Pitching new business is the oxygen that keeps agencies alive. Ask any agency leader, and you’ll probably hear how much they hate it. It’s disruptive, costly, mismanaged, unfair, and many other NSFW comments will ensue. While the process can be painfully disruptive to daily workflow, and the per-hour cost of staff and freelance and additional materials and services can be expensive, it can be, but not always, very unfair.
Everyone has been in a pitch that seemed to favor a competitor; as we say, it was wired for that agency. Most have been the beneficiary of being wired at one time or another. It is great when you are the winner and frustrating when you are not. How does it all come about? How often are pitches wired, and how does an agency ‘get wired?’
I’ve never seen any research or expert opinion about being wired. I’ve read Blair Enns's Win Without Pitching manifesto. He says it’s not for everyone. While it should be mandatory reading for everyone, it doesn’t address the dynamic of being wired. Peter Levitan’s classic, Buy This Book. Win More Pitches is another compulsory read for every agency. He says if you read the book, you will win more pitches. Who doesn’t want that? But it doesn’t cover being wired for a pitch, either. Please share if anyone has seen data or insight into the wired agency phenomena.
I did some research a few years back among 155 marketer decision-makers representing companies like Hallmark, Disney, Lenovo, Macy’s, Brinker, Hilton, Sony, and more. The participants included a variety of B2B and B2C businesses across many different industries. 14% of respondents have in-house agencies and do not use outside agencies. 30% have 4 or more agencies under contract. 55% have 1 - 3 agencies, most likely an AOR, PR, and digital.
Among the questions I asked was this gem, do you know which agency will win before the pitch? Not surprisingly, 4 out of 5 marketers said they always or sometimes know which agency they want (will win) before the pitch. Put another way, only 16% said they did not know which finalist agencies they would choose before the pitch. As much as 84% admitted they had made up their mind before the final pitch presentation. Ouch!
Why put the other agencies through that pain and suffering? I did not ask that question, but anecdotally we know that some marketers want to create the appearance of unbiased selection. Others must follow a procurement process. Others are too cowardly to shut the pitch down when they realize whom they want. Regardless of the reason, some of the comments from survey participants were illuminating.
- If I know my preference. I have already made up my mind. Most of the time, I need to be wowed to go away from the leader in my head.
- Through the process, I often settle on a favorite such that the pitch is really theirs to lose.
- I try to keep an open mind but rarely, maybe never, has the pitch ever changed it.
- The pitch isn’t really a good situation for agencies. It’s what they do in the chemistry meeting, with their credentials and questions that decides it.
- I feel bad to know how much work goes into a pitch, and the decision is already made.
In my experience, search consultants try to manage their process as a fair fight. Although I have heard confidentially from one prominent consultant that she was hired to manage a search with a preselected winner. Does that happen a lot? I hated to hear that since these people know first-hand the cost and disruption that agencies go through. Truth be told, I have been the beneficiary of a wired pitch, so it’s hypocritical to complain about the many other times I’ve been the victim.
Most agencies use criteria to evaluate a pitch and whether to participate. One key question is whether there is any suspicion that it is wired for the incumbent or any agency. The answer is mostly speculation, with no way to know for certain. When you’ve been in this business for any length of time, you can generally trust your instincts. However, when the possibility of a big new client, a prominent new brand, or a stepping stone to greater things is at play, the eternal optimist can be a powerful persuasion.
We could debate the pros and cons of the pitch process, but is there any way to participate in a search and become wired? The obvious answer is to make the agency invaluable to the marketer or so advanced or differentiated that the choice is impossible to ignore. In a world where the agency business has become commoditized, it is much harder to be invaluable. That is why people and personalities, culture and vision, and the chemistry in a pitch is so important.
Other pitch elements that have traditionally been the deciding factors, like strategy, creativity, innovation, and expertise, don’t show up until the end. Becoming wired must start at the beginning, love at first sight, to overcome all the best thinking, showmanship, and sizzle the competitors will bring. Is it possible? Is there a way to game the system? I don’t think so; otherwise, one or more of the smart people in this business would have figured it out. Yet despite the impossibility, 4 out of 5 marketers seem to know.
Let’s apply the wired concept to the initial agency search process. Do 4 out of 5 marketers come to know which agency they want or favor before they reach out to any of the agencies they have initially researched and vetted? Do they have a favorite at the start yet are still willing to invest time to get to know alternatives? Do they honestly not know if agency A will be a better investment than agency B? My experience says some do, perhaps a small percentage. Most are legitimately looking for the right partner and go about their journey to discover, vet, compare, choose, negotiate, and marry.
