Close-Up: Live issue - Why pitching for clients is a never-ending story

As companies seek greater accountability, agencies will have to accept increasingly protracted pitches.

As long and drawn-out pitches go, Yell.com definitely takes the biscuit. "Shambolic" is how one agency chief succinctly describes the review of the £20 million account.

Called in April, a long list of just about everyone was eventually whittled down to Mother and VCCP. In July, the pitch was thrown into confusion following the sudden exit of the chief marketing officer, Ann Francke.

Yell.com is not the only client guilty of dragging its feet. EasyJet, for instance, called off its creative pitch after six months in February, after shortlisting Ogilvy & Mather and Saatchi & Saatchi. The low-cost airline claimed it wanted to appoint a number of smaller creative shops, only to go on to award the £50 million pan-European account to O&M in May after a final shoot-out against Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners.

One agency chief involved in the review says: "The pitch took so long because the client was ambivalent about agencies themselves. They saw them as expensive and wasteful, and I don't think they were really convinced they needed one."

Then there was the Government's anti-smoking pitch. COI took eight months to reach a decision on the £12 million account.

"I don't think anyone ever really got to the bottom of why the pitch took so long," one agency chief says. "There definitely wasn't just one reason. It could have been because with the Government there are so many more stages of approval. The pitch also suffered from an NHS budget crisis."

Not so long ago, it wasn't unheard of for an advertising agency to walk off with a £20 million account after a long lunch in The Ivy. So what has changed about the pitch process to slow things up so?

Paul Kirkley, the business development director at JWT, blames an unprecedented sense of fear that now pervades the industry on both sides of the fence. "It's driven by the significant investment in communications, but moreover by the fear that the appointment and the resulting work might go wrong. The industry needs a massive injection of confidence and until it gets this, both parties will continue to agonise over decisions."

Clients seem unable to make a decision without the support of opinion from an outside resource. More often than not, a result is further delayed as the client puts an agency's work into research.

Geoffrey Russell, the director of media affairs at the IPA, argues that this is bad practice: "Clients need to be careful to avoid using research in the same way a drunk uses a lamppost for support. But the fact is clients are more risk adverse today. They have the tendency to put their funds into a more measurable return of below-the-line advertising."

In the clients' defence, Helen Weisinger, the new-business director at Fallon and the deputy chairman of the IPA New-Business Group, adds: "Today, there is more need for reassurance. With pressure on budgets, clients have to be more accountable. But the fact that research is used more frequently is not the sign of a confident client. It's a defence strategy."

Annoyingly for agencies, the longer a pitch, the more costly it is. According to the IPA's Confidential Pitch Advisory Service, agencies collectively spend £43 million and 239 years of agency time trying to win business every year. And typical bad practice noted by the trade body includes clients putting their business up for pitch every 18 months, reneging on contracted responsibilities and embarking on a review when they have a preconceived idea of the agency to which they want to award the business.

So what can be done to formalise and quicken the process?

The Red Brick Road co-founder Paul Hammersley says: "There isn't a panacea; neither is an industry-wide initiative the answer. Agencies have to be more careful, confident and selective. The trouble is, they tend to chase after anything under any conditions and then grumble when they get screwed."

Intermediary services are a possible, if partial solution; and it's no coincidence that clients are turning to matchmakers to manage the lion's share of their pitches. The AAR, The Haystack Group, Agency Assessments and Creative Brief have managed some of the biggest pitches of the past year, including Sony Ericsson and Morrison's.

This is partly a reflection of the difficulty marketers have keeping up with the agency market. According to Companies House, there are now more than 7,000 creative agencies, with 14 start-ups joining the ranks every week.

There are, however, clients who take a refreshingly brisk approach when making a decision, appointing an agency in a matter of weeks.The recent reviews of the Financial Times, Star Alliance and Sony Ericsson creative accounts were all concluded relatively quickly.

In September, Saatchi & Saatchi London beat McCann Erickson, Publicis and DDB to the £80 million global Sony Ericsson business just eight weeks after the business came up for review.

Ian Marshall, the head of marketing communications at Sony Ericsson, explains why the process was so easy: "From the very start of the pitch, we had a concise picture of who we wanted to work with. We liked Saatchi & Saatchi's work immediately and didn't put it into research. The agency just fitted with our culture and vision."

Such quick decisions are rare, though, and there is still furious debate within agency circles about how fair pitches are. But the groundwork has been laid for a more accountable environment.

The move to formalise the review process has the support of several industry bodies.

Richard Morris, the new-business director at DDB London and the chairman of the IPA New-Business Group, says: "We are looking into how to reduce the amount of time clients and agencies spend on the new business process. Whether there is an alternative to pitching and whether the pitch is the most efficient way of doing things."

ISBA has also published a paper advising agencies how to work within a new pitching protocol. Industry watchers say the report, called Magic & Logic, confirms the need for greater clarity of agendas, openness, professionalism, process and efficiency. At the same time, it calls for a radical rethink about the terms of engagement between agencies and clients when it comes to pitching and remuneration.

It's a step in the right direction, but the reality is the power continues to rest very much with the client and it's up to them how long to take to make their decision.

THE WAITING GAME

Yell.com

Yell.com called its review on 5 April with a long list of Wieden & Kennedy, United London, Leagas Delaney, Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy, Mother and VCCP. Two months later, it had whittled the list down to United, VCCP, W&K and Mother. It took a further month to cut the list down to just Mother and VCCP. A decision is pending.

Department of Health Anti-Smoking Campaign

COI called the anti-smoking review on 4 November 2005, shortlisting agency teams of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Manning Gottlieb OMD and WWAV Rapp Collins; Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy, Mediaedge:cia and Kitcatt Nohr; DDB London, ZenithOptimedia and Chemistry; and Farm, Naked and Personal. Nine months later, MCBD, Mediaedge:cia and Farm were told they'd won.

Arla

The dairy giant announced it was reviewing creative duties on its Anchor and Lurpak brands (respectively held by Clemmow Hornby Inge and DDB London) on 8 December 2005. A month later, CHI, DDB, Wieden & Kennedy, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO and Fallon were shortlisted. This list was cut to CHI, DDB and W&K in March. CHI learned that it had retained Anchor in June and W&K won Lurpak in August. A month later and without a pitch, W&K picked up Arla's Cravendale brand, previously held by DDB London.

Easyjet

The low-cost airline first called a review on 2 August 2005. On 16 September that year, easyJet shortlisted Ogilvy & Mather, Lowe, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO and Saatchi & Saatchi. Four months later, a second shortlist of O&M and Saatchis was announced before easyJet promptly cancelled its search. On 26 May, after a review lasting almost 11 months, O&M finally won the account.