A guide to pitching – for brands

Pitches. Love them or hate them, they’re a big thing in our industry.

Whether your stance as an agency is to not participate, to pitch for them all, or to go for a select few, there’s no getting away from them. Ultimately, which approach you take is down to your agency’s individual strategy. For what it’s worth, at HOME our approach is the latter and is based on due diligence, culture and our existing clients.

Having taken part in hundreds of pitches over the years, I’ve seen all kinds of approaches from agencies and brands, from the amazing to the totally ridiculous. But it’s brands I want to focus on here.

A couple of years ago we pitched for a market-leading, global, personal care brand. It’s a company absolutely everyone knows of and I was really excited we were pitching for such a prestigious opportunity. We went through the usual kick-off meeting (twice), had a tissue session (when will someone come up with a better name for these?!) and then our big pitch day came.

To be honest, it didn’t feel like it was the best pitch we’d ever put together, but a tonne of effort had gone into our response, from right across the agency. So when we made it down to the final two, I was a little surprised, but excited to have the chance to show them what we could do.

Now, there had been no mention of a fifth stage, but as we were happy to have made it to the last two, we proceeded regardless and pulled together a plan for our final presentation. The European Marketing Director was flying in from Russia for this newly introduced final stage, along with five of the UK-based marketing team. So, not only was this a huge commitment from us, but it was also a decent dedication of resource from the client.

The final pitch day arrives. Our long-suffering Creative Director, Don McGrath, (he calls himself Executive Creative Director nowadays) and I set off. Five hours later (factoring in a couple of hours talking the usual rubbish in the car, two hours to pitch and a KFC… Other fast food brands are available), we returned to the agency, genuinely feeling like we’d put in a great account of ourselves, turned the tide in our favour and feeling confident of a positive outcome. Now, the usual waiting game begins, and the pitch gods take over…

So, here’s the thing. It’s approximately two years down the line and I have never heard from the brand again. Yup. I’ve emailed, I’ve called, I even wrote a good old-fashioned letter, but I’ve not heard a single thing. Not a peep. The brand exists, the people are still there, the offices haven’t been swallowed by a sink hole, but yet there’s not a sign we ever had any contact with them whatsoever. How odd? It’s become something of a joke with us because of just how ridiculous it is.

Rude? 100%. Unnecessary? Definitely. But most of all, it just seems plain weird to me. Why invest so much of your own time and effort as a brand into a process like this, to then just, well, disappear?

That brands’ reputation (and their portfolio of other global brands too) is so damaged for me, that they could call HOME today, offer us a huge contract without a pitch and with any number you like attached to it and I’d decline it.

Anyway, let’s get to the point of this blog – I thought it would be useful to write a list of dos and don’ts from an agency perspective. There are a handful of recurring little niggles that I often see repeated, but which could easily be avoided, and a small selection of simple things a brand should consider (in my opinion!) when running their next pitch.

1. Show me the money

Let’s start off easy eh? Don’t give an agency a brief without a budget, or at least a budget guide. How on earth can an agency know what to propose or even if the opportunity is the right one for them (and you) if they have no idea what you’re committing financially?

2. Dry your eyes

Always, always entertain an agency’s suggestion for a tissue session (aaarrggghhh that phrase again). We’re trying to get a sense of where your head is at and it means you’ll get a much stronger and appropriate proposal at the final pitch.

3. Day tripping

Try to hold your final pitches at the agencies’ offices. What better way for you to get a sense of an agency’s culture and really allow them to put on a show for you. You’ll likely see things you wouldn’t if you hold them all in the exact same place. Plus, you might see just how much the agency cares about your business by how they roll out the red carpet for you. Plus, who doesn’t like a day out of the usual routine.

4. Just one more thing…

The dreaded extra stage. I reckon around 50% of pitch briefs we respond to outline their process and timings in the brief, but then add in a final stage, just to be sure. At this point, your agencies have planned and committed a huge amount of resource, juggled around existing client work and likely worked late nights and weekends to deliver your pitch. This ‘final stage’ can be a real motivation breaker for us agencies.

5. The moon on a stick

This is linked to my previous point… Pitches should be a chance for you to see what an agency can do with your brief, show their process, their culture and give you a feel for if they’d be a good fit for your brand. But so often, pitches go on and on and on until absolutely every single element of the brief is produced.

Remember, some agencies will never get to work with you or see a single penny for their efforts. So be brave, trust your judgement and pick an agency you think can deliver what you need, even if they’ve not 100% nailed the final solution just yet. Sometimes you get it spot on, but pitches are unnatural situations and often we’re working in isolation, not collaboratively with you, which is where the best work comes from.

6. Hello! Is anybody out there?

The starting point of this blog and again such an easy one to solve. It amazes me how often we receive radio silence after pitching – even in ones we end up winning. Do you know how many times I get asked “Any news?” from dozens of people in our agency until we have the pitch result? So yeah, this one’s a bit selfish, but it’s also an appeal for some basic manners. Tell us what’s happening, even if it means you’re communicating a delay. At least we’ll know and I’ll stop being grumpy with colleagues.

7. Sooo close!

I heard this one at a seminar run by Martin Jones at the AAR a couple of years ago and it struck me that we hear this on 90% of unsuccessful pitches. Don’t tell each unsuccessful agency “It was so tight, you were a close second”.

I’ve since discussed this with other agencies over the years and found numerous instances where there was one winner and three 2nd placed. In some ways, this is quite nice, as it’s really just brands trying to please. But we’re big enough to take the truth and it’s actually more useful to us in the future if we know how we genuinely performed, rather than kidding ourselves we were great and oh so close.

8. You’re welcome

I think most brands do appreciate the amount of effort that agencies put into pitches, often with no reward or any future gain whatsoever. But feel free to reward them financially in some small way for their efforts too, as it’s a nice touch of appreciation if nothing else. I’m pleased to say more brands seem to be doing this nowadays. Or if nothing else, just a genuine thank you will suffice and goes a long way to protecting your brands’ integrity and reputation.

I’ll finish by saying I love pitches, they’re one of the most exciting and interesting parts of my job. At HOME, we’ll continue to pitch for the right opportunities and will always try to do the best job we can for the brands we pitch to.

Hopefully some of this will help brands and agencies get the best out of each other in pitches. Good luck to you all!

Written by:

Sam Rainey Commercial Director


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