How to Improve the Pitch Process So Both Clients and Agencies Win
At Liberty, we’ve been fortunate enough to pitch for some incredible projects over the past few years.
Over the years, we’ve won a lot of pitches, but we’ve lost quite a few too. And were those decisions the right ones for the brands involved? It’s tough to say, purely because the pitch process is often highly flawed. There’s no doubt that if pitching was run better, then the likelihood of businesses finding the right agencies, and agencies finding the right projects, would be far higher.
So here are my thoughts on what needs to change. These thoughts come from 8 years of asking agencies to pitch to me as an in-house marketer (and I now wholeheartedly recognise that I had no idea what I was doing at the time), alongside 11 years as the founder/MD of Liberty. I’m often involved with Liberty pitches, and I’m often baffled by how inefficient and truly bizarre pitching can be.
Where is “best practice” for pitching?
There is no standard way of asking an agency to pitch. And that’s why many of the brands out there are often getting sub-par proposals, even from agencies that are ideal for them. This part of the sales process has no recognised best practice, and I really think it’s about time we started developing one.
This is especially true when digital agencies are invited to prove themselves, because our part of the agency world has far less experience in direct selling our wares than many of the more traditional creative and media agencies. They’ve done this stuff for decades.
The big brands often invite ‘full-service’ firms to pitch and I’ve seen some truly terrible agency choices over the years where slick presentations have won SEO and PPC work, but didn’t have the specialist digital skills to get results once the contract was signed.
So, if you really want to really find the right provider then level the playing field. This braindump of mine should go some way to helping make that happen.
Nail Those Logistics
Pitches frustrate me like nothing else in this world. That’s because often when we turn up to present those things, the situation is less than ideal. It’s also sometimes completely farcical.
Please consider simple things, like When? Where? Who? How?...
• When will pitches be held? So we can make sure key people are around for it. Agency people are often out and about in client meetings and at industry events, often booked months in advance. The more notice we have the more likely we are to bring along the most relevant people – which means your pitch will be as good as it possibly can be.
• Who from your side will be in attendance? Names and job titles are all we need. That gives us enough to start a nice little bit of cyber-stalking (Joking, not joking). We are mainly trying to figure out the backgrounds of who is in the room, so we know the level at which to pitch things.
Senior decision makers should always be involved. Of course, these are very busy people and if just before the pitch it happens that they cannot make it, then give us the option to postpone for another day. It’s not fair if they only see some agencies and not others. This is in your best interests if you aren’t that person responsible for the ultimate decision, but are responsible for shortlisting agencies. If the wrong supplier is chosen, it’s on your boss’s shoulders and not yours.
• Where is it happening? I’ve been in pitches before where 3 on my side and 5 on their side had to fit into a 6ft by 6ft boxroom. With seating for 4.
I’ve also turned up to pitch for what I thought was the perfect client, and after 5 minutes in their building I’ve turned around and walked away. They really needed our help and we really wanted to fix their problems. But I refuse to pitch in your staff canteen.
Our point of contact had forgotten to book a meeting room, so there we were, expected to pitch while random employees chatted shop over a coffee and a muffin.
My contact said: “We’ve got some paper, you can draw anything you think is important on this instead.” Shameful. And this wasn’t a charming start-up, this was at a FTSE 350 company.
• Why are you sending out this brief? Transparency about your situation is important.
What are you looking to achieve? Why are you asking agencies to spend time on this? Are you unhappy with your current performance or is this for something completely new and in addition to existing marketing activity? Have you recently had a new CEO who wants to take the company in a new direction? The more info we have on internal motivations, the better your solutions can be.
Publish Your Questions
After you send out the brief, you will probably get a flurry of questions back from super-keen agencies. My advice is not to answer these in isolation, but to store them up and answer them for all parties to read.
The public sector does well at this stage. They collate all questions and then send out answers to all agencies at the same time, to make sure all have complete visibility of what is being asked.
