Pitch perfect

What if agencies opt out of all pitches called by their own clients? This radical approach could benefit both parties, Paul Phillips suggests.

Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images

Over the past 17 years, I have heard all sides of the debate about how the new-business merry-go-round can be improved, amended or re-engineered.

I have been part of numerous working parties and could write a best-practice guide to writing best-practice charters.

Ultimately, clients and agencies will do what they want.

But I think I can offer a genuinely new perspective on the debate that would create real behaviour change among clients and agencies alike.

What if all agencies – or, at least to start with, those that are members of industry bodies such as the IPA, the Direct Marketing Association and the Marketing Agencies Association – agreed that if any of their clients announce that they are going to pitch their account, they (as the incumbent) would not participate in the pitch?

Bear with me – this may not be as ridiculous a thought as it may first appear.

The reasons given for clients going to the market are familiar to us all and can be categorised into a few groups:

•Dissatisfaction with some aspects of the agency’s service or output.
•New marketing director syndrome – an obvious and understandable way for a new marketing director to make an impact.
•A genuine new need, expertise or resource.
•An organisation’s governance that reviews external partners on a regular basis.
•It’s just time for a change (a sentiment that clients themselves feel difficult to justify but does not stop them from going to market).

While governance is a growing trend – and it is no coincidence that its growth mirrors that of procurement’s increasing involvement in agency appointments – the most common reason for clients pitching their business falls within the overall category of dissatisfaction.

The most common reason for clients pitching their business falls within the category of dissatisfaction

Back to the argument. If it was known by all parties that the incumbent agency would not be participating in a pitch, this would give significant pause for thought for both clients and agencies alike.

From the client’s perspective, if they knew that calling a pitch would guarantee that they would no longer be working with their incumbent, the decision to pitch might not be taken as readily, because three factors would immediately come into play:

•All retained agency knowledge and insight would be lost.
•A new agency will need time to transition, embed and get up to speed.
•The outgoing incumbent would be free to potentially work with a competitor.

This would undoubtedly encourage the client and agency involved to do all that they can to work through the root causes of the dissatisfaction before a decision to go to pitch was finally taken.

If the client and agency successfully work through their issues, then the distraction of a pitch is avoided and each can continue to build on what brought them together in the first place.

But if, after all of this, the client still wants to put the business up for pitch, then they do so knowing that they and the agency have done all that can be expected of them to make it work.

And what of the agency’s perspective? An incumbent would be given every opportunity to work things out with its client as opposed to defending the business in the cauldron of a pitch, where there are no guarantees and anything can happen.

Should things not work out and the client chooses to go to market, this would mean that:

•The incumbent cannot complain about the lack of opportunity to retain theaccount before a pitch.
•Nor would it waste the expense and time of a pitch it has little or no chance of winning.
•All other agencies invited to pitch will know there is a genuine opportunity and account to be won, and it isn’t just an exercise in reappointing the incumbent.

Clearly, this idea will not be applicable every time. In a statutory review, a client pitches their business as a matter of course, with no implied dissatisfaction with the incumbent. In a media review, where there is an imperative to improve value (to give it a polite description), a competitive pitch is more likely to deliver a greater improvement in media discounts than prices offered by the incumbent agency alone, without the competitive threat.

Our industry is full of smart people; I’m sure we could figure these things out.

So, if my thinking is sound, what next? Will this idea be nothing more than the latest talking point around a topic that has been discussed to death, or will someone take up the challenge, see the benefit of the idea and make it happen? Discuss.

Paul Phillips is the managing director at AAR