Close-Up: Live issue - Are roster pitches a waste of time?

Very few clients are brave enough to move accounts without a formal pitch, Kate Nicholson says.

News last week that Premier Foods has called a pitch for its £4 million Batchelors Cup-a-Soup, Super Noodles and Super Noodles to Go ad business raised a few eyebrows.

The review follows Premier's purchase of Campbell Soups UK & Ireland, the former Batchelors owner. It sees Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners, which holds both accounts, pitch against Clemmow Hornby Inge, one of Premier's roster agencies.

Premier is well aware of both agencies' strengths and weaknesses. The company has worked with DLKW since May 2001, on brands including Cadbury's hot chocolate drinks and Branston. CHI, meanwhile, has worked with Premier, and its marketing chief, Howard Beverage, since January 2002.

And it seems Beverage is not alone in calling regular inter-roster pitches. This year alone, Arla Foods, GlaxoSmithKline, Heinz and RHM Foods have reviewed business between retained agencies triggering a multitude of time-consuming and costly pitches across the UK advertising landscape.

Such a process appears to be a waste of both agency and client time. Surely, if a brand has taken the trouble of evaluating agencies and formulating a roster, it can then apportion business without needing to call a pitch each time?

"Since in most cases the client already knows the agencies on the roster, they should be in a position to judge who is the best agency for the task," the director of the AAR, Martin Jones, argues.

Proponents of roster pitches argue that just because a roster agency has managed to produce the goods for one brief, there's no guarantee it will do it again. Tom Vick, the joint managing director at DFGW, explains: "A roster pitch is a way of evaluating what you've got. Playing agencies off against each other also keeps them on their toes. All the client is trying to do is get the best possible strategy and creative idea."

There are clients that seem confident enough in their original decisions over rosters to avoid the dreary round of pitches every time a new brief or project comes up.Diageo and Britvic are among the marketers who have moved business between roster agencies without too much fuss and without creative standards suffering.

The BBC is also a good example. The organisation decides at the beginning of the year which of its roster agencies gets to handle which piece of business, without a competitive pitch.

Vick continues: "It depends on the client. The BBC's briefs, for instance, are usually one-off projects. Whereas Heinz's review to consolidate its business into one agency looks at the bigger picture and a long-term relationship."

Pitching may well be a costly and time-consuming process for agencies and clients alike. But with tight budgets, simply shoeing a brief into a roster agency without a review is a risky business.

Alison Burns, the chief executive at JWT, says: "It takes a very confident client to shift a piece of business into an agency, even a roster agency, without a pitch. It still staggers me that Tesco moved its business from Lowe into The Red Brick Road, an agency that didn't really even exist."

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PITCH CONSULTANT - Martin Jones, director, AAR

"Only 20 per cent of work presented at pitches is ever run. Unless, like COI, you are committed to producing the pitch output, clients should choose the best partner, not the work to appear. Since they know the agencies on their roster, it is questionable if creative pitches will add anything.

"The issues come when an agency is inherited on to a roster through acquisition, where there is a new client who hasn't worked with an agency before or where there are multi-client stakeholders.

"Clients often call creative pitches because they aren't aware that there are alternative ways of judging agencies."

AGENCY CHIEF - Mark Lund, group chief executive, Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners

"To put a piece of business straight into a roster agency without a pitch assumes that as a client you pass up the opportunity to work with two or three trusted resources and expand on your creativity.

"If a roster agency is competing against other agencies, they are going to try harder to come up with the best possible creative solution. The client also gets two or three cracks at meeting the brief.

"Roster agencies are a good solution when a client has multiple brands or products: COI has 30 or so agencies. Everyone is very clear there will always be a pitch. Three or four agencies can answer the pitch well. It's a very pure, Darwinian process."

CLIENT - Russell Jones, marketing director, Guinness

"From a Diageo perspective, pitching business between our roster agencies would be a last resort. The whole aim and point of having a roster in place is to have a strong relationship with an agency and understanding of what they are capable of producing. We usually have a very clear view of which agency will meet each brief.

"We might consider pitching the business if it was a different and innovative brief, and then only if two equally qualified agencies were prepared to be relaxed about the process and ideas."

AGENCY CHIEF - Alison Burns, chief executive, JWT

"Consolidating its business is obviously a part of what Premier Foods wants to do, but surely it could accelerate this process and have a winner-takes-all review.

"Pitches are important, even if you are on a roster. I don't believe you can achieve the clarity, intensity and objectivity about a brand that you achieve during a pitch without them. The momentum only comes with this process. But agencies need to be conscious that everything they work on, pitch or not, is being watched by the client, which will have other agencies in their mental space."