Nobody wins from a long pitch process, not clients and certainly not agencies

With pitches like Singapore Airlines and the Health Promotion Board taking the best part of six months, an enormous amount of time and resource is being wasted because too many agencies and too many decision-makers are involved in the process – claims Julian Barrans of TrinityP3

For marketers, the agency pitch creates a fantastic opportunity to take stock of skills and services needed from an agency, or agencies, as well as to glean expert opinion on the brand’s market situation and creative opportunities to better meet consumer needs.

How long the pitch process itself takes, whether it’s a matter of weeks or runs to month depends on many factors. Some of which drive the length of the process in a good way and others more negatively.

Sadly, it’s the negative factors that are all too often guilty of making the pitch process too long and drawn out. It should be more about the focus you bring, how you handle the logistics involved, the quality of the process itself and the length of time that’s needed given the desired outcomes – rather than a calendar count of months.

The question shouldn’t be ‘how long is a piece of string?’, but ‘how long should the piece of string be to deliver the desired outcome?’

We see so much time wasted through too many agencies being involved throughout the process. This just eats time and resources and is usually coupled with poor logistics.

You most probably read about the fact that both pitch processes for the Health Promotion Board and Singapore Airlines took an age to complete – running right from August last year into the first couple of months of 2019.

There’s no information about what drove the HPB’s pitch process so long, although clearly there had to have been some problems encountered with either too many agencies involved or some other negative factor.

However, with SIA it was clear that the pitch process was guilty of having too many agencies in play; some 11 agencies plus the incumbent (TBWA) selected. I’d recommend half that number for the first actual meeting, to be quite honest.

The ‘iconic Singapore Girl’

Filtering the number of agencies prior to the first meeting allows you to then focus on quality time with the core agencies you’re interested in. This is key to managing logistics as well as your resources, and not wasting the time of the agencies too.

You should filter the agencies by narrowing down the long candidate list to just 10 agencies, based on the brief. Then, using a suitable template, narrow down to eight and request for their detailed credentials to be sent.

Then assess and review these to select the shortlist of five or six agencies for the chemistry/strategic workshop phase, where the client and agencies will meet for the first time. As you can appreciate, this is half the number that SIA had presenting. A real own goal.

This number should then be reduced further for the pitch phase and financial analysis – with two or a maximum of three agencies. Having applied this ‘best practice’ across many asian cultures and markets, such as Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore and working across diverse categories – including the complex, competitive conflict areas of automotive and finance – it definitely works efficiently and effectively.

Doing so will mean that both clients and agencies applaud the streamlined path. To ensure you select the best agency, best creative outcome, you also need to take into account the following six key aspects:

  1. Define what success looks like

Define what you’re looking to improve on compared to the incumbent. As well as what you may not be happy with, what’s changing in your marketing and business needs?

You also should take into account as well as manage the needs/opinions/issues of other key stakeholders in the business, or you’ll face potential conflict that will cause delay.

And be clear about your expectations in terms of services needed, deliverables/outputs required, your budget and the type of remuneration model that suits your needs best.

  1. You need a well-defined process

There is a level of commitment needed to run a pitch process from stakeholders and if the process is not defined and agreed, it can disrupt and lengthen the the time taken to deliver the best outcome.

Everyone thinks they know how to run a pitch. The truth is there is no one pitch process to suit all occasions. You need to be able to customise the process.

You also need to include metrics to present a clear picture of the landscape. The first set of metrics are to deal with the ambiguity of opinion. Leaving decisions in place based on subjective opinions is dangerous as different stakeholders come from different experience and skill set positions.

Therefore, it is best to develop scorecards against a set of questions that some up what success looks like from the first point above. Yes, this is still subjective but focuses scoring on the things that matter.

The second set of metrics is about benchmarking the financial data you collect from each agency. It’s not just about comparing each participating agency, but also referencing the industry benchmark.

This will prove invaluable in determining which agency is offering fair value, but critically where the resource focus is too. Ultimately, this aids the negotiation stage and contract development.

  1. Commitment to the process and timelines

Get commitments with both stakeholders as well as key support resources within the business and with the agency candidates. You need to clearly communicate the process, timeline/key dates and deliverables expectations. This is one of the biggest drivers of delays and the long agency pitch process.

  1. Clear decision-making framework

Define the stakeholders at the beginning. Also, agree how you are going to weight the scorecards at the keys stages of the process. Is it evenly split or marketing-weighted, for example?

Also, are there regional or global stakeholders that need to be involved? If you bring in additional stakeholders later on that are not involved in the early part of the process, you run the risk of creating chaos and wasting pitch time.

Worse still, you will potentially be making the wrong decision – as different stakeholders have different information to base their view on.

  1. You need someone dedicated to managing the process

The process needs a key stakeholder to communicate to the right people internally and manage the timeline commitments and especially key-decision meetings. The key person needs to be willing to run the process like any other project in the business and be be evaluated on it as part of their key performance indicators.

The chosen person must have authority (or clearly be given the authority), so that they are not given the runaround. You’d be surprised how challenging this can be where inputs are needed from many sources

  1. Put some clear thinking into your brief

The time you put in now will be worth it in the long run. If the brief is vague, you will get an incomplete response and need to look at furthering the evaluation process to satisfy the business. Often, we see briefs that have no defined problem. Instead, there is a rather vague brand review. So be clear on what you are asking the agencies to do.

So few final thoughts. It all comes down to the fundamental that you shouldn’t start with the rigid demand for a long pitch populated by endless agencies. The pitch needs to be the right length of time to fit the process that the particular organisation has put together, to deliver against the success factors set. Less is more.

Yes, there are many unnecessarily long pitches that take place due to not focusing on getting the above factors right and wasting time, as well as doing things poorly in the process. But at the end of the day, the more serious outcome from not getting it right is not a long pitch process – but rather selecting the wrong agency for the job that’s needs doing.

In addition, clients are astounded at the value and clarity metrics bring to the milestones in the pitch process. After experiencing this, they swear never to go back to their ‘old ways’ of running a pitch. Unfortunately, some have to learn this the hard way. 

Less is more when it comes to pitches, says Barrans

Julian Barrans is the business director at the TrinityP3 consultancy and is based in Singapore


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