Pitch battle

Recently I was on a flight to Munich on my way to pitch for the pan-European communication event of a well-known IT company. It made me realise how much time, resources and financial investment an exhibition design agency needs to make an effective pitch.

The pitch is the big beef I have with the client/agency relationship. As far as I’m concerned, the moment you are in a formal relationship with a client, most things can be worked out and resolved. I have problems with that grey area before any appointment is made, but massive commitment on the part of the agency is nevertheless required.

The issue of receiving payment for pitches, or not as is the case in this industry, is one we talk about often at Enigma Design. Should we continue to display our services and, more importantly, ideas to a corporate market on a no-fee basis with no indication of any commitment on the part of the potential client?

Our experience is that potential clients are loathe to contribute financially to the pitch process. Instead, the policy seems to be to distribute tenders on a purely speculative basis, often with no real commitment in mind.

New business pitch costs are an overhead which have to be borne until such time as we actually pick up the business. Even then, the value of the account does not necessarily recoup the full investment we have made from the start. We have calculated that speculative pitches cost us about 150,000 a year.

My point is, in the advertising industry it is quite common for potential clients to contribute towards the costs of pitches. Even if their contribution does not cover the cost of the work, there is at least the acknowledgement of the time and effort taken to put the presentation together. I think the exhibition design industry should start thinking that way as well.

Credentials presentations seem to me to be the one sensible alternative to the time and cost-intensive pitching process. The presentation of capabilities, existing profile, track record and the provision of clients and bankers’ references should be good enough to enable any client to make a decision.

One of the major stumbling blocks with being involved in multi-pitches is the mistrust that is generated precisely because there is no previously existing relationship. The normal process on the agency side is that once we have a brief, concepts are thought through and then developed. This is a sensitive time for clients hoping to keep the wraps on the launch of a message, product or service.

However, in order for design agencies to provide the best concept they can, they need all the information they can get. If a number of different agencies are pitching for a piece of work, that means a number of, arguably quite vague, briefs are out there from which agencies are trying to develop ideas.

Agencies themselves resist throwing all their weight and knowledge behind a pitch because they fear the information can be used by the client and passed on, even unconsciously, to the agency of choice.

It also seems to me that co-ordinating the briefing and presentations of numerous design agencies is probably more effort than it is worth. Surely the track record and profile of any agency is sufficient for a client to make a decision on?

In addition, budgets or budget allocation also becomes murky when pitching. The potential client is loathe to reveal exactly how much money is available for a project and so will either quote the previous year’s budget or give no budget indications at all. Again, I think this limits our ability to assess and design the best solutions for the client. We need to be privy to as much information as possible.

We may be designers, but we run businesses too. We know what happens when there is not enough money to put behind projects. But if we know this from the start we can work around it rather than be kept wondering if there is any more cash that we might only be told about if we win the business. This may sound extreme, but it does happen.

We now have a rule at the agency that we won’t get involved in pitches which involve more than two other competitors. Sadly, although we are upfront with clients about this, they aren’t always honest with us about how many other people are going for the business.

I can’t see the benefit that clients get from seeing up to ten agencies (this is not unusual). I also believe agencies prepared to get involved in pitches at this level can’t possibly be focused enough and must be spending too much time and money fighting for business. Additionally, the money they spend on pitching for scores of clients ends up being clawed back from existing clients they do have.

Everything that I have mentioned here is drawn from personal experience. We have been asked to pitch against nine other agencies (which we have declined to do); we have been told we are pitching against two other agencies and subsequently found out there have been many more on the roster; we have been given vague briefs in the interests of confidentiality; and we have been given no or misleading budget indications. By anyone’s standards, it makes doing business awkward.

The way forward, I believe, is to introduce rejection/pitching fees as a norm. This would force clients to be more focused about what their needs are and would mean agencies like ourselves don’t end up pitching for what we call “ghost projects” ideas that never materialise.

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