Why the pitch is less than perfect

TfL irked advertising agencies last week by awarding its congestion charge work to M&C Saatchi without completing the pitch. Should the losers be compensated for the time they have invested?

Pitch etiquette is becoming almost as antiquated as it sounds. In a market that is overpopulated by agencies and talk of recession there is a temptation for clients and agencies to play fast and loose with the pitching process.

It’s a buyer’s market right now and if clients feels like cutting corners in the pitching process, making U-turns on decisions, haggling over payment terms or generally pulling the wool over people’s eyes, who is going to challenge them? One senior agency executive goes so far as to say: “[The pitch process] is a shambles and open to the most appalling exploitation by clients.”

But equally, agencies are having a tough time. Many are desperate to use whatever tactics are necessary to win business that will replace the shrinking budgets of existing clients and help ward off redundancies.

Checks and balances do exist to help make the pitch progress in a fair and proper fashion. But with so much at stake, rows sometimes erupt over the manner in which a pitch is conducted.

The latest client to incur the wrath of agencies is Transport for London (TfL) over its handling of pitches for its corporate account and the advertising of congestion charges (MW last week). TfL appointed M&C Saatchi (M&C) to both pieces of business before the congestion charges pitch had been completed, and the agencies competing for the account were still preparing for a strategic presentation. The body justified its decision to appoint one agency as being “in the interests of value for money”. While TfL is within its rights to truncate the pitching process, the way it has acted has left a sour taste in the mouth for some agencies and has raised questions about accepted practice and good will.

A row has also erupted over the handling of the pitch for below-the-line business in relation to congestion charges, which one agency insider claims has also been truncated. She says: “We had done an enormous amount of work – as I’m sure others had – and feel that TfL has acted discourteously, unprofessionally and unintelligently. If it had wanted best value for money, why waste its time and ours going through such a detailed and time-consuming process?”

Large agencies can spend about &£100,000 a year carrying out pitches. In the Eighties, some even went to the expense of filming entire commercials in order to win a pitch. Agencies think that some kind of payment to cover basic costs is important and it would also make clients think more carefully about the length of their pitch list.

Agency veterans say it is easy to spot an unfocused client, if the pitch list is long and contains agencies of varying size and working methods. They think that clients ought to keep up to date with agency account movements and reputations. But, clients would argue that they have more important tasks to do and that they need only get to grips with agency credentials when it is time for a pitch.

Those clients that are more experienced are accused by agencies of using the pitch to trawl for ideas or to give the incumbent a “kick in the pants”. But it should be noted that many institutional accounts are forced to undergo a statutory review, even when the client and incumbent agency are content with the relationship.

One of the most frustrating factors for client and agency alike is the influence of global marketers – who often overrule the local country representative and insist that the pitch be aborted and the business handed to the company’s global agency.

The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA) and Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) are in the process of drawing up new guidelines for best practice, which will reflect a more flexible approach to pitching. The old guidelines, drawn up in 1996, stipulate that clients should have a shortlist of three agencies, and possibly four if the incumbent is asked to repitch. A strong brief, firm timetable, swift notification of a final decision and clear contracts, laying out intellectual property rights, all need to be covered by the client.

But one criticism of the structured pitch is that a two-hour formal presentation may not give client or agency the best indication of how they will work with each other. One agency executive says: “It’s like a marriage where you are looking for a wife or husband to spend the next three years with – you don’t want to find out you can’t stand them.”

Some clients have started using brainstorming sessions or workshops, where agencies are set several topics to discuss and issues to deal with, in order to see how the agency personnel think and operate.

As one expert says: “The pitch situation is so artificial and so removed from reality. Today the focus of attention has moved from the execution to the brand, from the clever creative treatment to brand positioning”. Consequently, there is a lot more at stake, and the need for each party to have in-depth knowledge of the other’s thought processes and attitudes is vital.

Apart from a formal pitch, there is also the time-honoured way of wooing business by the personal touch. No one disputes the fact that if a client has worked closely with an agency in the past, then it can make sense to allocate business without a pitch.

M&C is one agency known for the strength of its top-level personal contacts. M&C joint chief executive Moray MacLennan is aware that his company has drawn such criticism in the past. This was especially the case over the &£16m pitch for the Dome (MW July 30, 1998). He says that it is a myth that most of M&C’s business is picked up through personal contact. However, he does point out that, as his agency has so many old hands on board, it’s not surprising that the team has knowledge of so many clients.

He points out that mutual knowledge can just as easily be a negative if the client dislikes the way your agency works, but adds that the personal touch may count in getting your name on the initial longlist.

Evidently the art of persuasive charm can still gain a hearing and names mentioned with the gift, apart from Lord Maurice Saatchi, include WPP group chairman Sir Martin Sorrell and WCRS chairman Robin Wright. As an insider says: “What’s the use of having that kind of address book if you are not going to use it?”

But after getting a foot in the door, MacLennan says it’s down to “talent and desire” – and that applies to anyone.

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