5 ways agencies should handle the pitch process—according to consultants

Search consultants from SRI, R3, JLB and Roth Ryan Hayes offer advice for what works—and what doesn't.

5 ways agencies should handle the pitch process—according to consultants

Pitches are the lifeblood of the industry, but they often come with complications from spec work to finding the right chemistry with a client.

During a Tuesday panel at the Mirren Live conference, Duffy Humbert, senior partner at SelectResources International, Greg Paull, principal and co-founder of R3 Worldwide, Brian Goodall, general manager of JLB+Partners and Russell Wohlwerth, partner at Roth Ryan Hayes spoke about what they are seeing from agencies that have seen success during pitches. Here are some of the takeaways from that discussion, which was moderated by Ad Age Managing Editor Judann Pollack.

If you decline, do so early

More agencies are being selective when pitching, but it's key to know when to pass up an opportunity, according to Goodall, who said he had reached out to 13 agencies for a recent review and four had declined. That's a “high percentage," said Goodall, who noted that if you are going to decline, do it early.

“[Agencies should] set up a screening criteria so that you can really see if [the opportunity] is going to be suitable and if so, drop out early,” not late, said Paull. “We had a review today where two agencies pulled out on submission date and that's going to leave a bad impression on us and the clients.”

“We're seeing a lot of that,” Wohelwerth added about shops passing on pitches. “Agencies feel like they're going to leave a bad reputation if they pull out and I much rather if you can't pitch, let us know upfront as opposed to doing giving a 50% effort. You're not going to hurt us. We'd rather, if you can't fully commit, don't commit. And we won't think any of the worse of you.”

Opinion: Win your next pitch by treating it like a first date

Know the difference between chemistry and alignment

There is little doubt that having a good rapport with a client can go a long way, but is there a difference between having chemistry with a client and having alignment?

“Agencies really underestimate the importance of chemistry, both within their own team and with the potential client, it makes a huge difference if the client walks out thinking, ‘Wow, these guys are people I can really work with... You can even get a premium on your fees for something like that,” Paull said.

Wohlwerth disagreed with the notion and said the focus for agencies should be more on alignment rather than chemistry. “Chemistry matters, but you take a look at the turnover at agencies and client turnover—not the same, but quite a bit,” he said. “I use the term alignment. We think the same. We see the world through a similar lens because I think chemistry—given the turnover in this business, on both the client and the agency side—is temporary.”

One aspect of a pitch meeting that Goodall called the “kiss of death” is if the client feels excluded from a conversation. Humbert described a recent scenario where a client had back-to-back meetings with two different agencies and ended up preferring the second agency because they felt the conversation was more collaborative.

“The CEO said, I felt like with the previous agency that [had] the morning slot, they were laughing amongst themselves whereas this agency, we were laughing with them. It was more inclusive versus somehow when agencies are trying to create chemistry, it's [with] inside jokes that the clients aren't even a part of somehow.”

Keep questionnaire answers concise

It’s common for agencies to fill out request for information questionnaires they receive from consultants. All panelists agreed that it's best for agencies to provide concise answers. Goodall said that the questionnaires are almost a “substitute” for agency websites, which he said are “woefully outdated” at times and missing the information clients are seeking. As an example, Goodall said he has received 90-page questionnaire responses.

“I practically throw somebody out of contention if they send me a document like that. Nobody wants to read that and nobody's going to read that,” Goodall said. “When we send out an RFI questionnaire, it is very formatted and very specific to the client's specific needs. I tell [agencies] if you don't use this format you're going to fall out of consideration.”

However, Goodall understands why agencies might feel the urge to oversell themselves early.

“I have some empathy for agencies in that regard because they can't resist pulling out all the stops and hitting one out of the park and sometimes that means volume, and I think sometimes they miss the mark when they do it."

How to stay on a consultant’s radar

With consultants being such a prominent part of many review processes, agencies want to make sure they stay on each consultant’s radar. However, there is a good and bad way to do that, according to some of the panelists.  Wohlwerth said he hears from around 25-50 agencies a week, and while he welcomes updates, he says receiving weekly emails is overkill.

“We like to get updates, but I have agencies that give me an email every week and I think four times a year is good…and don't aggregate the news,” Wohlwerth said. “I read the news myself. I don't need your aggregation.”

Goodall said that emails should be no more than one page, but there “isn’t a substitute for great work” to get noticed. Humbert also says emails should be no more than one page but she also suggested that agencies find new ways to “shake it up” once in a while.

“If it's any longer than that [than one page], I'm going to save it to read later,” Humbert said. It's our job to know what you're up to and what agencies have momentum but make it easy for us.”

Humbert went on to give an example of a Detroit agency that sends SRI a postcard which she called “charming" and “breaks through the clutter."

For Paull, insights are a way to stick out. He said one report he often shares with his clients is Wavemaker’s report about CES takeaways and trends.

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Be a good loser

An unfortunate aspect of the pitch process is that every agency has experienced that feeling of being a finalist for an account but ultimately coming short. However, the process doesn’t end there and it’s important for agencies in a way to be a “graceful loser," Goodall said.

“I think we've all probably had an experience where a client hired an agency and it didn't work out and they went back to the agency that came in second. It’s very important to be a graceful loser and extend that communication to the clients and to the search consultant because it will pay off, it comes back to you, I think often.”

“I know this tears the heart out of agencies and what I like to do is say, 'Look, I've got bad news for you' and I always like to have them process it, give them a couple of days,” Wohlwerth added. “I like them to get on the phone with our clients because we're just the intermediary. But I've gotten some agencies that are just so pissed, the opposite of gracious. If I get treated like that, I'm going to think twice before putting you in another review.”

All the consultants on the panel said that it isn’t easy to let agencies know they didn’t win, especially when the decision was close between a few agencies.

“New business is a game of inches,” Humbert said. “If we're doing our job right, you're all worthy candidates.”