I don’t tend to see this too much in the private sector RFP (Request for Proposal) process but it’s a nice way to do things and means for you that each agency is more likely to address each of your problems and answer each of your questions.
Give us your data
On this note, I beg of you to treat all pitching agencies as if they were the incumbent. Allow them to navigate their way through your business in the same way. It’s simply not fair to let only your current agency have access to things like your Google Ads and Google Analytics accounts. We NEED data. It’s our oxygen.
A painful example of this is where we narrowly lost out on a big tourism job that we really wanted. We scored higher than the incumbent agency in almost every area other than the ability to address some very specific problems, which could only be found by digging around in the client’s Analytics. And only the incumbent enjoyed that access.
I hated losing that job, but the real loser here was the client. Running a loaded game like this means there will only ever be one result.
Send out water-tight NDAs and let everyone see behind the curtain. The reality is you get a load of Analytics account reviews and many suggested improvements. Consider it a tonne of free consultancy.
Make it interesting
Recent pitching examples stand out when a quirky question or two was thrown in to the mix. It’s fun responding to these, and they show a motivated, creative internal team.
Recent examples include one company asking us to detail “Our proudest moment as an agency” and dedicate 5 minutes of the pitch to answering it. Another wanted us to talk about a similar project to theirs and specifically what went wrong with it, as well as what we learnt from that experience.
A question like this seems to me to be a great way to understand an agency’s culture, the personalities of the people stood before you and also helps you weed out any blaggers.
If you want to learn more about the people in front of you then you could ask something like “Where does your agency want to go?” or “What makes you different to every other agency we are speaking to?”.
I’ve been asked those recently and I enjoyed responding to them. If you want to know what I said, you’ll have to invite me in to pitch.
Give us some pre-suggested pitch layouts
It’s always nice when we get sent an agenda of the subjects you want us to cover, but a little flexibility is appreciated too.
We had a pitch recently for a beauty brand that did this perfectly. They listed topics that they wanted us to cover, from ‘agency background’ and ‘project approaches’ to ‘quick wins’. We had time limits for each section (which is handy for an agency founder who would happily otherwise spend an hour waffling about how amazing his business is), but the order in which we could present these was up to us.
This allowed us to give them everything they wanted but in the structure that made the most sense to us.
Give us room (and the kit) to make an impression
Even marketers need good feng shui. A suitable room of a good size and with ample equipment is essential for a good pitch. And if we can have five minutes beforehand to compose ourselves, that’d be grand too.
The best pitches tend to happen in a boardroom style environment with plenty of space to stand around, and enough seats for both teams to inhabit.
We also need you to have AV equipment - nothing fancy, just a nice big TV with the usual cables (ones that work, please).
I’ve been in pitches where no-one knew how to work the AV and had to call in a technician who took 20 minutes to arrive (apropos of nothing, has an AV technician ever not been more than 20 minutes away?). I’ve been in one room where the sun shone so bright on the screen no one could make out a thing. None of these situations filled me with the courage that the client were a good one and I doubt any of them enjoyed the experience that much either.
Set expectations internally and externally
This works two ways. I learned as a brand-side digital marketer how important it was to manage all stakeholders’ expectations in terms of what a pitch can deliver and what kind of pitch it is. For instance, is this a pitch about chemistry, or are we basing decisions on strategy, or a fully worked approach?
Everyone from your team needs to know exactly what kind of agencies are in the room and what kind of brief they had, so they know what kind of pitch to expect. Likewise, we need to be aware of things beforehand and those things really shouldn’t change unless absolutely necessary.
In a previous PPC pitch for a Fintech company, we’ve had their Head of Finance turn up unannounced and then get rude with us because we didn’t have in-depth projections – even though our point of contact told us he didn’t need them.
