It’s that time of the year when clients are putting their businesses out to pitch and media agencies are looking to hang on to existing clients and to grow their portfolios.
There is currently a mix of both local and global business out to pitch and it’s mainly locally run. Most clients are keeping their cards close to their chests and controlling communication around their pitches, including non-disclosure, which means agencies are not able to openly discuss which business they are pitching for.
“We find that lots of ‘long standing’ pieces of business are now being reviewed. Clients who have had very long relationships with agencies, are making shifts and looking at different options,” says Chris Botha, group managing director at Park Advertising.
While the payoff might potentially be a significant win for the agency, pitching can be extremely costly in terms of time and resources. In most other professional services, the service provider is chosen based on their credentials.
So is media agency pitching strictly necessary?
Richard Lord, media and operations director at Meta Media, says that credentials alone don’t tell the full story. “Let’s be honest – they can be fluffed,” he says. “In addition, many media agency credentials are not all that different from each other. What differentiates agencies is their intellectual capital, and that can only really be put to the test through a pitch process,” he adds.
Botha believes that credentials do have a role to play. “But ability and pricing play a far greater role than mere credentials. Creds generally account for at most 15% of the overall pitch score,” he says.
Lerina Bierman, managing director at Carat Cape Town, believes pitching has survived so long because a media agency needs to be a strategic partner to their clients, and that is difficult to gauge without some sort of a pitch assignment.
“Pricing and credentials will get you through the door and satisfy the procurement leads; however for marketers, it’s about the calibre of your strategic approach and output, the understanding of their business and consumers, and the chemistry that you share with them,” she says.
Allocation of agency resources
When it comes to what percentage of agency resources to allocate to a pitch, Botha says there is definitely a happy medium.
“Most of our staff are 100% paid for by their clients that they work on. So it is hard to pull them off that client business for agency business. We therefore look to group resource to work on pitches, and also potential candidates who would handle an account should we be successful,” he says.
Bierman reckons that invariably there are key individuals across different disciplines who will always be part of their core pitch team. “But it’s good to mix it up a bit and not always allocate the same people to every pitch. The intensity of a pitch process can be a great learning ground for more junior team members to gain some valuable experience,” she adds.
Lord says each pitch should be allocated whatever resources are required to win the business. “If you want the business enough, you pull out all the stops!” he says.
Pitch fees not common practice
Paid pitches are still not common practice in the industry. Bierman says very few clients offer to pay a pitch fee for media.
“One could certainly argue that it’s high time media agencies start putting a price to strategic pitches, as our creative agency partners have been doing for years. Pitch fees are a fully acceptable practice for creative agency pitches; in fact the ACA and its member agencies are prohibited from participating in creative or strategic pitches without there being a fee paid,” she says.
Bierman adds that media pitches can become expensive, with extensive hard costs involved. “On the rare occasion that we see a pitch fee, the gesture alone demonstrates that the client respects the value of our work and the time and cost it takes to put together,” she says.
Botha agrees that only the vast minority of clients are willing to pay a pitch fee. This generally covers some of the hard costs of the pitch, but not the man-hours. “This, however, I do believe should be a company investment,” he says.
So does an agency truly serve its existing clients who are already supporting their business, with the same level of creative enthusiasm, energy and input that is inevitably directed to potential clients who have not yet supported their business?
Bierman says agencies will always put their best foot forward for a pitch. “It’s a bit like a first date; while you put a lot of energy and effort into it, it’s not necessarily going to be the best one. You are working off the limited information that the client has shared with you, bringing every trick to the party, and executing in a bubble,” she says.
However, she maintains that the most creative and effective media work comes from a partnership where the agency truly understands the clients’ business problems and can work together to solve them and come up with solutions that will transform their business. “That’s when I’ve seen the most creative energy and enthusiasm coming from teams who truly believe in the impact of the work they are doing,” she says.
Lord says his agency makes it a priority to ensure that the level of work presented in a pitch is the same level of work that a client will experience on a day to day basis. “We treat pitches in exactly the same way as we treat our clients,” he adds.
Potential clients have been known to invite agencies to pitch on their business, against the incumbent agency, merely to give the incumbent a little shake-up and to get them to lower their price on occasion. So is the pitch process always transparent?
“The pitch process is unfortunately not always transparent,” says Bierman. “However the increased use of pitch consultants such as Yard Stick has gone a long way to providing a more fair and transparent playing field,” she adds.
Botha disagrees. He believes that clients generally give the agency a good feel for the pitch before they go in. “Also, nowadays, by the time you pitch, you know the client, know the issues, know the agency challenges, and you are walking in eyes wide open,” he says.
Deciding what business to pitch for
There is no accepted norm for agencies to decide on what business to pitch for, so they can choose to participate in pitches based on their own criteria.
