There are three key trends in search and selection that I’d like to report on this year, trends which have been noticeably on the increase in the last 12 months:
- The Request for Information (RFI) has taken on significantly more importance as the first ‘stage’ of a pitch process.
- A wider spread of different types of agencies is being considered at the earlier stages of a pitch process.
- There is an increasing use of post-pitch creative research to help clients make the final appointment decision.
Let’s examine each of these in a little more detail.
Pay too little attention to the RFI at your peril
Newsflash! There are too many good agencies and not enough good opportunities to satisfy them. Well, that’s not really news to anyone, is it? Consequently, with a wealth of agency choice for most new business opportunities, the RFI has become an increasingly important way to discriminate between potential agencies during the early stages of the pitch.
Recognising this trend, we have paid particular attention to the type of questions we ask in the RFI’s that we create. We want to provide agencies with a platform on which to shine so that the client can form an impression and make a judgement on something more substantial and insightful than the comparative category experience that agencies are often asked to respond to in an RFI and which most agencies will be able to muster up a half decent evidence list against.
Delivering a response to more interesting, challenging questions, inviting agencies to offer a point of view or express an opinion, has proven positive from both sides. Clients are genuinely interested in the agencies’ initial perspective on their business or marketing challenge and agencies welcome having the chance to do something that may help them stand out from the competition.
Make sure that you give yourself enough time to think about what is being asked for in the RFI and why the client has chosen those particular questions. A hastily put together response, that appears to have had too little attention paid to it, is easy to spot and makes a clients’ decision to exclude an agency an easy one to make.
A widening competitive set
Agencies on the final pitch list should, as a general rule, have more in common with each other than not. The client that invites an advertising, social media, digital and CRM specialist agency to pitch against one another for the same business in a final pitch could be accused of not knowing what they want.
But as agencies have broadened their skills beyond the silos of single discipline capability, so clients are widening their agency consideration list at the early stages of their agency search process.
This is being driven by agencies more actively marketing their multidisciplinary offerings, leading clients to be curious about their comparative integrated skills. In addition, most briefs these days include the ‘social media question’ or want an agency’s perspective on the balance between owned, earned and paid for media. These are subjects that a wide variety of agencies have credible experience of and valuable insights to share.
What does this mean for competitive pitching agencies?
In some respects, not a lot. Final pitch lists still largely consist of very similar agencies and the winning agency still has to prove itself to be the best and most appropriate for the client’s brief. But, in order to do so, winning agencies have had to raise their game across all areas of their offering. A weak link in one aspect of an agency’s capabilities can be the difference between success and failure. The competitive set of pitching agencies are more than likely to be delivering output across some, if not all, aspects of the clients brief to the highest standards the market has to offer.
So, in evaluating your agency’s competitive offering, it’s not enough to make comparisons just with ‘agencies like us’; you have to measure yourselves against the best the total market has to offer, as it’s possible that you may end up pitching against them at some point in the future.
More research of creative ideas at the pitch
It used to be commonplace that the pitch ‘exam question’ was as much theoretical as it was a genuine attempt to buy work from an agency that would actually run. Timescales were significantly longer in terms of both production schedules and client business cycles. This was not least because of the significantly smaller palette of opportunities available to reach the consumer.
The emphasis was on employing the pitch process to decide which of the competing agencies they considered to be the most appropriate to form a long lasting working relationship with. Creative work presented at the pitch was important but expectations that an agency would ‘nail’ the creative solution in a pitch were not prevalent. After all, the agency would need time, and have the time afforded to it by the client, to really get to know the client’s business before it could produce work that was actually going to run.
Such indulgences are a thing of the past. Today’s pitches are marked by a client imperative to see pitch work that, in the space of a few weeks after appointment, the winning agency will be expected to be making, or at least be in the pre-production stage with.
So what’s changed?
First off, none of us have the luxury of time that we once did. The very nature of business is ’always on’, with the combined clicks and bricks route to market enabling business to trade 24/7. Hence, the pressure to get new work into the marketplace more quickly is growing inexorably every year.
Add to this the ability to develop, produce, create and refine work in a fraction of the time it used to take as a result of technological advancement. This has resulted in an inherent expectation, from both client and agency, that immediacy is a pre-requisite.
Technology has also enabled pitch research to be undertaken in parallel with creative development, no longer being something that has to wait till the end of the process. The ability to undertake on-line research as work is being developed has, in part, led the client community to adopt an attitude of ’why not?’ if it’s available and some agencies are actively promoting it.
If research is going to be used to support client decision-making during the pitch, be sure to factor this in when developing your pitch strategy. For instance, should the agency develop more than one creative route or focus its efforts behind a singular recommendation? Is the use of research going to be a factor in determining the agency’s success?
One positive outcome of such research is that there’s a higher percentage of creative pitch work that does run, often with little significant change to the pitch idea presented.
Paul Phillips is managing director of AAR Group UK