Pitch To Win or Pitch To Lose

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July was a good month for the marketing in Vietnam as activities resumed in some sectors and then we are hit gain by the pandemic in the second half of it. This time of chaos from my perspective is really a test not only for business resilience but also its ethics. From the agency side, more than ever before have we received more briefs or requests for proposal during this time of the year, and also more than ever before that I see a majority of those pitches delayed, cancelled or silenced by the hardship bestowed upon companies. This particular experience of pitching during this time forced me to question this very common practice of marketing industry and its benefits.

It is logical that during this time, companies should seek out for new business direction or modification to survive the pandemic. Some companies simply need to try something new on their conventional business models just to seek out the light at the end of the tunnel. With this intent in mind, one can reach out to the agencies for ideas and correspondingly hold a pitch with or without the real intent to buy. Therefore, I would like to share my thoughts on this matter to a wider audience regarding the practice of pitching in the hope that we somehow could all improve and be benefited from it – clients and agencies respectively.

Why We Do Pitches?

We have known for a while that pitching is a practice that benefits clients but would not be preferred by any agencies. If there was an option for an agency to either join a pitch or proceed to an exclusive deal, none would go for the former. So, why is the practice of pitching still pervasive in our industry?

From the agency’s point of view, participating in pitching is a way of living! Marketing service – agencies and the like – is a low entrance-barrier industry. It means one can work as a freelancer or a freelance group, winning some project, and then move on to establish their own agency. Unlike other industries that require large capital investment, founding an agency does not require much cost. As an agency founder, he/she only has to generate enough revenue to cover the salaries and perhaps the rental. That is the reason why the market is getting more and more crowded by new agencies who are willing to go as low as nearly free just to win small pitches. The reality is that those newly founded agencies are usually short-lived. Most of them struggle when a few campaigns are terminated or losing some pitches that they invest quite a large amount of time in. Faced by the difficulties, most of them would decide to dismiss the organisations and go back into the freelance status as before to enjoy the flexibility of cost structuring. Yet, despite the obvious complexity, difficulties and demise of many agencies, a new wave of young marketing professionals who are eager to jostle into this crowded market to replace the dismissed ones are ever ready. Thereby, the practice of endless pitching is firstly a self-inflicted pain by agency people themselves.

From the client’s point of view, holding a pitch is a method of selecting the right agencies for their multiple marketing needs, from branding strategy to campaign activation. This approach is righteous, but occasionally abused by clients. I am not talking about clients that hold pretentious pitches to collect free ideas and then recycle those ideas into their own. Still, there are unintentional misuses that even good clients could make.

The Misuses of Pitching

Scenario #1: Pitch for everything

It is understandable as part of the procurement to have multiple suppliers providing quotations for one project, but I think it is unreasonable to call for pitch with detailed proposals for everything. In such a case, the time and cost of holding such pitch outweigh the value of the project itself. For this reason, I only recommend pitches to be called for if the project has a significant value of more than USD20,000 and the time of preparation of more than one month before launching. With value and time less than these criteria, the pitch will not attract enough qualified agencies who are serious about it, except the newly founded and rather desperate ones. The result of the work is very much equivalent.

Scenario #2: do not know how to handle the pitch and its Q&A

I have to be frank that I encounter this one a lot! The worst of them all is the ones that do not even have a decent brief and, in like manner, do not know what they need. Briefing is the initial step and an essential requirement of a pitching process, without which the result of the pitch may not be desirable. There are steps of pitching process clients should follow strictly to show professionalism and fairness of the pitch which, in turn, will attract and commit the established and high-quality agencies. Otherwise, it not only affects the results of the pitch but also ruins the client image among the agency community. For such clients and brands, future pitches could be very challenging since established agencies would refrain from participating in their pitches.

Scenario #3: the selected agencies may not be the best, or even the suitable one

The fact is the marketing industry has been skewed on pitching as the only means of selecting the right agency. This practice also puts pressure on the agencies to perfect their art of pitching, but not their art of execution. There is no strange practice for a client to see one team during pitching and another one which is often much more junior during the execution phase. During my time as a freelance consultant for some global agencies, I usually worked with senior teams flying from overseas to Vietnam to pitch, win, then hand over the clients to their local teams, and fly away. These special task forces seem to be the secret weapons of the global agencies to win pitches, but I would doubt the quality of the execution if it is performed by much junior receiving teams.

