Choosing the right agency at pitch

– An open letter to those client-side –

Dear Clients,

I have read a number of fascinating posts in which marketers tell other marketers what they should look for in order to choose the right PR agency during the pitching process.  Well, I’ve been on the inside of agencies for almost a decade and here’s what I’d be looking for if I were you (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).

–          A solution from them: not a laying out of the arguments, or a long-winded review of the challenges and barriers. A clear solution.  This solution can be multilayered or focussed on one thing, but it must be there.  A solution will NOT be vague “our approach is via humour” it will be precise “we are going to make your consumers feel like laughing every-time they hear your brand name”.

–          A methodology from them (or laying out of ideas) that unwaveringly returns to the solution, not disparate ideas that are all a bit of fun and highly tactical.  A presentation of a sea of fun tactical ideas,without focus = being lost at sea; the ideas must point towards the unifying solution.  The solution will be based on a better insight than “we feel” and doesn’t have to be a consumer insight, it could be a business one (eg. “You must focus your PR in Manchester, not nationally, because if you just increase purchase in Manchester by 1% you will increase overall profitability by xx%”)

–          A commitment from the leading bods that you rate most in the pitch that they will be working on the account if won a definite amount of time.  Ask them straight out, get them to commit.  If you like the MD, Creative Director, Account Director, Head of Digital nail them down to be working on the account if won.  Then put it in the contract.  Unless the relevant senior bod (that you most value) has a personal passion for your brand or type of work, all that can really tie them to spending quality time on it after the pitch win, is the knowledge that they are contractually obliged to.

–          A good-looking deck presented by them – don’t get me wrong geniuses can scribble on the back of napkins and great pitches can be changing constantly until the team walk into the room, but consistently great agencies don’t leave things to chance… and that includes how good their deck looks.

–          Confidence / both balls & brains from them – you don’t want yes people.  I’ll say it again because I mean it.  You don’t want yes people.  Of course, you don’t want your potential agency being disagreeable tossers during the pitch, but definitely throw some stuff at them to be provocative, to see if they will be bold enough to correct you if you making a misguided point.  If they are not as clever, or cleverer, than you, what’s the point of hiring them? I’m serious.  Don’t hire them just because they have more knowledge of PR than you, hire them because they are bright as hell and would be an asset to any business in any role.

–          Chemistry with them – Liking is important, but I’d suggest thinking less about: “Do I like this person”, but more about: “Do I trust this person?”.  Are they honest, clear cut and effective.  You should trust your PR person as much as your accountant or lawyer.  Look out for high energy people (you can spot them a mile-off)– you might not want to live with them as they are exhausting, but you probably want them working on your account.

–          The Q&A session after the pitch is of more value than the pitch. This is where you can weed out the bluffers and chancers with five questions…

  • What exact titles do you see this coverage appearing on?
  • Have you checked these ideas with any journalists / bloggers / CEOs / investors etc?
  • What titles, blogs, channels etc do the different groups in my target audience consume?
  • What will I be seeing in six months time, when we review this campaign?
  • How does you strategy lead to what I actually need to achieve business-wise? Eg. international coverage / outside investment / a social media community of over 20,000 with 10% spending in our online store three times a year / 5m sales.

Judging their answers:

  • If they waffle to you in response, but don’t answer, or they clearly haven’t considered any of these questions and can’t provide pinpoint answers on their feet – then worry.
  • If they tell you these questions aren’t what should really matter to you, the real question you should be asking is x,y,z – hear them out, they might be awful or absolutely brilliant.
  • If they answer all these questions and make you look at your business challenge in a clearer way – hire them.

–          Big answers – weak PRs will have you think you should leave the pitch with more questions than answers, as if they have just presented a performance of Beckett play. Rubbish.  You should leave it with a lot of answers .  Probably ones you didn’t expect, but answers all the same.

You should feel that whether the pitch gave you something you are after or not, if the ideas were delivered tomorrow the agency had clearly thought-through everything and could do something powerful for you.

Remember- over-wordiness in a pitch does not mean that the agency have crossed all the ts and dotted all the i’s; conversely, it usually means they are so nervous about the quality of the ideas or their own inherent quality and are explaining all the mechanics to reassure you.  If they try to sell you the mechanics over the actual ideas, then they don’t trust themselves, and you can’t trust them.

What else might be helpful, but really isn’t as important as you probably think?

–          Recent experience

–          Agency rather than personal experience (agencies may pack out creds with references to individuals experience from years before)

–          Capability – non-global network agencies, probably (though only probably) don’t have the wattage for high resource global campaigns

–          Recommendations of agency from other marketeers (treat with a pinch of salt.  One man’s gold and all that…)

–          Having done previous work for your brand (this helps, but only if the agency is still fresh and hungry.  Hungry for your brand, not your money that is)

And please just forget about the nuts and bolts that pad out most pitches, because you can rest assured pre-pitch that almost every agency knows how to a) run a press office b) sell-in c) do publishing house tours d) outreach to bloggers e) conduct social media monitoring… tell the agencies you don’t need to be shown this in the pitch, they should have covered that off with their creds pre-pitch.

Now dear clients be brave and wise.  And take everyone else’s tips with a pinch of salt(!) and trust your gut.

All the Best,

Jono (an agency insider)

PS. And bear in mind if your agency can’t muster their talents to show creativity at pitch stage, then they will never be creative for you.

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