Agencies in a pitch have already gone through a vetting process. Agencies at the beginning of a search are making first impressions. We know marketers or their surrogates do much research and investigate before reaching out. Some data shows that 50% - 70% of their process is incognito. By the time an agency hears from them, they know a lot about the agency and other agencies and probably have one or two favorites. We’ve all heard marketers say, I invited you as a wild card, I wanted to see how a small agency compares to large ones, or I wanted to see if no industry experience makes a difference. Yeah, you lost. They have their favorites early on. That said, occasionally, we read about a dark horse that won.
In the same survey, I asked how they find new agencies when initiating a search. It was no surprise that more than three-quarters ask a friend, colleague, or peer, and almost as many look through the trade press. About 57% report using some form of search consultant to help them, which was surprising since only about 20% - 30% of marketers use the major consultants, and that percentage is declining.
Surprisingly, LinkedIn and Google tied as a method for half of the marketers. Facebook and Twitter were the least used channels, yet about a third of marketers still check social profiles. What are the implications? You are missing opportunities if you aren’t working your clients and networking for referrals. And, if you don’t have an active PR effort, you are also missing out. If you turn your nose up at the consultants, you could lose 1/3 to 1/2 of your potential new clients. Not a single exec said they discovered new agencies from a phone call.
The first impression of an agency, whether from a colleague’s description or a press article, the information presented, the differentiation demonstrated, and other initial interactions contribute to the pass-or-fail conclusion of the marketer. They may also begin to set a bias. Does this agency check my boxes; experience, capabilities, leadership, results, culture, and more? Are they worthy of investing more precious time? Could they be the solution I seek? The answers to these questions confirm the bias. These and many more answers help marketers decide which agencies should continue through the process. Can you imagine how hard it is to remain neutral?
There are similarities if we apply the wired concept to the earliest stages of a marketer’s search as they work through the journey and process to find a new agency. I’ve posted a lot about what marketers are more likely to want to know when they first start investigating new agencies. These table stakes have been consistent over time. And it makes sense. Read this for more. These are things that every agency must have to be considered. The challenge lies in turning table stakes into early impressions of unique, different, invaluable, and simpatico. This is where bias is first established.
Considering that the website, for 90%+ of marketers, is the first impression of an agency, it is curious why any agency leader would neglect theirs. Sure, the excuses are real; no time, resources, or budget. Or worse, my clients, friends, and staff tell me how much they like it. Why change? The website is the easiest thing to control in the entire business development process. Marketers start their search on your website. They select 5 to 10 agencies (more or less) based initially on their impression of your agency from your website. There is nothing more important that you can invest in.
What if that first impression won them over? What if they said I’ve seen enough? We’ve found our new agency! While they may say that in their head, they will never say it out loud. They may have various or mandatory requirements as a part of the search. They must satisfy procurement, legal, finance, staff, and bosses while respecting their soon-to-be departing agency. They will probably let the process play out, even if their mind is already made up.
Considering human nature in general and the results of this survey, one agency will likely be favored or wired at the start or early on in the process. Can you be that agency? It requires strategic agency brand management out in the wild at the top of the funnel and throughout the marketer’s journey; thought leadership, blog posts, cases, website experience, creative expression, positioning, etc. When all these individual elements are working together to make the best impression for your agency among its peers, you will separate yourself from them and make the decision much easier for the marketer.
Agencies that are wired in a formal pitch usually have extraordinary circumstances like a personal friendship with the decision-maker, a procurement-mandated review of a well-liked agency, or the godfather of the CEO’s child. Agencies that don’t have those connections but want to improve their odds with brands that are a good fit should carefully map all the touchpoints in the marketer journey with extreme care and strategic focus.
My descriptions are overly simplified. I’m not trying to sell you snake oil. I don’t have a silver bullet or magic beans. Setting a marketer’s bias early or becoming wired in an agency search takes time, discipline, innovation, creativity, and smarts. It takes all those things that agencies do to help their clients succeed. If you are serious about winning, you must be serious about doing the things necessary to win. By doing so, you can turn the usual “please tell me about your agency” into “you had me at hello.”
Schedule a call if you'd like help winning before the pitch. Please forward this post if you know someone who might benefit from my experience. And always, I enjoy a spirited conversation if you want to kick around some new business ideas. Remember to sign up for my new business newsletter if you are not already. Follow me on LinkedIn for daily tips and insights. I might even return to Twitter… we'll see. #LetsGrow!