Secret Marketer: Don’t underestimate the value of chemistry when you are choosing agencies

Fridays are usually the worst day of the week for me. It’s the day when everyone catches up on all their outstanding tasks from the previous seven days. I am usually inundated with emails, and required to produce various data and reports. And just as I can almost taste that first glass of wine at the end of the day, my inbox fills up with half a dozen large and important documents that the author submits just before they rush off to the pub.

This week was different, however, as we had a pitch – not for our main creative work but for a very important marketing specialism. Five agencies came to the office to present their thoughts in response to a hypothetical business challenge, as well as to convince us we could work with them for the next three years.

Our incumbent pitched, but so did four agencies I knew little about. Over the course of a very busy day, we saw some very interesting ideas, sights and styles. A bit like Simon Cowell on The X-Factor, I came away wanting the account director from the first agency, the strategy from the second and the ideas from the third.

Five agencies pitching is too many but this was a specialised field, and it was more about ideas and approach than anything else. That said, a member of my judging team did suggest we hire them all and divide the work between them.

The experience enabled us to see all the traits of a pitch. One agency failed to read the pitch direction and didn’t present a response to the business question, while another had a strong strategic response but were just so boring as individuals. One agency’s pitch was so compelling that we were initially sold on the idea, until we realised they practiced a ‘my way or the highway’ philosophy and there was no hope of us partnering with them. Finally, there was the agency whose proposed account director stayed silent, as the owner dominated the pitch.

At the end of the day, as we compared our marks, we realised that the votes were swung: the one agency that I liked, everyone else hated and vice versa. As such, we largely ignored the votes and instead talked about our chemistry with the agencies and their approaches. Soon it became obvious that one agency stood out for having the best understanding of our business. They also had the best account team, were a group we knew we could work with and had presented an interesting and fresh approach. The only question was why had they failed to present this to us over the past five years we had worked together?

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  • Pininho 10 Nov 2015 at 11:15 am

    This is a fascinating article – thanks for sharing it. [Warning, the following is contentious].

    I have served in leadership roles both in a large Plc and a fast growth startup, and been through this exact scenario. Now am on the agency side and I see it too. The “Why didn’t you do this before?” is the question every incumbent dreads on pitch day.

    It’s clear the agency has some failing here, but the client in this situation needs to take a big chunk of the responsibility too (I include myself as a former client in this analysis).

    If the agency didn’t offer the right idea previously, it can only be for a few reasons:

    1) Agency didn’t have enough clarity on the brief, or were not getting clear feedback for the work they were doing (client’s responsibility).

    2) Agency’s best thinkers are reserved for pitch scenarios. Treating the annual planning effort like a pitch solves this (agency’s responsibility).

    3) Agency got lazy and started taking the client for granted (dual responsibility).

    4) Budget reasons (dual responsibility)

    That is one responsibility each, and two shared.

    I’m sure the Secret Marketer holds the agency responsible for their failure to solve this problem before. I wonder if they hold up a truly honest mirror, could they have done something differently to solve this problem earlier?

    Mark Pinnes, Deputy Managing Director, Flagship Consulting.

    • Secret Marketer 19 Nov 2015 at 1:31 pm

      Thanks Mark – and a fair challenge. I think my only defence is who is paying the bill? As a brand owner, I shouldn’t need to keep telling my agency to pull their socks up – they should be doing it anyway – it is what I pay them for. If we were a married couple, the blame might be more equal – but here there is a supplier/customer relationship, I think there is an onus on the agency to constantly check if they are hitting the mark, and to constantly strive for better. But I agree that we all get lazy sometimes, and it takes a pitch to wake the client up into what is out there… and the agency to have to think again about whether they have taken it all for granted… SM

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