Is the PR pitch process back to front?

PR agencies know the ropes.  You get invited to pitch for a certain account against other firms.  You then throw a ton of time and effort into it.  At some point it becomes clear that you’ve been chosen by the internal team and then you are passed over to procurement to ‘dot the Is and cross the Ts.’  In most cases that process is also quite familiar.  Procurement comes with a huge list of things they want agencies to give up (most of them involve some form of discount).  Now most procurement departments are quite reasonable while some push things to the limit.  I don’t really blame them, after all it’s their job.  But what this can result in is a situation where you simply can’t accept the terms the procurement people are seeking and you have to walk away.  This is frustrating for everyone concerned.  Should we therefore consider negotiating the contract and financial terms before pitching?  I appreciate that may mean more work for procurement as they may have to try and negotiate with all the potential vendors.  However, they could also simply say these are our terms and if you accept them you can pitch.  If you don’t then you should withdraw now.  Such an approach would save everyone a LOT of time and money and would result in clients only getting pitches from people willing to accept their terms.  As I say, I have nothing against procurement departments being aggressive.  Again, it’s their job to get the best deal for their business.  What is frustrating for the agency is this notion that if you win the pitch that you should then be prepared to sign up to terms that don’t work for your business.  To be clear, this post doesn’t relate to a certain pitch we’ve been involved in.  In truth it related to several that have taken place in the last few months.  Just want to propose a better way for client and the agency to get engaged.

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Should PR agencies have to pitch?

PR Week today announced that Chegg.com, an interesting startup, has hired Weber Shandwick for its PR.  According to the article they didn’t go through an RFP process.  Instead they were hired because they’d worked with the head of comms before at Match.com.  Some will argue that this is no way to make such an important decision.  Others will argue that the person who hired them knew what she was going to get and saved the company a lot of time and trouble.  She also, saved various agencies a lot of time as she clearly knew who she wanted.

Just about every agency head I know complains about the pitch process for the following reasons:

1.  Agencies have to invest a lot of time and money in pitches.  Indeed the cost of pitching can often wipe out the profits they’d make from an account for much of the first year.

2.  Agencies are forced to give away a lot of free ideas in the pitch process.  This is frustrating when those ideas get used by another agency that wins the account.

3.  Procurement departments are using pitch processes to drive a bargain and rarely are they focused on getting the best consultants to help a company.

4.  Every process is different so agencies have to reinvent the wheel each time.

5.  Some agencies don’t play fair.  In other words they make promises they have no intention of keeping – such as staffing

6.  Some clients don’t play fair.  They suggest they’ll be a great client and have a great budget.  They then reduce the budget and change the role of the agency.

7.  There are at least another three common complaints but I won’t bore you.

Given all these complaints should agencies have to pitch or should there just be a standard process by which agencies get hired?  While the latter would save everyone time, it’s sadly impractical.  Every client is different and has different needs.  A standard process denies agencies who really want to invest a pitch the opportunity to show how much they really want the business.  Also, some agencies use the current process to show innovation. Make the process standard and that chance goes away.

I for one would love to see the current process improved but I fully suspect I’ll hear the same complaints in five years that I hear today.  Instead, clients need to be reminded of the best way to handle the pitch process so they get the right agency without putting the agency world through the mill in the process.