ANALYSIS: Planning to deliver a painless pitch process

In the wake of complaints from some public relations consultancies about the Royal Mail’s recent review, we look at whether it is possible to design a completely pain-free pitch

In the wake of complaints from some public relations consultancies about

the Royal Mail’s recent review, we look at whether it is possible to

design a completely pain-free pitch

It’s hard enough when an agency puts its heart and soul into a new

business pitch, only to come away with nothing. Harder still when the

agency believes the appointment process was flawed or, worse,


But although agencies often grouse about their clients’ peccadilloes,

public protestations that pitches or reviews have been carried out

unfairly are not that common. Consequently, when it does happen it

causes a stir.

So it is with the Royal Mail, whose external PR review was described by

one participant - Paragon Communications chairman and chief executive

Julia Thorn - as ‘farcical’. Paragon had been one of Royal Mail’s

incumbent agencies for the past three years but failed to make the

shortlist in the review.

So does Paragon have a genuine grievance? Or is it simply a case of sour

grapes? And are there lessons to be learned - for clients and

consultancies alike - from the way Royal Mail is handling the affair.

Before an attempt can be made to answer those questions, we need to

examine how Royal Mail has been pursuing its review.

In short, it is seeking two agencies - one to fulfil a consumer PR

brief, the other for business communications. Royal Mail paid the PR

Register, which is part of the Advertising Agency Register, to help it

draw up a list of suitable agencies. According to its general manager

Suzanne Finch, PR Register then approached about 20 agencies, including

most of the incumbents, asking them to submit credentials tailored for a

‘service sector’ client but ‘not telling them who the client is’.

A six-strong Royal Mail panel then assessed the submissions, using a

scoring system based on 11 criteria, to whittle down the number of

agencies to eight. The panel had brief meetings with these agencies

after which it drew up its shortlist of four.

‘I thought it odd that they went to the PR Register,’ says a director at

one of the agencies involved. ‘My gut feeling is that an organisation of

that size should have a person who knows the industry well enough not to

need it.

‘But you have to say that in the scheme of things it has been pretty

open and fair. If you’re going to bring in outsiders it’s only right

that everybody should start at the same point.’

Others agree that the scoring system used by its review panel was

actually very fair.

So, what’s all the fuss about? The problems, it seems, lie with the

rigidity of the approach and the high-handed way in which the services

of incumbent agencies were dispensed with.

Flare PR had been working on Royal Mail’s redirection business for three

and a half years but was not even approached by the PR Register. It was

notified out of the blue - just a few weeks before the expiry of its

contract on 1 April - that its relationship with Royal Mail was not to

be continued.

‘The problem is we had no communication of how the review was going to

be carried out,’ says Flare managing director Caryl Skelton. ‘We were

informed at the end of September that one was going to be carried out

and since then we’ve had no communication with the review team, until we

heard we hadn’t made the shortlist. It’s not good industry practice.’

Another agency director, who wishes to remain anonymous in the hope of

being given future work by Royal Mail, says: ‘It’s a very strange way to

proceed. Our client contacts knew less than we did about the process.’

Julia Thorn, Paragon Communications chief executive, whose agency was

at least contacted by the PR Register, also takes issue with the fact

that Paragon was not told it was being sounded out vis-a-vis an existing

client. If it had been, she says, its response would have been


In response the Royal Mail has always stressed it sought to select the

shortlisted agencies in the fairest possible way and involved the AAR as

an independent assessor. Its spokesman points out that, although the

incumbent agencies did not know the Royal Mail was the AAR’s client,

they had been advised of the review and should have been expecting an


So is it all just sour grapes? Perhaps just a little. What is undeniable

is that the Royal Mail has touched a raw nerve.

Others on the client side highlight the inevitable tension of the review

process. As Jill Rawlins, head of PR at Somerfield, says ‘the key to a

fair pitch is to be ‘as up-front as possible’, but she acknowledges that

‘you are always going to upset people however hard you try’.

Rawlins says she prefers to go on recommendation rather than mechanisms

like the PRCA listings or the AAR.

She also confesses to being a ‘coward’ over giving unsuccessful agencies

full feedback, saying: ‘I do tend to pull my punches because I don’t

want to upset people.’

Robert Browne-Clayton, chief executive of IFA Promotion, has just

completed his own review of agencies using the PR Register (story page

1) and says before it was enlisted he had been ‘flooded’ with ‘mind-

boggling’ information.

In this case incumbents were advised of the re-pitch and of the AAR’s

pending approach but, Browne-Clayton says he can see some value in

keeping quiet.

‘If you were a tough cookie and you wanted to put agencies on the spot

it might be best not to tell them,’ he says.

Perhaps the most telling comment from the Royal Mail is about how the

review was received by agencies in other marketing disciplines. A

similar review, for the Royal Mail’s above-the-line agencies, had, said

the spokesman, attracted ‘a high level of praise from advertising


PRCA guidelines: dos and don’ts of agency reviews

* Don’t ask more than five agencies to pitch.

* Establish what you want from your agencies before briefing them.

* Make sure that all agencies are given the same brief.

* Don’t arrange for agencies to pitch if you are not serious about

appointing one - don’t just trawling the market for ideas.

* Don’t expect detailed recommendations unless you are willing to pay

for them.

* Don’t ask an incumbent agency to repitch if you have already decided

to ditch it.

* Don’t drag out the pitch process. Make a decision as fast as you can.

* Have the courtesy to tell unsuccessful firms why they failed to get

your business.

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