Pitch courtesies: an agency perspective

An open letter to prospective clients of a view from the other side of the fence


Pitch battles are here to stay. Advertisers snap their fingers and agencies jump into the fray. Agencies invest time and money in gearing up for the pitch. Clients assume that the ideas in such presentations come gratis, and along with picking an agency they may also freely pick and use good ideas from the other agencies.
Agencies get livid at being exploited. Client shrugs it off. Ill-will all around. Clearly the time has come to share agency angst and set some basic ground rules, to bring back fair play, openness and dignity into the process.
This open letter to client prospects is not intended to make any sweeping judgments about client behaviour. Nor does it suggest that agencies are blameless or being wronged. The good, bad and ugly are on both sides. But in a pitch, final feedback is from client to agency, so clients don't get to hear of how they rated at the end of the process.
So,Mr Prospective Client, if you are calling for a multiple agency pitch, here are a few suggestions from the other side of the fence (euphemism for the underdogs). Criticisms that you have never heard and probably never will. Shared in a spirit of transparency only to trigger some soul searching.
First a disclaimer. The observations below are general in nature, gathered over 30 years in the industry. They do not allude to any specific organisation/individuals at all. Do look within and hopefully with hand on heart you will be able to say, No, that's not me!"
Don't summon, invite: An impersonal global mail marked to every agency in town, grandly announcing the time and date of briefing/presentations is not the way to embark on a potential future partnership. A phone call requesting a meeting is the better way. Good grace, at all times, is the hallmark of a good client.
Credentials first: Restrict the first meeting to sharing mutual credentials, outlining the task at hand, reason for seeking a new agency and checking on the agency's interest and capability to take part in the pitch. At the end of these individual meetings you should be able to restrict the pitch to the top two or maximum three serious contenders. Opening the pitch to all, risks losing confidentiality and is a waste of time for you, as well as for the agencies you are not serious about. If your final selection will largely rest on rate card comparisons, say so upfront without leading anyone up the garden path pretending that cost is no object, only creativity counts and so forth. Agencies are trained to see through such blah.
Be honest about the budget: Pitching agencies have the right to know what they are fighting over and the prerogative to decline if they believe it isn't worth investing their time and resources on what they are fighting for. Overstating the budget just to lure will lead to impractical solutions and dent your own credibility when you finally confess that the media plan presented is way higher than what you can afford. Never hide behind terms like 'open budget' or 'need based'. It just shows you up as either clueless or powerless. A switched-on marketing person of any authority in the company should be able to define precisely how much he can allocate to the promotion. Being secretive or not doing your own homework first, doesn't help. Creative solutions have to be worked within the budget to be at all meaningful.
Respect the work: If you mean business, show it. Asking for a quotation is different from asking for strategy and creative work to be shown to you for free. This isn't a product demo or a car test drive. An agency's product is intellectual property, a tailor-made solution for your specific problem and cannot be redeployed elsewhere if you don't select it. Agree on a fair compensation beforehand for the agency's time and effort, by way of a rejection fee. This will communicate the sincerity of your intentions, integrity and commitment. A principle isn't a principle unless it costs you money. If you have to pay, you will automatically take care in drawing up the shortlist.
Prepare well for the briefing: A written brief, well thought through, is the only way to start. Be specific and spell out precisely what you are looking for from advertising. You must understand that a superficial brief will lead to equally superficial recommendations.
Plan the schedule: Give enough preparation time, agree on the presentation schedule and stick to it. Never schedule the pitch presentations back-to-back. It's a bad idea to have agencies running into each other in your corridors. It also places the agencies presenting later at a disadvantage because by then your attention has started to wander out of sheer fatigue. Looking at your watch and asking them to rush through their painstakingly prepared presentation is insensitive and disrespectful.
Invite your key decision makers: In a pitch it is unethical and bad form to have the agency do multiple rounds, so make sure the decision maker attends the presentation. Whether true or not, a preliminary round gives agencies every reason to suspect that the favoured agency will be given feedback to tweak their presentation to queer the pitch towards them, before it is made to the big bosses. It isn't fair to demand a re-run from an agency as this involves further time commitment without any assurance of business.
Who shouldn't attend: Don't bring in junior staff whose contribution or depth of understanding is limited. Their eagerness to establish their worth to their own bosses often ends up with irrelevant observations, in the name of making a point.
Discuss, don't criticise: In a pitch, the agency is your guest and not part of the family yet. So disparaging, supercilious remarks about the quality of creative work is totally unacceptable. Especially if you are not paying for the time and effort.
Undivided attention: It is downright rude to answer the phone, send out text messages or engage in discussions on the sidelines of a presentation. Elementary? You would be surprised at how uncommon this so called common courtesy is these days. Many years ago, I was aghast at having to pitch before a chicken munching audience, more engaged in passing plates around, than our layouts. The subsequent grease stains on our hard work had our creative director almost ready to murder me!
Confidentiality: Never share pitch presentations with the agency you finally choose. And don't even think of using any of their creative ideas without permission. This is a serious violation of copyright and takes undue advantage of the fact that agencies don't take out a patent on their presentations and therefore cannot challenge you in a court of law. While the chosen agency, out of curiosity, will welcome the peek into their competitor's work, you can be sure that meanwhile their respect for your principles and conduct are dented already. They expect to be the victim of a similar betrayal some day.
Thank all participating agencies: This may seem like stating the obvious, but clients who remember this basic courtesy post the pitch are already an endangered species. A letter of appreciation for the time and effort, feedback on what was liked and what went against the agency, and a cheque for the agreed rejection fee is the professional way to do things. It will earn you admiration and respect regardless of which way your decision goes.
Also, make sure you return every single piece of work without retaining any copies even just for the record, to protect from future misuse in any form at your organisation. For example, even using extracts from the agency's power point presentation for an internal presentation, is unethical.

Welcome the selected agency: This should be exciting news for both sides. A pitch that the agency has won fair and square, so don't make it sound like a favour grudgingly bestowed, even if indeed it was a decision thrust upon you. Show that you are happy to be partners from here on. It boosts agency morale tremendously and this will show through in the work you get. Agencies stretch themselves for clients who treat them nice.
Partnership of equals: Arrive at mutually accepted terms. If you are a multiple agency client, don't expect all your agencies to conform to terms unilaterally set by you without discussion. In an automotive pitch we won some years ago, the client actually had the nerve to serve us their common rate card applicable to all agencies. In return, a few weeks later, we booked a car from them and served them our group rate applicable uniformly to all cars! They were not amused and expectedly we parted ways very soon. One sided gains don't work. Every successful partnership is based on the win-win principle.
If you have scored 10 or above, you are hereby crowned the dream client that every agency is waiting for. Just snap your fingers!
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Pitch courtesies: an agency perspective
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