January 16th 2014

Marketing agency pitch etiquette

by Martin O'Toole

Previously, I wrote an ebook called 'Life's a Pitch', which is on this site – as well on the digital marketing information sharing site, smartinsights.com. Whilst not wishing to repeat my earlier thoughts on this subject, a recent incident made me consider marketing agency pitch etiquette in addition to effective management of the pitch process.

Recently, we were invited to a TV advertising agency pitch for a very well known national network of ambulance-chasers. We were up against 2 major northern agencies. It was a good prospect and thus we were delighted to be invited to pitch.

We presented our creative to the owners of the firm. At the end of the pitch, our hosts informed us that the other agencies were due to pitch within the forthcoming 5-week period and therefore, regrettably, we’d be waiting until then to hear the outcome.

6 weeks on and I made the traditional courtesy call to the MD of the business and ended up leaving him a message due to him being unavailable. A few days after, when I’d heard nothing, I sent him an email. A week later (again, nothing), I did the same – all calm, all very courteous – and certainly without a modicum of desperation. In the following weeks, I repeated the process – never receiving any acknowledgement.

Almost three months on, I called the MD’s direct line and to my surprise, he answered. The moment he realised it was me, he found himself rather lost for words, clearly uncomfortable as he stammered and told me they’d appointed another agency. He (rather unconvincingly) fibbed about it being a very recent decision etc. I bit my lip; thanked him for the opportunity and that was the end of the call - and indeed the opportunity.

We win pitches and we lose them; it’s the nature of the beast. There can be no room for sour grapes and we know to accept the rough with the smooth and cope with the expected level of disappointment if we are unsuccessful. However, throughout this process, we do expect a level of professionalism and mutual courtesy – and that each party follows some level of etiquette. So here are the things to keep in mind when running an agency pitch:

6 Points on Marketing Agency Pitch Etiquette:

Be courteous to all of the agencies you invite to pitch. If they ask additional questions in advance of the pitch, consider that as a good thing. Plenty of creative agencies will simply take the written brief you’ve provided (assuming you’ve provided one), then respond without questioning. Questioning is good and should not be viewed as an irritation;

Provide a written brief! There’s a clear link between clients being disappointed with the results of a pitch and the brief provided (“shit in, shit out” is the more crude expression, I believe). If you haven’t provided a structured brief, what else would you expect? Unless an objective of your pitch is to challenge creative agencies by seeing how they think on their feet (rather than working to a structured brief), then providing the same brief to all parties involved, will reduce your potential for disappointment come the day of the beauty parade. It’s also fair;

Don’t invite too many agencies. A marketing agency pitch should ideally have between 3-5 prospective agencies (more likely the former). Any more implies a lack of focus; notwithstanding the veritable time and financial resource required by all parties. Don’t ever feel as though you should invite additional agencies to ‘fill a space’, as is often the case. If you don’t genuinely rate them, do not invite them. Simple;

During the pitch process, give every agency equal opportunities. Give them the same amount of time (it should be reasonable time. Telling an agency they have 45 minutes to present strategy plus a selection of executions/ideas is hardly polite or fair). If an agency has spent time, effort and resource on producing creative and strategic ideas for your consideration (on average, for a TV advertising pitch, we would likely spend 1-2 weeks, spending something in the region of £20k-£30k in time/visuals), the least you can do is give the agency a couple of hours of your time to meet with them and hear their ideas;

After the pitch, try your best to review and select at your earliest convenience. Consider the fact that you likely gave your agencies 2-4 weeks to respond to your brief (which they did eagerly). Consider that they’ll be keen to learn whether they’ve been successful;

Your first call may well be to the winning agency, whom you will doubtless surprise and delight with the fantastic news. You’ll exuberantly compliment each other and likely arrange a follow-up meeting over drinks or dinner, to discuss how you’d like to work together and how best to approach the project. Once that call’s over, don’t forget the other agencies. Call them in the same moment. Let them down with courtesy. Remember, the marketing agency industry is as small a world as yours. Agencies talk – especially when they’ve won an account. The last thing any agency wants is to hear through another (winning) agency that they’ve lost a pitch.

Teaching Grandma? If that’s the case, then ace. Only recently, I learned that this stuff isn’t simple common sense. Hence me taking the time to share these thoughts.

In summary, it’s all about courtesy. I can’t recall whether it was Jesus or one of his 12, who was quoted as having said: “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you”. I’m not particularly religious, but I’m a big fan of manners. After all, without them, business can be absolutely miserable at times.

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