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Let me let you into a little secret. Many moons ago I heard of a London design agency’s antics, where post the pitch meeting the agency team had pre-arranged the taxi to take the traveling client onto their next meeting. Nothing too complicit in that, but what they also did was pay the cabbie to listen in on the inevitable agency selection review in the back of the black cab as they drove through Soho. Useful agency feedback that quickly helped them determine if they’d won, lost or were in consideration. Nothing sums up the Great British psyche like a bit of Bond-esque espionage.
In many ways it points to never knowing where clients stand in these dog and pony ‘pitch’ shows, with little given away in the room or a pat on the back with a whisper of “you’ve done well” on the way out of the door. The lack of transparency isn’t good for any relationship, be that personal or commercial. Sadly, the Catch-22 “creative pitch” is still the modus operandi for many businesses embarking on a creative agency search.
The polar opposite to this spy story was when I heard a Marketing Director friend of mind tell me that a particular design agency had his team trawl to London to be interviewed in a reverse pitch to determine if they were a suitable client for the agency. He was incredulous to the mere suggestion; I think the conversation ended with a “who do on earth do they think they are!?”.
Suffice to say that the design agency in question is hugely successful and has built up a reputation where it delivers results and can be picky as to who it partners with. The subtle art of strong positioning and credentials!
Both of the above ‘client & agency’ scenarios point to a lack of trust in the relationship from the outset. We know that your average FTSE 100 Finance Directors hate anything to with the word ‘creative’, you can see the hairs rise on their skin as the word is even muttered under your breath in front of them. The ROI is in their world too subjective, and they’d prefer to invest the businesses hard earned gains into tangible things that they could see, feel, touch and smell.
The creative industries are the necessary evil that they know they have to support but they do so begrudgingly and given its so far removed from their world they question everything. The brand & marketing teams are therefore pressured more than ever before to clearly point to the ROI at every stage of anything that sits near the word ‘creative’. When I was in WPP design agencies you could see the clients had chosen us based on the good old IBM selection adage, “well I can’t get fired for buying WPP”. It is little wonder that the PITCH still lives with us to this day.
But is there a better way to select an agency and then work with them? I believe so and there are many different ways to lead an agency selection process. But before I dance with that particular devil, let’s look at just what makes for a successful agency & client partnership:
As in all functioning relationships there has to be good chemistry between the two parties. You must fundamentally like each other and empathise with each other on a human level. The easiest test that I always judge a potential client or candidate on is simple, the ‘pub test’.
Would I like to spend time with this human being? Will I get something out of the relationship and equally so to do they?
The challenge here is often one that is very subjective amongst a matrix of decision makers in a selection process and then working together thereafter. As such I’d urge any client team or agency to invest the time in getting to know the human beings that they have in front of them.
Are they decent human beings that you could see yourself going into battle with, often picking the ball up for each other when one side of the team inevitably drops it.
Trust is fundamental to this; you must trust each other implicitly and have each other’s backs at every stage of the journey. If the chemistry isn’t there from the outset the relationship is destined to fail and do so at warp speed.
I do realise that I’m starting to sound like a marriage counsellor, but just as chemistry & trust are bedrocks to a good marriage, so too is having a shared vision & ambition.
All too often everyone dances around the edges with the agency grateful to be in consideration and the client partner not giving much away. It is vital that you go into any partnership with a shared vision and ambition for the relationship.
As if the expectation differs on either side, you are once again destined to fail. If you are a client, be clear about just what value you are giving the agency over a given period and your expectation against that. If you are an agency, be clear about what you want to get out of the partnerships.
When we go into any selection process, we judge it by four key criteria: fun, fame, fortune, fair:
Fun - Is it going to be a fun category/team or process.
Fame - Is it going to be something we can shout from the rafters about to drive our own brand fame.
Fortune - Is it going to give us a strong return on our human investment, is it worth us investing our own time with a strong return.
Fair – The last and most important one in many regards, is it going to be a fair selection process?
Often the one that is forgotten, and the warning signs of a future relationship can be found out by the way in which the agency is being selected.
The fair one is important as it makes you question just why you are going into a partnership. No doubt clients have similar scoring criteria, something we always ask for when considering any commercial engagement.
We can all too often get stuck in the weeds and just doing the tactical day-to-day in front of us. Time poor with a growing & never-ending to-do list, we just crack on and often don’t raise our head above the parapet to ask, “just what is working here and what isn’t”.
As such, its vital that any good partnership goes into a touch of therapy. We use the ‘stop, start, continue’ basis to ask our partners what we should stop doing, what we should start doing and what we should continue doing. Likewise, our clients also ask us for that same feedback.
It simply helps to deepen the relationship and gives both sides the opportunity to evolve and learn how to better
support each other. It also helps to ensure that those small cracks that might be appearing don’t open into giant chasms. Too often we are frightened to ask for fear of being berated.
But as some smart cookie once told me “feedback is a gift. Do with it what you will”. I’d urge clients and agencies to spend time having frank conversations to determine the good, the bad and hopefully avoid any ugly.
So back to the Catch-22 question of to pitch or not to pitch, so help you god. I’m a great believer in the value of getting to know your potential agency, or client. As such before you jump in bed with them, I’d urge you to avoid the 90mins dog and pony pitch where nobody truly gets to know each other.
Instead cut the list of agencies down to 2, or 3 at most if you must. Then spend half a day together working through the business and brand challenge in hand.
Treat it as a mini-chemistry workshop, where you get to know each other as humans along with understanding how they think. Otherwise, it’s a little bit akin to a quick and dirty one night stand where nobody has a clue as to if this is going to work out in the long run.
It rarely does and is why we see so much client being pitched every year. The FDs certainly wouldn’t like to see the time wasted on endless pitching. One can only imagine what the conversation would be like in a black cab post pitch if the FD attended!
Right, I’m off to Amazon to buy a listening bug or two disguised as a USB!
Richard Brandon Taylor is the Founder of Brandon Consultants.