When is an agency pitch, not an agency pitch?

This post is by Darren Woolley, Founder and Global CEO of TrinityP3. With his background as an analytical scientist and creative problem solver, Darren brings unique insights and learnings to the marketing process. He is considered a global thought leader in optimizing marketing productivity and performance across marketing agencies and supplier rosters.

Advertising is one of the most visible communication professions. And language is an important component of communication. Yet, as an industry, the liberal application of language communicates all kinds of misconceptions. Now, before you accuse me of being a language pedant, I will admit that I still believe that remuneration and compensation are not strict synonyms of each other. But what a do disagree with is calling all tenders, agency selection processes and market reviews a pitch.

According to Collins’ English Dictionary, to make a pitch, or make one’s pitch means to try and persuade people to do or buy the object of the pitch. Now, this is where the argument becomes nuanced. The traditional speculative creative process could be categorised as a pitch. With the various agencies developing strategic and creative recommendations and pitching them to the client.

But the traditional Request for Proposal (RFP) or RFI or RFT, with the often-rigid format and extensive list of specific questions, feels more like completing an employment application for the agency than getting an opportunity to pitch. And while these two processes for selecting an advertising or media agency are very common, they are by no means the only ways of selecting a new agency. Many of which are not a selling opportunity at all but are instead a more focused and defined way to test and select the right agency partner.

Let’s look at a few of these methodologies for selecting a new agency and explore their strengths and limitations and see if we can categorise the approach.

1. The creative beauty parade (The speculative creative pitch)

Select a few agencies. Give them a creative brief. Let them work on it and come back and pitch their recommendations. And the best concept wins. One of the most common ways of selecting an idea. Good if you are buying an idea. But not so good for buying an agency you are hoping will produce tens, hundreds or even thousands of great ideas over the term. The problem is you do not know who, what or how they produced the idea they pitched and if they could do it again.

This is the definitive pitch, with all its inherent problems.

2. The Request for Proposal (The job application)

A favourite with procurement as it allows a wide-ranging examination of many aspects of the various agencies. But it is limited in this exploration by the questions asked and the format in which the agencies can respond. So great for compliance but challenging when trying to assess intangible skills, capabilities, and chemistry. In fact, this favours the agencies skilled in writing RFP responses over those skilled at providing the services you actually need.

Literally more like a job application than a pitch.

3. The Chemistry and Credentials (Show and Tell)

Also known as the showcase, this is how many professional services and other creative services are chosen. From architects to composers, artists to film directors, and more. It involves simply reviewing a showcase of the work that has been done in the recent past and meeting with the team to ensure capabilities and chemistry align. This means you assess the agency on the work they do for others.

More show and tell, with the agency pitching themselves, not their recommendation.

4. The No Pitch, Pitch

It is increasingly common to take an incumbent agency to pitch or tender at the end of a contract to review the current arrangements. The problem is the competitive pitch is designed to select a new agency with only one in four incumbents retaining the business. This approach is to have the incumbent pitch alone. The shortcoming is the potential lack of market knowledge, but this can be easily accessed through independent third parties who provide this service.

More of a commercial review than a pitch.

5. Strategic / Creative Workshop (The Test Drive)

Increasingly popular, it effectively takes a few agencies for a test drive. Select a problem and provide it as a brief so that the marketing team can work with each agency on a full or half-day workshop. This is more about the journey than a destination, with the process an opportunity for both client and agency to work together openly and transparently. It also means, unlike a pitch, the client is more likely to see the agency talent at work, rather than the presentation team in action.

This is a test drive that is as close to the real thing as you can get.

As you can see, while all of these are casually referred to as pitches, it is only the first one, the speculative creative pitch that is really a pitch, with the participating agencies pitching their ideas to win the business. Yet, they are all labelled as pitches. But all fulfil a different need. And some are even used in combinations.

The point is rather than equating all these processes with pitching, we need to start thinking about what the purpose of the agency selection process is and then apply the best methodology (or a combination thereof) to achieve the desired result. If the process is to choose a new agency, then 2, 3 and 5 are the best choice and the selection of which of these would be based on the size of the account or contract, timing, complexity, and risk mitigation. If it is simply to find a winning idea, then 1 is the best option. And if you do not want to choose a new agency, but simply need to review the incumbent, then the least wasteful and most rigorous approach is 4.

It is simply a matter of allowing language to inform purpose and intent. Rather than lazily labelling everything as a pitch.

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