How to avoid being bitten by the pitch watchdog

There have been a lot of doom and gloom headlines recently about agency RFPs and pitches and how marketers might be better abandoning their RFP processes altogether.

Indeed, the ICA has also brought a version of the British pitch watchdog to our shores, and since its launch two years ago, the watchdog has singled out processes from a number of companies including, Canada Post, TD Bank, the TTC, and YMCA.

When it bites, the watchdog threatens to ‘name and shame’ those marketers it deems to be out of step,  and may send ‘one of five anonymous, hand-written cards directly to the contacts’ to an offending marketer.

But marketers know the potential impact of an agency search on their business can perhaps be best measured by multiplying the annual agency budget by 10 years – an estimation of the potential length of the agency relationship. So a $10 million budget for example, could be a $100+ million decision.  So, with that kind of pressure, what are marketers supposed to do?

Well, even if you don’t suffer from cynophobia, there are some steps you can take to avoid the wrath of the wily watchdog. 

Be clear about why you’re doing a search

Yes, it’s a pretty basic question but you’d be surprised by how many marketers we meet who struggle with a definitive answer.

We’ve heard everything from “we don’t like our (insert function here) on our business…” to “too expensive” to “we just want a change” – or (worse) – “we just want to see what’s out there”. The question about why you want a new agency is crucial because you have to establish if your issue may actually be fixable – thereby saving you the trouble of a search in the first place. Equally, a clear definition of why you want to start an agency search inevitably leads to a more focused and concise set of criteria when you meet prospective agencies.

Get the set-up right

In addition to doing your homework on yourself and preparing for the process, it’s important to help agencies know what the process looks like ahead of time.  This means:

  • Sketching out a high-level timetable so agencies can work out if they can accommodate the pitch
  • Providing a high-level view of your intended asks – i.e. whether spec work or travel will be required
  • Detailing what constitutes a conflict so agencies can rule themselves out if needed
  • The approximate size, scope and value of the business up for review so agencies can make a judgement call on whether or not this is the right fit for them

Avoid the cattle call

With so many agencies providing individual or combined services, it can be difficult to identify and narrow down the best agencies to add to your search list – compounded if there’s internal or political pressure to include agencies that you feel shouldn’t be on your list in the first place.

Thorough preparation, a robust stakeholder interview process, and a little homework can help define not only which agencies might be a great fit – but which agencies wouldn’t be – either because of conflict or some other incompatibility with your business.  As a general rule of thumb, if you’re starting with more than eight agencies on your long-list, you need to do more homework and save yourself – and the agencies you’re talking to – wasted time and effort.

Be reasonable about your ask

Nobody should be a fan of asking questions just to tick boxes – so it’s always a puzzle when marketing or procurement teams ask dozens (sometimes hundreds!) of questions that are superfluous to the task at hand.  The faster you can get to a dialogue about your business, with smart, well considered questions, the more likely you are to determine how well-equipped agencies are to help manage your business.

Deal with spec work properly

Contrary to what might be shouted from the proverbial peanut gallery, spec work isn’t a complete no-no and the decision to request or not is up to you – not those throwing peanuts. If you ultimately decide spec work is critical for you, the key is to deal with your request properly and in our view, this means:

  • Limit your ask to understand how the agency might approach your challenge – not boil the ocean
  • Pay for spec work properly – whether strategy, creative, digital, media or anything else
  • Clearly define how you’ll evaluate the work including how you’ll manage a tie-break
  • Put in the time to collaborate and work with agencies to discuss the work (not just evaluate it)

Agencies are pretty good at being their own watchdogs and if they have an issue with your ask, or choose not to participate – they’ll either ask for changes or politely decline.

Get clear about price versus value

With some procurement teams being less familiar with service-based sourcing and/or not being synced with marketing team counterparts, some procurement driven RFPs have an over-reliance on financial metrics. Evaluation then focuses on price rather than value and otherwise perfectly suited agencies become eliminated for the wrong reasons.

Whether you’re working with procurement or going it alone, define what constitutes best value for your business beyond price, which may include anything from proposed key resources, proposed staffing seniority to quality of work, case studies or previous experience.

Define your evaluation criteria

How you ensure your team evaluates agencies consistently and correctly is critical to an effective search. I’ve written before on the development of agency scorecards, but whatever approach you choose – make sure it’s not just about adding up a score. No score can give you a perspective on chemistry and whether the agency is a real fit for your needs.

Evaluating agencies on the functional aspects of their submissions or presentations can only take you so far, but defining what constitutes real value and assessing fit with your organization can be far more complex – so take time to ensure everyone on your team understands how agencies need to be evaluated and that evaluation criteria are shared with agencies.

Be respectful

And finally… agencies who participate in a pitch process typically put their collective hearts and souls into creating the best possible submissions they can. They’ll likely be working late evenings and giving up weekends to make sure they get the best possible shot at winning your business. So, try to:

  • Be reasonable about turnaround times
  • Answer questions within the prescribed time period
  • Turn your phone off during the pitch
  • Be generous when things go sideways (and they do…)
  • Provide feedback when agencies have been unsuccessful in their submissions

If any of the steps defined above seem onerous or complex, chances are you’re not fully prepared and you run the risk of being bitten. Advice contained in the Association of Canadian Advertisers step-by-step best practice guide on Searching for a Marketing Communications Partner can help.  And of course, we can always guide you through your process – so you’re not bitten by the wily watchdog – or at the very least, you’re equipped to muzzle it.

Stephan Argent is Founder and Principal at Listenmore Inc  offering confidential advisory to marketers looking for help with agency search and truly independent insight and advice they can’t find anywhere else. Read more like this on our blog Marketing Unscrewed / follow me @StephanArgent

Photo: Marco Verch Professional
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