If agencies keep relying on their pitching art as a way to gain revenue and clients keep using pitching as a way to select agencies, the execution quality will negatively be affected. Some alternatives that I would propose not to replace but to modify the pitching process are as follows, with the aim to optimise this partnering procedure.

How to Hold A Good Pitch?

So far, it is obvious if a client or brand can avoid these above mentioned drawbacks, there would be a good pitch. In this part, I would like to provide a recap on what, in my opinion, are the best practices for a good pitch from the perspective of an agency and a little experience as a freelance marketing consultant of course.

#1: Evaluate on credentials and past projects

Evaluating on credentials alone is the first thing clients and brands do as short-listing, but it can also serve as a way to select suitable agency from the crowd without a formalised pitch. This may sound like the riskiest one and I also know that, as part of the procurement procedure of large companies, there always have to be at least three participants in pitch for every purchase order. However, for a medium company with more flexibility, this is more effective to avoid the human resource and time spent on lengthy pitches. Pitching is a time-consuming practice, so it is best if the client and brand can find a suitable agency without it via credential and past-project evaluation. As a matter of fact, this practice is very common in developed countries such as the UK or Canada.

On the macro-scale, I think the whole industry would save a tremendous amount of manpower if the buying side – which is clients and brands – could find a way to cut down on pitching attempts. On the micro-scale, it saves the resources of both client and agency in that specific project. From my observation, it is best to select agency directly from the credentials and past projects if the budget of the project is below industry’s average, or when the internal marketing and branding team is not strong enough to evaluate the details of work which will be proposed by the participating agencies.

#2: Prepare a transparent and careful pitching process

Having a transparent and carefully crafted pitching process shows professionalism from the client. Otherwise, agencies will not consider the client to be serious about their project and treat it accordingly; the attitude like this later on will damage the quality of proposed work. To avoid this consequence, some fundamental steps of a decent pitching process that I would recommend comprise:

  1. Briefing: have a well-drafted brief with a clear timeline and budget for preparation and execution time. If calling for a pitch without a clear brief, no agencies will treat that client or brand seriously.
  2. Milestones: be transparent about the rounds of selection and number of meetings that both sides have to commit. Prolonged rounds and meetings not only exhaust both sides but also kills creativity and waste opportunity costs. 
  3. Criteria: have a list of criteria and let the agencies know in advance so that they will prepare accordingly. Agencies do not work well if they do not know what they need to aim for; in other words, it is like shooting in the dark.
  4. Communication: after each meeting, be clear on the pros and cons of each agency and communicate to them in the most honest manner possible. When the result is available, let them know together with the reasons why they win or lose. They will appreciate it even if they lose and are willing to participate in your next pitching. Otherwise, do not bother calling them next time.

#3: Willing to pay for pitching fees if possible

The practice of paying for pitching is still widely disputed among marketers, client and agency sides included. As the matter of fact, I have known many companies in the real estate industry who have applied this practice since they are shifting their attention to overseas agencies who rarely accept pitching without the fees. Still, both approaches have the pros and cons, but here I list out some of the advantages that paying the pitching fees will do:

  1. Clients attract more quality agencies, not just those who are “hungry for the job” or pressured by the need to grow.
  2. The agency teams are more motivated and committed to the pitching phase, which later on will produce work with better quality
  3. Clients can claim the right to the proposed pitching work. Otherwise, without any written consent, the work still belongs to the agencies. This is a very common industry’s practice and, unless you want to ruin your company’s reputation, do not treat the pitching work as if it is your own without paying.
  4. Client enhances their reputation among the marketing community

The next question is how much an agency should be paid to participate in a pitch. Again, there are a variety of contributing factors such as the scale of the project and the number of rounds. For reference purposes only, I recommend pitching fee should be in the range of 5% to 10% of the total project value. From the agency’s perspective, the fee that an agency receives should be about 2% or 3% of the project value. Documented agreement should be prepared prior to the event of the pitch and the fee to be paid after the pitching is completed and the result is available. If clients can pay upfront, it is awesome. But I know it is very hard to explain to the finance team. 

