Close-Up: Live Issue - How can an incumbent win a repitch?

Many have tried and failed, so what's the secret behind an agency retaining its client?

A phrase containing the words "snowball" and "hell" generally springs to the lips when summing up an agency's chances of winning a repitch. Such chances usually range from slim to none, a fact backed up by AAR research showing that just 5 per cent of incumbent shops manage to retain business.

Sometimes, though, the extraordinary happens - as it did a few days before Christmas when Waitrose guaranteed festive cheer at Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy by confirming that its £26 million creative account was staying at the agency.

At MCBD, the news was greeted with a mixture of elation and relief. Not only had it seen off a high- pedigree list of contenders for the business, but it ensured no staff would have to spend the holiday in fear of the axe.

The agency's achievement appears all the more remarkable given how heavily the odds appeared to be stacked against it. For one thing, there had been a major rejig of the retailer's management, with Richard Hodson, the buying director, extending his responsibilities to head up the marketing department. For another, Waitrose has ambitious plans to build on its 4 per cent share of the UK grocery market and more than double sales to £8 billion over the next decade.

"We loved MCBD's work and in no sense was the agency not performing," Mark Price, the Waitrose managing director and its former marketing chief, says. "We simply felt the time was right to take a look around."

All these factors combined to make the agency's position look precarious. Also, as David Wethey, the Agency Assessments chairman, points out, new marketing directors get little time in which to make an impact, while the hassle and pain of a review deters most clients from calling one unless they've set their heart on a change.

Nevertheless, Jeremy Miles, MCBD's chairman, refused to write Waitrose off. Not when the agency's work had been good enough to win an IPA Effectiveness gold award, not when the effect on the agency's bottom line was likely to be dramatic and not when people's jobs were at stake.

So how do you beat the odds? Miles, and other successful repitch survivors, believe an incumbent's "ace-in-the-hole" is an immense knowledge of the business that no competing agency can match.

Farah Ramzan Golant is the chief executive of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, which won back £29 million worth of BT business in 2004 and then retained the £47 million Sainsbury's account a year later.

She says: "You can get closer to the business because you've been immersed in it. Clients need to feel there's zero risk in reappointing you and that 'choosing' you is a positive decision."

Equally important is to introduce some fresh thinking on the business. MCBD brought in Jonathan Durden, an agency partner never previously involved with Waitrose, to become what Miles calls an "in-house pitch consultant".

In the end, an incumbent's best tactic may be to prove to a client that its current work is capable of evolution rather than tearing everything up and starting again.

"We weren't necessarily looking for something new and radical," Price says. "In fact, the other agencies we saw told us how good they thought our work had been down the years. We never felt MCBD had done badly. Now it has the chance to build on what it's done."

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INTERMEDIARY - David Wethey, chairman, Agency Assessments

"There are two ways an agency can defend an account. One is to base your pitch on the work you've done. The other is to agree that it's time for a change, refresh the team and convince the client that you're just as capable of fresh thinking as anybody else.

"However, successful retentions are rare and seem to be getting rarer. That's mainly because of the short tenure of many marketing directors.

"Sometimes - as in MCBD's case - it can help if you're repitching for an account you've not held for a very long time. Agencies which have had pieces of business for five years or more are likely to have used up all their brilliant ideas."

AGENCY HEAD - Farah Ramzan Golant, chief executive, AMV BBDO

"The most important thing is not to worry about what the opposition might be doing but concentrate on your own game.

"The most difficult decision may be on who should lead the pitch. You have to know if the time is right for a change.

"Also, there's the problem of the 'twilight time' before the repitch when the account team is looking to score points as well as being fearful of losing any.

"You might think success in a repitch might provoke feelings of resentment within the agency for having been put through it. In fact, the reverse is true. Everybody joins in the celebrations and the relationship with the client is actually enhanced."

CLIENT - Mark Price, managing director, Waitrose

"The first thing a repitching agency should be doing is to work out if the client is unhappy with the work or if he simply wants to check out the opposition.

"I'm always telling my team that it's just as important for us to be doing a better job for our existing customers as it is to win new ones. It's just the same for agencies.

"The big advantage for an incumbent is that it already has a pretty clear understanding of the account.

"A client expects a repitching agency to show self-confidence. It should concentrate on the work it has already done. If that work hasn't been successful, the client needs to know the agency has learned from it."

AGENCY HEAD - Jeremy Miles, chairman, Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy

"The first thing you must do is take a deep breath and look at the whole business afresh. You have to consider not only the commercial aspects of the account but also the effect on the people who have been working on it.

"If you're sure you can take the relationship forward if you're successful - and that you're repitching on a level playing field - then you have to vow to make the most important new-business presentation of your life.

"Repitching is different from a normal pitch because you already have an immense knowledge of the business. You must not only capitalise on that but also get fresh thinking from people not involved with the account previously."