Close-Up: Live issue - Can you contest too many pitches?

How important is it for agencies to be selective when chasing new business, Kate Nettleton asks.

The latest research on new-business wins, published by the AAR last week, revealed that the general rule - that the more selective agencies tend to be the most successful at converting pitches - may have had its day.

Although Fallon's choosy approach to new business helped secure it top spot in terms of pitch conversion in 2007, with a 100 per cent hit rate, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO defied the norm. It not only won the most pieces of new business, but it also came fourth in the pitch conversion table, converting 14 pitches out of 17.

So, is it now a case of the more the better? In reality, there is a fine line to tread between too few and too many. Once that line has been crossed, agencies can face a multitude of problems, from a fatigued workforce to disillusioned clients.

Martin Jones, the director of advertising at the AAR, cites eight as the ideal number of pitches for any agency, but some believe the age of the agency can play a major role in any decision.

Laurence Green, the managing partner at Fallon, says: "When you're a start-up, you're hungry for business, so most agencies enjoy a two- to three-year honeymoon where they translate that hunger into pitches."

This is a view shared by Andrew McGuinness, a founding partner of Beattie McGuinness Bungay, who believes that pitching frequently is a fundamental part of the early years of any fledgling agency.

Yet this all-or-nothing approach is fraught with danger. "From day one, you are defined by the clients you go after. If you go after the wrong ones, you're setting a trend for what people think your client base will look like," Jones warns.

Regardless of its age, any agency pitching frequently risks endangering relations with existing clients, who could well feel neglected by those that pull their best talent onto pitch teams.

"You never pitch with your 'B' team, you pitch with your 'A' team. So you're always pulling your best people off the clients who fund your business," Green admits.

Ian Pearman, the managing director at AMV, agrees: "There's a constant risk of directing too much resource at potential clients at the expense of existing ones - particularly with really large pitches."

By allowing a demarcation to develop between an agency's best and worst teams, those waiting in the wings are seldom afforded the chance to hone their pitching skills, resulting in a demoralised workforce left to pick up the workload of the individuals involved in pitches.

Yet the cut-throat and exhilarating atmosphere of pitching remains enduringly attractive to adland's competitive personalities, who thrive on the motivational euphoria of a new-business win. "Every time we win a piece of new business, we celebrate and the whole agency goes to the pub and gets drunk - and that's an incredibly bonding experience," McGuinness says.

But taking a frenetic approach to pitching, although successful for AMV last year, is still not the most popular. "I think AMV had a particularly good year because its sort of pitches came up, so it was quite flukey," one industry source says.

Instead, agencies should be taking a considered approach to choosing new business, based upon the welfare of existing clients and staff, the condition of the business and, most importantly, whether there is a collective desire to create effective work for the client.

- Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haymarket.com

AGENCY CHIEF - Johnny Hornby, managing partner, CHI & Partners

"When I was at TBWA, it set this formula that it was only going to pitch for business worth £500,000 or more. It meant we missed out on some great pitches. Instead of setting criteria like that, you have to look at it in context of what's right for your business at the time.

"The big danger is taking on too many pitches at the same time because then you spend a lot of time and effort and money, and you lower your chances of winning.

"Agencies also have to ask if there is more they could be doing with existing clients before pitching on new ones. After all, the best way to get new business is to do great work on an existing client and for them to give you more business."

INTERMEDIARY - Martin Jones, director of advertising, AAR

"Although agencies need to practice pitching, you have to consider the effect of doing too many pitches on the morale of staff. For example, while someone is doing a pitch, someone else will have to make up the work on existing clients.

"If you are unsuccessful over a number of pitches, people don't want to work on them because they associate it with failure and morale goes down.

"Agency staff also like to feel that their management is being selective because, otherwise, they'll think the agency has become a sausage machine that's all about volume."

AGENCY CHIEF - Andrew McGuinness, partner, Beattie McGuinness Bungay

"It depends on what stage you're at as an agency. Being a start-up is all about generating energy and momentum. Therefore, for us, pitching has been an integral part of what we've been about since we set up.

"It also motivates our existing clients, who cheer us on from the sidelines because they understand that it develops our offering as an agency.

"But you have to ensure they see it as a good thing and not something detrimental to them. In order to do that, you have to ensure they always come first. The moment they stop believing that, it's a recipe for disaster."

CLIENT - Jacqui Kean, global brand communications director, The Economist

"I think it's a matter for the agency, so long as it doesn't get in the way of running our business in an efficient and focused way.

"Our business is based on retaining customers and gaining new ones. If we put all our efforts into acquiring new customers, there will be an impact on our retention rates. There's no difference in principle.

"It's about a balance between new business and protecting the business you have - that doesn't matter if you're an agency or a media owner. In order to achieve that, you need the adequate resources. You have to have people who are focused on existing clients and those focused on new ones."

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