Then there was the new owner of a fashion brand, who flew in from LA, invaded their boardroom and immediately asked if we were “the guys who know all about this Google hokey pokey”. Within a minute or two he explained that we needed to “speak to Google so they can put me at the top. I deserve it”. It’s a novel concept.
Perhaps instead of projections, consider a test scenario. I had one recently that asked us to “create a campaign message and a PPC advertising strategy that would attract 25% more new customers from target market B”.
These give agencies a level ground on which to compete and show off how we’d actually go about meeting your goals. But…please tell us if these responses that we bring along to the pitch are going to actually be used as the final ideas that you’ll be spending money on, or if it is just a test of how we work and to see the type of ideas and processes we come up with.
We are happy either way but it’s good to know if what we come up with is actually what will be invested in. If not and it’s purely academic then we have a little more freedom and can be a little more daring in our approach, which will actually tell you a lot more about the type of agency stood in front of you. The PPC squad at Liberty once lost a pitch for being “too conservative” with our thinking, whereas the winning agency was “very creative in their approach” but it turned out their left-field ideas never ran, because they were off-brand and a step too far.
A situation like that doesn’t really allow this kind of challenge to do what it’s designed for. Do you value more how big we can think, or how realistic we can be?
Insist on a scoring system
Most brands mark every agency against the same criteria. If you aren’t then it’s likely you’ll be judging with some bias and forgetting some of the finer points afterwards.
What most brands don’t do is tell the agencies what those score cards look like beforehand. This rarely happens but I like it because it gives all agencies a fair chance of covering all important parts, and if one of us doesn’t bother to include them it makes narrowing down the playing field a lot easier for you.
If you have gone through the longlisting and shortlisting phases and are now asking the remaining few to actually pitch then surely you don’t want any of them to fall short and you are actually hoping that they will do the best job possible. Help them do that by showing them exactly how they’ll be scored. When I’ve seen this, it has been a nice touch and one always appreciated.
Having an established scoring system also makes feedback better too. After all of the above is said and done, when we’ve been in to deliver what we hope is a great presentation that not only meets your needs but also shows how capable and eager we are, it’s time to make us very happy or let us down very gently. Either way, good feedback is not only expected, it is vital.
We recently had a little exercise where we totalled up the hours we spend researching, strategising and creating assets to pitch, plus the time travelling and delivering it. There is rarely a pitch that doesn’t cost us many thousands of pounds. I know that for some of the more traditional media agencies that I speak to this can quite easily go above £20,000!
When there is this much financial investment (let’s not talk about the additional emotional outlay), we need to know where we slipped up or where other agencies out-gunned us. And please, I beg of you, be brutally honest. Don’t just say it was down to cost if it wasn’t. That’s an easy way out of delivering bad news. We try not to take this stuff personally, so if you thought our ideas sucked or that our team wasn’t experienced enough in your market then tell us, just make it constructive.
One other area where public sector tenders are often better than private sector ones is how they feedback. They will give you scores for each section (price, experience, approach, etc) and then also often give you the score of the winning bidder for each one as well. You can see where things didn’t go your way and where you need to make enhancements, as well as how far away you were. This lets agencies improve the things they can and decide whether to pursue future briefs having considered the things they cannot restructure.
It takes marketing agencies a lot of time and expense to prepare pitches. Please respect that by allowing us to put on a proper show for you.
• Before the pitch give us information such as who will be scoring us and what the room and equipment is like. Please make sure it’s a decent sized room with good AV.
• Please also give each agency access to all the information and data that any other agency has, especially if there is an incumbent provider.
• If you are feeling adventurous then ask some slightly obscure questions. Let’s spice things up and show off who we really are.
• If you are feeling generous then let us know exactly how we will all be scored. You could also tell each agency who else is being reviewed.
• On the big day, it’s nice to give us a little time to prepare before we get into it, and make sure any AV technicians are aware are ready to help if needed.
• Afterwards some honest and detailed feedback would be appreciated by every agency in the world.