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September 9, 2022 // Dan Whitney  //       //  Opinion

Pitch Power: Managing Client Expectation

Pitches sit at the beating heart of agency culture. The late nights, the creative ups and downs, and the thrill of the chase or the lows of rejection… It’s like binge-watching your favorite drama on Netflix in one sitting!  

Agencies have long suffered the pitch process, and calls continue for new ways of working and new processes to be adopted. The initiative led by the IPA and ISBA is one such example of how the agency community and clients can start to form a new plan that benefits everyone.  

However, is this just a ‘jam tomorrow’ wish or is the landscape changing for the better? I recently ran a pitch turning the tables and became a client for the first time in around 15 years. To say it was exhilarating would be an understatement. I had the power in my hands to dictate and rule, but I was also conscious not to abuse this and manage a process that would benefit all involved.  

We can all recognize that the client with the biggest ego runs a pitch that makes all the respondents chase their tails only to be finally told they will stay with the incumbent or re-evaluate their position. I wanted agencies to respond that they felt they had a genuine opportunity to win with everything on the table.  

The Process 

Let’s play a game! Can you name an industry that does all the work, presents their senior talent and delivers thought-provoking winning ideas at a client's request for free?  

Imagine going into a restaurant and asking for a bespoke off-the-menu meal, you eat it and then refuse to pay! Equally, when you go to buy a house, you don’t move in for a week to determine if it is right for you! You might laugh at this suggestion. But in agency land, we do this every time we click ‘Accept this RFP.’  

I was keen to try and move away from this, as I know the enormous effort that goes into any pitch. So as a team at A+P, we wrote an RFI that was as detailed as possible and gave as much insight and info to allow the agencies we invited to make an informed decision that 1) They might be able to help and 2) They knew we had a clear objective.  

The Winners are…. 

We shortlisted four agencies to meet and purposely didn’t put the meetings on the same day, as we wanted to spread them out and allow time to meet, chat and make decisions. Often you walk into a pitch mid-afternoon and the client team looks like they haven’t moved for a week and the room is hot and stuffy and smells like a teenage boy’s bedroom! We wanted to avoid that…  

Before we go on, I do want to take a minute to recognize all the agencies we met as the standard and level of response was fantastic. Everyone turned up with the A-team and these decisions are genuinely difficult. But to quote the 1986 Highlander film: “There can be only one” 

The inspiration for this blog actually came from the winning agency's response, and I chatted with Regency Creative’s Creative Director Mat Moses about their unique approach and attitudes to pitching. 

Dan: How did you find the pitch?  

Mat: It was the diamond in the rough of my ever-growing Monday morning inbox! 

Every pitch process differs, and every potential client has a different idea of how they want to approach the process. Most RFPs sit on a spectrum between the woolly and the wild - but A+P managed to find that sweet spot, the RFP Goldilocks zone if you will! From the offset the direction was clear, and expectations transparent.  

Dan: What made you choose to respond? 

Mat: It was a combination of experience and shared ambitions. I think the catalyst in our decision-making process was the overlap we seemed to have with A+P’s values - this sentiment combined with a well-presented RFP made it a clear go-getter for us! The brief ticked all our boxes and had clear direction and great creative potential; reference images and inspiration links were already flying across Slack! 

Dan: What was the pitch like and how did you think it went?  

Mat: It’s not often that you get the feeling we had during the A+P pitch - it felt more like a kick-off meeting than a pitching session. (Imagine a group of old friends having a chat over coffee and you wouldn’t be too far from how we felt during the pitch.)  

It’s always a nervy few hours before any pitch - you’re tired, fueled by coffee and ready to never see the pitch deck again! But.. the chemistry we’d already established with A+P during the Q&A’s certainly helped us feel more confident going into the meeting. Dan had brought a sense of true personality from the very first email, so I was almost looking forward to the pitch - it was a chance to catch-up and hear about his weekend! 

Dan: You presented your pitch brilliantly but didn’t come with any creative. Can you talk me through this decision?  

Mat: A risky roll of the dice... It’s a tough decision to make and one which has certainly backfired on me in the past! But for us we see a pitch session as a chance to show who we are, a chance to show the people behind the Figma file.  

At this stage of the process, it’s pretty clear that the agencies left in the running are going to be able to deliver a solid project - so why waste the time we have available selling a concept that could be completely off the mark? It’s a pitch presentation, not a design presentation.  

Dan: This sounds like it could be a risky strategy given the expectations on pitches?  

Mat: I think it’s an even bigger risk to present creative based on a few reference links in an RFP.  

To deliver creative this early in a process undermines the purpose of creative exploration - the expectation to nail UI design before we’ve conducted any form of research is far more of a risk in my eyes than not showing creative at all. If you asked me to make you a meal without telling me what you’d like - I’d most likely play it safe or get it completely wrong! (But please don’t test that!)  

So what have we learnt?  

The experience with Mat and Regency Creative allowed us to take a step back and really focus on the team, the processes and principles to deliver a great output. I think too often as an agency we are caught up on the creative rollercoaster to deliver ideas and give away free thinking based on assumptions. This is a huge gamble, and when you win you justify the expense and time!  

5 Top Tips…

Showcase yourselves as people  

As we’ve seen over the last two years, virtual pitches have been challenging, the dynamic in the room is different and it’s harder to read people. To that point, focusing more on your personality and who you are even as we get back to face-to-face meetings is vital to build relationships and make an emotional connection.  

Interrogate the RFP 

There is a tendency to say yes to everything. Stop and have internal sessions with the entire team and all stakeholders to really drill into the ask, and don’t be afraid to turn it down. Having that confidence in what you do is a real strength. 

Don’t Re-pitch 

This is arguably a tough call. But as the incumbent, you need to determine if this is a procurement-driven exercise relating to fee or if there is a genuine relationship issue. Either way, take a pause and evaluate from a business and emotional perspective if it’s worth it.  

Consider the Creative  

We all want to show shiny pictures and historically everyone takes notice when the creative director presents. BUT as we’ve seen, this shouldn’t always be the default position. If you must share creativity, insist on tissue sessions and give yourselves as much time as possible to deliver ideas that you believe in.  

Get in front of the client  

Before, during and post-pitch, make the time and effort to get in front of the client team. Asking questions, keeping in touch and building a relationship however small shows you are engaged and onboard with the pitch. Above all, face-to-face contact helps broker new relationships. And as we know, people buy from people.  

The future  

However big or small, pitches are a rollercoaster of emotion and a rite of passage for any junior member of the team to be involved in.  

Whilst pitches are a great opportunity for agencies to win new business, there needs to be tighter guardrails around clients’ expectations and managing the process. A shared agreement from agency leaders in some form of regulation to level the playing field is still a pipe dream, but change can happen.  

Agencies are always on the back foot, and maybe it's time to seize back some of that control. Maybe it's time for us all to look at other industries and learn from them to help shape the future.  

As a Managing Director of the Marketing Innovation Team, Dan is responsible for driving the business forward within Europe and developing A+P’s integrated services offering across consumer, B2B and global clients. Dan is also global creative services lead and in this role he manages the design and creative teams implementing new processes and growth planning. 

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