requirement the goalposts move, entailing spiralling demands and slipping deadlines. It is unreasonable to demand multi-layered, detailed proposals and endless meetings. 

'If a business wants to include a PR specialist on the pitch-list that is high on knowledge and effectiveness but low on resources, they should accept that agencies like ours can meet their needs. Otherwise, why invite us there in the first place?

'We had a bad experience with a customer comms firm
that was an incumbent client. The brief was confused and ever-changing. The demands were labour-intensive and misdirected. The timescales dragged on and on and senior-level involvement was too little and too late.'

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