Agency Pitches: Know When to Walk Away

Why We Folded on a Recent RFP

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Sometimes in business you have to rethink a decision. This past week was one such time.

Brownstein Group was invited to pitch the integrated advertising account of an organization. It was worth a few million dollars a year (gross billings) -- not huge, but not too shabby, either. Thing is , the amount of work in the RFP was daunting. It required an inordinate amount of data from bidders.

That said, for a number of reasons, I still believed we could win the business. So we dived in.

Soon after, we realized that the impact to our agency during what has been a particularly busy summer could likely be damaging to our existing clients and staff -- even with the freelancers we brought in to handle the extra workload. I was informed by my senior managers that deadlines were at risk of being missed and the RFP was quickly stretching valuable internal resources from other, more promising opportunities.

I want to clarify that this RFP came at a time when we are handling an unusually large workload from existing clients, digesting recent new-business wins, and exploring/vetting other new business ventures. Yes, it's a good problem to have, and the recession seems like a distant memory at this point -- but it is still a problem if it is not handled properly.

So I made the decision to withdraw from this particular pitch process. It was a difficult decision because of my gut feeling (which is also based on market facts) that we had a good shot of winning, but one that I knew I had to make, in the best interest of my team and my clients.

Now you're probably thinking, "Why on earth would Marc pull the plug on a meaningful opportunity? Why not just add even more temporary staff to help out, so his agency could stay in the competition?"

Trust me, I carefully weighed every factor before coming to my conclusion. It was simply a matter of timing -- a highly complex pitch process that required too much of my agency's resources, at a time when we needed to focus on everything else that was a priority.

Does this mean we are backing off of new business and growing the agency right now? Not for a minute. We simply are not prepared to let select new-business opportunities that we perceive to be overly burdensome get in the way of our first priority: doing great work for our valued, paying clients. I remember when I was working for Ogilvy & Mather back in the late 80s, the agency was on a new-business tear -- we simply couldn't lose. So senior management made a decision to impose a new business moratorium for one year while we digested our new wins. The agency was unable to regain its new-business momentum after that for several years. I learned an important lesson.

Here are the three steps I took before making my decision:

  • Monitor the agency. It is critical to stay in close touch with the people on your team that oversees any pitch process. In our case, it's a few members of my senior management team, along with our head of project management, who manages the agency workload. Important to ask questions: Can we meet all of our commitments to existing clients with our best work? Are our people able to handle the extra work and have a life outside of work? What's the vibe in the hallways? The answers will be very revealing.

  • Is it worth it? Pitches stretch agencies. It's a fact of business life in our industry. So I knew I could add even more staff to the effort to effectively compete. What I also had to weigh was the value of the opportunity versus what it was costing us in time, dollars and energy. Sometimes you can't fully know that until you're in it.

  • What's ahead? It is rare that we withdraw from a pitch once we have already vetted it. And I certainly was not about to impose any sort of moratorium on new business, as I had learned what can happen to an agency earlier in my career. The final factor I considered was the growth opportunities that lay in the near future. I knew there were some exciting prospects percolating a few months down the road in 2011 for us, and I knew that if we stepped out of this pitch, there were still promising ones ahead.
I have haven't made a decision like this many times in my career. Short term, I know I made the right move. Long term, only time will tell. But I have zero regrets about reversing course on this one.

Marc Brownstein is president of The Brownstein Group, Philadelphia
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