Keeping the pitch at bay

Contrary to popular belief, clients don’t enjoy putting their business up for pitch. Agencies must work with them to rule out the need for a split. By Stuart Pocock

Stuart%20PocockMany agencies believe that clients love pitches. But few do. Agency staffers, living their life in the communications bubble, assume that their marketer counterparts are similarly absorbed in this 24/7 world. Nothing could be further from the truth. On average marketers spend about 15% of their time managing the myriad of agencies they use – many believe it could be time better spent delivering business-changing solutions that the real world demands.

So when clients decide to pitch business, it’s because something has seriously broken down, and they are up against it to get new thinking and creativity working for their brand. The pitch simply adds to day-to-day pressures and once “time out” is called on an existing relationship clients are off on a roller-coaster ride of information gathering, short-listing, chemistry meetings, brief writing, briefings, pitches and so on.

Most of the marketing team get involved in this one way or another. Research suggests that the number of client man hours dedicated to the average process is around 300 – and that’s if they’re working with consultants. If DIY is the preferred route, expect that to climb to 500 hours.

But it’s not just the physical cost that’s high. Taking eyes off the day-to-day business to run a pitch can put the brand at risk, and escalate everyday pressures beyond normal high levels.

So why do clients find themselves in this position? Often the problem lies with both parties – clients contributing to breakdowns via poor briefing, lack of understanding (or indeed, interest) of agency procedures, and insufficient time. Equally, poor account handling and responsiveness, inability to crack problems first time round, are where agencies fall down.

Critically, while these problems are occasionally recognised by one or both parties, it’s rare that anything’s done to rectify them before they deepen – again due to time pressures. It’s only when the issues lead to crisis point, and key initiatives fail to be delivered, that breaking point is reached. by this time the relationship can already be dangerously close to terminal, and the pitch begins.

Agencies may have been hauled over the coals during the decline, and they may have tried to improve their act, but agencies aren’t very good at pointing out clients’ faults (living in mortal fear that they’ll lose the business). So many overarching relationship issues and problems remain unattended to – or at least that’s how it appears to the client.

So what’s the solution? Quite simply paying more attention to the relationship right from the very outset. Immediately after appointing an agency, and prior to the first project, it’s important to run an alignment workshop with both parties. That way you can ensure absolute clarity of purpose and no nuances or misunderstandings arise.

And you need to make sure that relationship communication continues once you’ve started. Most clients and agencies will insist on undertaking some sort of relationship review annually. In principle this is fine, but in practice, it’s part of the problem’s cause.

First, once a year isn’t enough. It doesn’t take 12 months for problems to arise – they have a nasty habit of growing exponentially. You need to put in a place a “traffic light” system – a simple quarterly reporting method – which can flag any problems on either side at an early stage and managed by a relationship owner at both the client and agency.

Second, most “health checks” are paper-based and seen to be time-consuming. Result? They get cursory treatment and small problems fester as the report is dropped into the filing cabinet to be dusted off in 12 months’ time. Make sure you get some qualitative overlay. This will place relevant emphasis on issues and give you the opportunity to react positively.

And finally, forget the time pressures. Pitching business is expensive – physically, emotionally and, especially for agencies, financially. Taking time out and addressing issues in the relationship means a guaranteed longer-term saving.

The trick is – whether you are a marketing director or chief executive of an agency – spotting issues before they become terminal. And being big enough to accept that both parties can get things wrong.v

Stuart Pocock is managing partner at The Observatory

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