Lord says his agency is not limited to what type of business they pitch on. “We are happy to pitch for any business! As long as our existing clients don’t have a problem with us pitching for that particular brand, or that our pitching hasn’t been expressly ruled out by an existing contract, “ he says.
Bierman says they choose to pitch when it makes sense from a financial or reputational point of view. “Sometimes we will pitch on a small client purely because we believe in the brand and our ability to do great work on it,” she adds.
Botha says that it depends on a number of factors such as category experience, client culture and the opportunity to do good work.
Although agencies are often approached by clients to pitch on their business, most agree that engaging clients proactively to get onto their pitch lists often yields best results.
Bierman says if they identify a client in a category where they do not currently service any business, and believe they have something different and unique to offer them, they may approach them directly without waiting for the business to go to pitch.
Botha believes that it’s important to know the client and their challenges before meeting with them. “The presentation is the kiss off to the hard work you do beforehand,” he says.
The pitch process
There is no one size fits all process when it comes to media pitching and agencies need to work on a model that works for them. Pitch facilitators such as Yardstick do work on a certain formula for pitches. However, no pitch is identical.
“Each pitch has unique tasks, problems, and questions that have to be answered, “ says Lord.
Bierman points out that the process can vary depending on whether it is a local or global pitch, whether procurement is involved or whether it is being run by a pitch consultant or the marketing team.
Improving the pitching process
She believes the pitching process can be improved upon and that regardless of who is running it, clients need to think more critically about the key things they are looking for in a media agency.
“Clients need to formulate their pitch assignment or questions to test that, rather than trying to tick all the boxes and asking agencies to present on an exhaustive list of topics that aren’t going to sway a decision,” she says.
Botha advises that clients need to have a better understanding of how a team is built. “Clients who would have a team of 10 people working on their business, want to see all 10 people in the pitch. That is naïve. Agencies don’t have 10 people sitting around, doing nothing,” he says.
Retaining client business put out to pitch
When existing accounts are up for review, and put out to pitch by clients, it can often signal that the existing client/agency relationship is not as healthy as it could be.
However, it doesn’t always mean that the client is unhappy with the incumbent agency. Lord says there are many reasons that client’s put their business out to pitch such as global alignment and procurement processes.
“Some clients have a mandate to review their agency every three to five years. As long as you are pitching, you are always in with a shout! We have retained many pieces of existing business that have gone out to pitch for whatever reason,” he says.
If the relationship with the client is solid and the agency is doing great work with them, the chances of retaining the business is strong, Bierman believes. “If the pitch comes off the back of an unhappy client however, you’re more than likely dead in the water,” she says.
Protecting Intellectual Property
Having potential clients sign an NDA or IP copyright agreement does not always prevent them from using IP presented in the pitch, such as strategy and concepts supplied by pitch agencies, without compensation.
Although Bierman says this practice is more common with creative agencies, it does occur with media agency pitches too.
“With media, there are often similar strategic directions and ideas which you later see implemented by a client you had pitched on, but it’s not often as distinct or obvious as with creative IP,” she says.
Agency advice for clients
It’s important for clients to ensure that they know what the challenges are in their relationships, Botha says. “Rather work super hard at fixing them, before you change agency and have the same issues. One of my favourite sayings is ‘Change your agency, before you change your agency’.”
He advises clients to make use of pitch facilitators such as Yardstick. “They know what to look out for, and guide the discussion,” he says. “Make sure you use one – they are worth the money. Allow your agency the time and money to do good work.”
Lord recommends that clients should not base their decisions purely on price. “Agencies provide an invaluable service, and sometimes you need to pay for that service,” he explains. “If all you are doing is going after the cheapest agency, you are going to get what you pay for. Agency services, tools, staff, and IP come at a cost – yes, we are negotiable, but we believe that there is a value to what we can add to your business.”
A better alternative to pitching for both clients and agencies, says Bierman, would be for clients to judge agencies based only on case studies of actual work to validate their credentials.
It’s important for clients to think carefully about what exactly they are looking for in a media agency, Bierman reckons, and to test it in a way that allows them to get a taste of what the agencies are all about, without demanding too much of them before awarding the business.
This will offer prospective clients the opportunity to see a more realistic and rounded view of work that the agency is capable of, but more importantly, existing clients will benefit from the process too.
“If agencies shifted the focus and recourses currently spent on pitching,” she says, “to producing the most impactful and effective work for their existing client base in order to win new ones, it’s a win win for everyone.”
Bettina Moss is an inspirational writer, motivational speaker, GlowCoach, intuitive counsellor, mentor and presenter in the field of personal growth and development. She founded GloWoman in 2010.
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