Are some client pitches best avoided?, Thursday, 22 November 2012 08:00AM

Should agencies steer well clear of working with clients who are 'promiscuous', Ian Darby wonders

Innocent…the smoothie brand has reviewed six times in the past five years

Innocent…the smoothie brand has reviewed six times in the past five years


AGENCY HEAD Andrew McGuinness, founding partner, Beattie McGuinness Bungay

"In any pitch process, you make an assessment of what the odds are and, sometimes, you go for the long odds because you really need the business or because it’s a great creative opportunity. If a client is partial to being promiscuous, you make the assessment that, if you’re only going to have the account for a year, is it in your interests? It might be that you get a good piece of work out of it.

“Institutionalised relationships with clients, the ones over 40 or 50 years, are breaking down. But clients changing agencies frequently is more isolated. It does affect the quality of the work – most agencies do better work if in a long-term strategic relationship."

INTERMEDIARY Tina Fegent, founder, Tina Fegent Consulting

"I don’t think frequent agency change is a result of the economic climate nor a change in marketing director. I think it is a result of two things. The first being that the client has not really specified what they want. We work in an ever-changing environment. What the client wanted 12 months ago may now be different and, instead of working with an incumbent agency, they go window-shopping.

“They are then faced with issue number two – an oversupplied marketplace. There is too much choice out there and most agencies say yes to opportunities. If agencies believed in themselves and said no to promiscuous clients, good clients would hopefully invest in long-term relationships."

INTERMEDIARY Paul Phillips, managing director, AAR

"One significant change is clients, not least because they are driven by procurement – sometimes they have to review on a regular basis because of due diligence. From the outside, this doesn’t seem to be the case with Innocent.

“The best agencies turn down more new-business opportunities than the not-so-strong – by strong, I mean the ones that are best at converting new business. They always consider what they go for and, if it doesn’t look like a bona fide opportunity with a serious client, then they won’t take part.

“You get the sense with Innocent – with several reviews in the past six years – that something’s not right. The best work comes out of long-standing relationships."

AGENCY HEAD James Whitehead, executive partner, JWT London

"There’s usually a virtuous cycle involving great relationships, great work and great results. More often than not, ‘more promiscuous’ clients either don’t believe in or have not found this cycle.

“It takes both parties to create the right chemistry together, though – so a change on either side should give the opportunity to turn a vicious cycle into a virtuous one. If there’s a new marketing director plus a new agency, then obviously that makes the opportunity all the more ripe.

“I take the optimistic view that there’s always the potential for the next relationship pairing to be the one that lasts – that delivers the right chemistry, the right work and the right results."

Innocent’s brand name, in the agency world at least, can be viewed as deeply ironic. For the majority-Coca-Cola-owned smoothie manufacturer is guilty, in the eyes of some agencies, of treating them with a lack of care.

It has reviewed six times in the past five years, the most recent coming last week, when it announced plans to review out of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R after two years.

In mitigation, Innocent can point to a change in marketing director – Douglas Lamont recently replaced Thomas Delabriere – and the fact that it’s running a serious process through the respected intermediary Agency Insight. This might bode well for agencies that do decide to throw their hats into the ring.

No doubt Innocent will pull a good pitchlist together, as it’s offering a £6 million-billing account and a strong brand to an oversupplied market. That said, more than one agency Campaign spoke to claimed that Innocent’s attentions will not be welcome. "I wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole," one top-ten agency chief executive says.

It’s perhaps unfair to single Innocent out. Other clients to review three times or more in the past six years include Axa,, Diet Coke, Gumtree, Holland & Barrett, Nationwide and Westfield.
Should agencies entertain the thought of working with clients who review so frequently or steer well clear? Big agencies are now more likely to be careful before committing to a pitch, according to Chris Macdonald, the chief executive of McCann London.

"As agencies become more efficient, there are fewer people to work on a pitch, so we have to reassess our focus and look at things like organically looking after our clients, and we have to be more careful when deciding what to pitch for," he says. "I subscribe to the view that, unless it’s a really
coherent pitch, run properly, then I’m out. To be fair, I do think most of the ‘proper’ client pitches, run by senior marketing professionals or intermediaries, give you faith that there is a fair process in place."

Macdonald says his agency has turned down "three or four" new-business opportunities this year on this basis. McCann also took the hard decision not to repitch for B&Q (which last week appointed Karmarama) to concentrate on servicing its other clients.

Paul Phillips, the managing director of AAR, argues that good agencies have a three-point checklist that they go through before deciding whether to pitch. This involves "good people, good work and good money". He suggests that if agencies can tick two of these three boxes, then they will generally pitch. If, say, a prospect seems like a good, fair client and provides the opportunity to create good work, then an agency might well go ahead even when the remuneration is not the best. Agencies should beware, though, Phillips warns, in the case of being unable to tick two of these boxes.

On the whole, observers believe that examples of "clients behaving badly" are isolated. One or two say that, in addition to the factor of the short tenure of some marketing directors, the fast-moving pace of technology and economic factors mean that clients are moving towards shorter-term, tactical relationships – especially in sectors such as gaming and entertainment, where marketing and advertising support specific launches that need tactical campaigns.

In an ideal world, agencies would eschew such opportunities for long-term, strategic relationships. But the reality is that clients will always find some agencies willing to pitch, no matter how they behave.

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