Next month’s pitch for Orange and T-Mobile parent Everything Everywhere is the kind of affair that captivates the PR world. A giant new company, a bumper brief and a six-month trawl to whittle down scores of eager firms to three contenders. In short then, all of the requisite ingredients for a blockbuster new business scenario.
The review also has a few elements that are a little more uncommon. According to sources, the process will feature at least two “real-time” scenarios, one provided to agencies the day before the pitch, and one on the big day itself. Perhaps the only surprise is that a hostage situation has not been included.
All jokes aside, Everything Everywhere’s efforts demonstrate the lengths that clients will now go to in the quest to find the right agency. And across the agency world, it appears that the art of pitching - an ossified practice that has remained largely static for decades - is slowly changing course.
Diageo international communications director Stephen Doherty believes that this change cannot come soon enough. Too many firms, he contends, are attached to the traditional symphonies of PowerPoint-inspired muzak, and are failing to produce the kind of dramatic chord changes that would make a jaded comms director sit up and take notice.
“The ones who have stayed true to the traditional 20-slide deck are not winning anymore,” says Doherty. “That is the commoditised end of new business pitching. More and more prospects like me are very open to a different kind of stimulus to the conversation between us.”
Doherty admits that certain factors - chemistry checks, credentials - must remain constant. But the “set-piece audition” often requires a little sprucing up, which is why Diageo opted for a relatively unconventional approach when it pitched its global corporate PR account in 2009.
Doherty asked firms to explain, on two sides of A4, why they were Diageo’s ideal partner, and also write a 10-minute speech for CEO Paul Walsh. The first exercise told me a massive amount about the culture of the agency. The second told me something about the courage of the agency.”
Agencies were also asked to provide two referees; Doherty had no intention of calling the nominated individuals, but he could “tell a lot by the people they put down.”
“Most agencies can produce a professional set of credentials, but I’m not sure it really gives you an authentic sense of who they are,” explains Doherty. “Clients have to be open new ways of working and not just follow a traditional route.”
Indeed, Doherty believes agencies are “disadvantaged” by “tired process.”
“Clients lose out because I don’t think that is the way to see an exposition of the best work and the best agency. Agencies lose out because any opportunity to demonstrate creative flair carries a risk to it.”
The need for change is accentuated by the digital-fuelled convergence of communications channels. Several people contacted by the Holmes Report for this feature pointed out that industry shifts mean agencies cannot view the pitch through the outdated prism of media relations.
“Good clients today expect PR practitioners to be experts at more than just media relations,” says Ken Hong, the communications director who ran LG Electronics’ high-profile global pitch in 2009. “Media is still important but direct-to-influencer tools force PR pros to come up with solutions that didn't exist a decade ago.”
Those solutions need a mindset that is adept at integrating non-traditional techniques and channels into even the most conventional PR pitch process. “More and more opportunities that are coming our way at MSL are asking the agency to look beyond traditional public relations, and deliver platforms and ideas that are really integrated marketing,” says MSLGroup head of consumer Michael Sullivan. “This means we’re putting forward advertising concepts, media buying services, comprehensive digital and content support and very advanced measurement technologies. This is clearly the future, and our pitches need to show that we have both the capability and the know-how to drive brands stories across all channels.”
The pitch may still be the pitch, as Bite Communications CEO Clive Armitage contends, but the traditional beauty parade is morphing into something that is less reliant on how an agency looks, and more interested in how it thinks. Armitage should know, having been involved in two of this year’s biggest account reviews: AMD and Nokia.
“What is changing is that we’re pitching a far more complex proposition driven by the increasing need of clients to see integrated campaign responses to their briefs,” says Armitage. ”This is, to my mind, is making pitches much more intellectually challenging than they may have been in the past. Kind of mirrors the industry itself.”
Complicating matters further is the shadowy presence of procurement, once described by an agency CEO as the “grim reaper”. No matter how good an agency’s pitch, the client’s procurement department can kill any resulting enthusiasm by embarking on the kind of tough negotiations that sometimes seem better suited to a nuclear non-proliferation treaty, rather than a commercial agreement between two consenting adults.
Regardless, Carmichael Lynch Spong president Doug Spong believes that PR firms have to “embrace this reality”, and figure out how to play the game to their own advantage.
“More often than not, representatives from procurement — or the "P" suite, as I call it — are not only involved in the processing of reviewing and selecting firms, but they're now at the forefront of organizing, leading and communicating throughout the search,” points out Spong. “By knowing how and when to subtly bend or even break the rules of the search game, you may be able to gain the upper hand and create some white space between your firm and the others in the review.”
Spong advocates “reaching out early and often to both the senior-level client communications officers as well as the day-to-day contacts to gain valuable insight, solicit feedback on strategies, and test the waters on creative directions and ideas.”
“Never rely on the procurement officer as your sole source of contact throughout the pitch process,” he warns.
“Show me a good loser…”
There is something primal about the pitch, a competitive element which strips away the layers of studied corporate formality that often shroud the PR profession. This may be why so many agencies pitch for business regardless of the implications on their existing workload; the heady rush of new business, coupled with the prospect of new revenue, is sometimes too irresistible to turn down.
“Pitching is one of my favourite bits of the job,” admits Frank PR MD Andrew Bloch, a veteran of the highly-competitive UK consumer PR scene. “Vince Lombardi once said ‘show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser’ , and I think this attitude holds true for most of the agency heads I know. You are only as good as your last pitch, and a bad beat can last with you for a very long time.”
Every agency wants to find the magic formula for a winning pitch streak, that elusive combination which turns an ordinary firm into the hottest hotshop in town. PulsePoint partner and co-founder Bob Feldman, who helped run this year’s Nokia review, believes that the ingredients are “pretty simple” but “achieved less often than you would think.”
Why? “Agencies often fragment responsibilities, are busy with other work and occasionally don't have access to clients because some clients mistakenly like to ‘keep things even’ among firms and therefore shut out critical advance meetings with business unit executives,” says Feldman.
In the accompanying sections, the Holmes Report investigates the art of new business pitching in more detail, canvassing a panel of agency leaders and clients for their views on:
Your best pitch
The ingredients of a successful pitch
Is pitch theatre a good idea?
The best ‘pitcher’ you have ever seen