Pitching into the void
Agencies and clients alike had to quickly adapt to a Zoom-filled world. In some instances, video meetings brought some positives to the review process. Companies saved money and time that would have been spent on traveling, there were quicker turnaround times for new business, and since there aren’t limits to how many people can join conference calls, clients and agencies had the potential to meet more members of each other’s teams than was previously possible.
A second agency CEO says during the beginning of the pandemic clients were more decisive, efficient and faster during the pitch process. But eventually, things got decidedly darker.
“We started to see more and more pitches where clients would show up with their cameras off or driving in a car while you were in your final presentation,” the agency CEO says. “We had one pitch that we were in and there were 26 clients on the Zoom call and 25 of them had their cameras off.”
This CEO says his agency has done at least 10 reviews while pitching into black squares throughout the pandemic. The CEO would at times ask for the prospective clients to turn their cameras on to no avail. “They would say something like ‘I don't look great today,’ or sometimes they just don't say anything.”
Another CEO of a west coast-based agency experienced a similar screens-off experience just last month. “We just did a pitch for a large national brand,” the CEO says. “It was consultant-led. They set up the meeting and said, ‘Hey, in advance of the meeting we want this to be like a brainstorm. It's more of a chemistry check. We want us to get an understanding of what it's like to interact with you and everything else.’ We go to the meeting and everybody's camera was off. And we're like ‘How are you brainstorming? How are you interacting?’”
And of course, a chemistry check goes both ways: If the pitching agency can’t see the client, it’s harder for it to judge just how high-maintenance the account might be.
“We don’t allow clients to be on any other device, or to go off-camera—they’re all in or all out,” says Simon Francis, CEO of Flock Associates, which has worked with many major marketers on reviews, including McDonald’s. “We’ve broken our pitches down into different modules that are shorter, denser, and actually seem to give a better test of agency capability—rather than a war of Powerpoint, video, and demos.”
There’s no hard and fast solution to a cameras-off review, but it’s worth a try to ask people to turn their cameras on. And after you go through one round of pitching into the void, you may want to pass on round two or at least be forewarned that the client may not be taking you seriously. The seeming disinterest in the pitch could also be a warning sign that the client won’t take you seriously in person either.
Reviews that never stop—or end too fast
When pitching, it’s important to try and determine just who is the final decision-maker on the agency selection, in order to sidestep the never-ending review.
The rise of virtual reviews has led to an increase in prolonged or unreasonably short timelines and brands changing their mind last minute. The ease of being able to quickly hop on video calls has led to agencies pulling the trigger on RFPs before fully considering all aspects of what the client is looking for, or failing to consider whether the agency is actually the right fit for the company from a budget and relationship standpoint.
“We were in one pitch where there were three agencies and we won the first round only to find out, they said, ‘You guys are the best of the three agencies, but now there's another agency,’” another agency CEO recalls. “So we had to pitch against that agency and we won that. Then they were like, ‘Oh, but our CEO just recommended a global agency. So now we have to meet with them.’ So we now had to pitch against that one. There were literally five times where they added new people after we kept winning. Ultimately we won the business, but when you're in a pitch and you know your competition and you go up against it and you beat them, you should win it as opposed to constantly having new people brought in.”
While this example ended in an eventual win, other agencies weren’t always so lucky. One chief marketing officer of an agency’s North American division spoke about a time where the shop was pitching for a financial services brand.
“It was a fairly well-funded startup brand,” the executive says. “They issued an RFP, we responded. They then had four meetings with us—each time asking for a refinement of the RFP and proposal. Then they went radio silent for three months. After that, we got an email that said they actually got another round of funding and had decided to invest that money elsewhere.”
Dan Eisenberg, senior VP, marketing and business development at agency Blue Chip Marketing Worldwide partnered with another agency on a very large and extensive RFP for a food brand a few months ago. The client hired a consultant, was looking for an agency of record, and the RFP had all the indications of a strong opportunity, Eisenberg says.
“We were told, and we felt, that our thinking really resonated with the client team and we were in a strong position to win the assignment,” Eisenberg says. “But at decision time, we were told that the client would be keeping the business with their incumbent agency. The senior client did not feel that his internal team was ready to begin work with a new agency. While this is a valid consideration, it’s one that should have been considered well before a search consultant was engaged, an RFP was developed and several agencies spent hundreds of hours on a detailed and thoughtful RFP effort.”
A good rule of thumb for shops is to do your homework, not just on the client’s business but its agency history. Endeavor to get as much information as possible upfront to help you judge whether the account is worth a cattle call. During the pandemic, many agencies jumped into pitches thinking they had less to lose because they didn’t incur the cost of travel—but that also upped the number of contenders who were also lured in for the same reasons.
“If you typically would bring in, let's say somewhere between four and eight agencies to talk to, that's a lot of time commitment for the client, '' says the president of a Chicago agency. “But if it’s just ‘Hey, let's schedule a 45 minute Zoom call,’ they can do 30 of those. So your odds just went from maybe one in five to one in 30, that's bad. It tends to commoditize agencies.”
The pandemic may have increased the frequency of some of these bad practices but they have certainly existed before the pandemic. Some executives claim that agencies desperate for new business have unintentionally fueled bad actors by deliberately underbidding or pursuing accounts against their better judgment.
Just say no
Of course, the best defense is a good offense when it comes to reviews. When in doubt, pull out, especially when red flags appear around process or compensation—such as the client one agency CEO recalls who had his agency go through a review only to offer barter as payment.
“The absolute worst experience I’ve ever had during a pursuit is being notified we were in the final two, that the client loved us and wanted to work with us, but there was one final step, a live auction,” says another agency exec. “We were asked to join a meeting with the other agency and bid in real-time for the business.”
An agency founder says his shop once passed on a plum review that had some odd parameters. “They asked for, in less than four weeks, a complete media plan, along with a creative and strategic assessment of their current work that they really didn't want to change, and creative execution. No meetings, you could email one time, email questions, and then you submit your work, and no oral presentations,” he says.
Then it got even weirder. “A committee would decide who the winner was, the first runner up, and the second one. They'd pick three agencies and start negotiating compensation with the first agency. If they couldn't reach a compensation agreement with the first agency, they would drop them, go to the second agency. They could end up, by the way, using the third-best agency. The strangest thing is, you could get a call saying, ‘Hi, I'm your new client,’ without ever having met the people.”
Though it can take courage, an agency can save itself headaches, employees, and costs in the long run by walking away from a review that shows troublesome signs.
“We just have to say, ‘no’ more often,” says a CEO and founder of an agency. “We have to carefully vet these opportunities and see, is this a fear-based RFP, or is this a real opportunity? Are they fishing for a couple of ideas that their existing agency will execute, or are they really looking for a marketing partner?”
This person advises asking yourself some hard questions before agreeing to participate in a review. “‘Do I have a chance of getting this business? Do I want this? Do I want to work with these people?’”
Contributing: I-Hsien Sherwood
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