#4: Communicate clearly the reasons for winning or not

Whether you have paid for the pitching or not, it is a decent act to communicate clearly and honestly about the reasons an agency is winning or losing the pitch. Otherwise, the whole process looks so much like window-shopping for ideas with the guess that the client will then “recycle” those ideas into their own. If the client can elaborate on the result of the particular agency, not only that it shows professionalism, but it also enlightens the spirits of those who have failed and provides better insights of what the client really needs for those who have won. Generic feedback does not count and here are some of those, and how agencies may perceive it:

  1. “Your solution does not match our needs.” Agency, “Ok! Do you really know what you need?”
  2. “Your proposed budget is too high.” Agency, “Oh so you just look for the cheapest, right?”
  3. “Your idea is too risky.” Agency, “Ok fine, same old way, same same result.”
  4. “Your idea is too ordinary.” Agency, “Really? Are you sure you are ready for the risky ones?”
  5. “Your commitments are too low.” Agency, “Common … we sell marketing service, not our souls.”
  6. “You cannot commit sales.” Agency, “Well, if we could, we would run your business for you.”

So, in order to avoid these possible criticisms, I suggest that the answers should be more detailed, elaborating on specific strengths and weaknesses of the proposals. For example, instead of saying, “Your solution does not match our need,” the answer should be like, “Your solution does not match our need because if you had read our brief carefully you would have known that we were now under budget constraint and we could not tolerate the excessively creative idea which required huge amount of budget for media. We instead would prefer a down-to-earth one what could be executed along with our sales team as supportive activities at every location.”

In summary for this part, I think that effective communications between client and agency can solve a lot of problems not only for the two involved but for the whole industry as it enhances transparency and mutual respects.

#5: Respect the copyrights

Last but not least, I want to stress on the matter of copyrights because – believe it or not – it is still common within the marketing industry that pitching ideas are reused recycled, or combined into a client’s one without even any acknowledgement and I think it is very unfair for the victimised agency. The reasons may be either intentional or unintentional, and here are a few scenarios that I know, starting from the most harmful to the least.

  1. The client’s brand team purposefully calls for the pitch without the intent to select any agency but only wishes to take the ideas for granted.
  2. A member of the client’s brand team calls for the pitch with the intent to take the ideas of agencies for himself/herself. This scenario is less intentional but just as harmful as the first one, and there is only one individual to blame, not the whole team.
  3. The client’s brand team calls for the pitch with the intent to choose, but they have not got the approval from management or finance for the budget. Later on, when the pitch progresses into later rounds, there is a high possibility that the pitch will be disapproved by either the finance team or the board of management. From marketing specialist to marketing director, to finance director to CEO and finally chairman, I have to say this scenario happens a lot!
  4. There is actually a winning agency who then receives all ideas from others’ pitch desks. Again, if it is a non-fee pitch, the proposed work still belongs to the lost agencies regardless of the result unless contract is signed idea ownership is then transferred.
  5. The client brand might or might not choose any agency but then got inspired by al the ideas and finally came up with something a little bit different which is claimed to be original by its own. For this last one, I will let you decide if this is still legit for the agency to claim any idea ownership or fee.

To conclude, I would like to list out these scenarios to highlight the fact that the line between intentional idea stealing and unintentional one is very blurred. In reality, it is impossible to avoid unnecessary disputes over idea ownership among clients and agencies. If the clients are not willing to pay the pitching fee yet, they at least respect the ideas and avoid the typical idea recycling practice by following the above mentioned practices.

My last words as a closing to this essay is that there are some take-away thoughts for both clients and agencies regarding how to hold an effective pitch and whether an agency should join it. I know that this conventional pitching practice will not change overnight, but unless we try there is no way for us to know how long it will take. Like an Asian proverb, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

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