If you work with creative agencies, there’s a good chance you will someday be involved in a pitch process.
I’ve been involved client-side in two separate pitches, each of which have taught me where I’ve made mistakes, and where a few good choices can make everything run smoothly for all involved.
Here are a few of the tips I’ve learned that I hope will be useful if you ever find yourself conducting an agency pitch.
Know what you need and what you’re looking for.
Asking agencies to pitch is a bit like choosing who you’re going to marry after one date. You have limited time with each agency and, from those presentations, you have to choose who is the best fit for your organisation.
The typical pitch often emphasises creative presentation, but creative is only one piece of the agency-client puzzle. If you need other support from your lead agency, such as planning or segmentation or data insight, you need to know this in advance so you give each contender a chance to demonstrate to you what they can offer in that area. Make a list of what you’re looking for. Then make sure that what you’re asking the agencies to present will help you see how they work on each of those elements.
It’s not a question of who is best, but who is best for you.
You may find perfectly wonderful agencies that simply aren’t the right choice for your organisation, either because of fees that are outside of your budget or offerings that, while they do them well, are not what you’re looking for.
Awards or reputation are useful as indicators, but just because an agency delivered an award-winning campaign for a big name charity doesn’t mean that agency is right for you.
Your list of what you need is the best measuring stick. It helps keep you and the rest of the panel focussed on the needs of the organisation and helps you remain objective as agencies wow you with their best and brightest. And they probably will wow you. There’s a reason they are in business and it’s likely because they’re good at what they do. But different agencies have different approaches, different strengths and weaknesses, just as charities have different needs. Know what yours are and find the right fit.
Involve the right people
The best decision I made in the most recent pitch process was involving some of the team who would work with the appointed agency on a day-to-day basis. They provided valuable insight different to my own as they have a different relationship to the agency and perhaps a different focus from me. Having this variety on the panel helped us feel confident we appointed the right agencies.
It’s a business pitch, not a free source of ideas. I have actually heard charity speakers suggest it’s okay to use agencies looking for new clients to get some free help.
I disagree. I know we’re charities and we have to make best use of the money entrusted to us to raise more funds, but I’m of the opinion that we also are in a position to help or hinder our sector – including how we relate to those for-profit businesses that help make our fundraising possible.
It costs these agencies money to pitch for our business. It costs time, energy, and high hopes. The much-respected George Smith once pointed out that charity fundraisers nowadays enjoy salaries in line with our supplier counterparts, with the added advantage of relative job security.
There may be a few rogue agency personnel who pull one over on you, but chances are these people really want to help you raise money effectively. It’s not us versus them. There is no long-term benefit to the sector for charities to use and abuse our supplier counterparts. Agencies shouldn’t fleece their clients, but prospective clients shouldn’t fleece their agencies, either.
It’s a small world
Even if you don’t agree with my ethical stance on treating others as we’d like to be treated, there’s a very practical, self-interested reason for treating our agency partners: you will very likely see them again.
With agency turnover and charity fundraising turnover as high as it is (in the UK, at least), it doesn’t take long before one starts seeing the same faces around the meeting room table.
Just as you wouldn’t want to create a bad reputation among prospective employers, it would be foolish to develop a reputation as a stubborn, unethical, nightmarish client. So it’s worth bearing this in mind so you can close the pitch process in the same respectful, professional manner you would use throughout the pitches.
I was reminded how important this step is when I fell ill shortly after all of the pitch presentations were completed. Missing a week of work left my barely manageable workload in a dire state. I had known there was a lot to do after the pitches, but having it pushed into a very narrow window of time showed me that I had underestimated all that would be involved.
First of all, there is a lot to do to set up the new relationship. Confirming activity, schedules, contracts, billing procedures, frequency of meetings…the list goes on. Take it from someone who underestimated this: it’s far easier to get all of this sorted rather than trying to play catch up after the work has started. At the close of a pitch process is the start of a new relationship. Make sure you allow the time to start it well.
Secondly, all of the agencies involved will most likely want feedback. It’s a fair request. Unsuccessful agencies will have invested quite a bit of time and money pitching for your business, so the best way you can help them is provide honest feedback about what they did well and where they could improve.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening my ax”. As with most things, a lot of the follow through is easier with the right preparation at the start.
• Prepare a draft contract or discuss the potential contracts with your legal advisors at the very start so there are no surprises when it comes time to sign.
• Have the whole panel take notes during the pitches. I created a kind of note-taking form which everyone completed for each agency. It was incredibly helpful during the selection process, but also in quickly and easily compiling comprehensive feedback for the unsuccessful agencies. It could be a weighted scorecard or simply a questionnaire, but having those records will save time and work in the long run.
• Keep the pitch at a manageable size. A three-way pitch is ideal, four is good. Five way is manageable, but only just. If clients really do all the work that’s involved, they would be less interested in 5+ agencies coming to pitch as it would simply be too much to handle.
Okay, so this may not all add up to a ‘perfect’ pitch – I’ve yet to see that – but I have seen improvement between my first and latest pitch processes. Holding pitches may be a lot of hard work, but working with the right agency partner is worth the effort.