Live issue pitching: Winning ways

To many agencies, pitching is an unavoidable chore for drumming up business. Others see it as nothing more than a beauty contest - or in some cases, a ploy companies use to fish for free ideas. Adam Woods reports.

Most people in the business-to-business supplier world can summon up a familiar handful of pitching stories, like the ad shop that prepared for a visit from Toyota by removing the front of a building to park a couple of its cars there, or the agency that kept a British Rail team waiting 45 minutes in a reception strewn with coffee cups to show them how customers feel.

These tales are well-worn and based largely in adland, but their place in B2B lore owes itself to the timeless terrors of the pitching process.

Virtually every event management company has a right to complain long and hard about inadequate briefs, unrealistic deadlines, unreasonable numbers of competing companies on the same bill and, most commonly, clients who appear to have made their minds up even before the "pitch theatre" has begun. But on the flipside, pitching is also the source of most new business, and as such it potentially brings great rewards while stimulating and challenging those involved.

"I understand that pitching itself can be odious," says Rob Allen, chief executive of TRO Group. "It is something you do extra to your day job and it can involve a lot of extra effort and cost. But there is another side: people want to be involved with a pitch because it is something different, it can stretch them creatively and, frankly, they can earn a bit of kudos from being associated with a win."

Certainly, few agencies will object to the way in which a pitch has been handled if they win it. But most have enough experience of the losing end to be able to identify the pitfalls of the process at its worst. "It is a total lottery," says Joe Macgregor, managing director at event production specialist Sprout. "Clients will try to bring in a range of agencies, almost like a beauty parade, even though quite often it is a done deal."

Event clients as a whole are unlikely to invite huge numbers of suppliers to submit a creative pitch. A typical shortlist consists of two or three serious candidates, though much longer pitch lists are not unknown.

Given that most pitches will last for an hour or so at most, it is easy to see how a prior or existing relationship between client and agency can swing the deal. What's more, most long-term contracts contain a provision for a statutory pitch, opening the business up even when there is little realistic prospect of the incumbent losing it. As a result, other agencies may find themselves invited along effectively to make up the numbers.

Worse still, some event companies emerge from pitches in the certain knowledge that the prospective client was really only fishing for free ideas. In an ideal world, a client will provide a thorough brief and, on occasion, a pre-brief meeting to enable suppliers to focus their efforts.

At other times, agencies will be invited to pitch with only a phone call or email, quite often from a client with whom they have not come into contact before, and there are few clues as to the most productive direction to take.

"Sometimes you will have a chance to talk to them in advance, but that entirely depends on your knowledge of the client, whether you have previous business with them, and the size of the job," says Helen Kay, business development manager at Compass Event Management.

The increasing popularity of live events as a marketing tool means an event management company can easily find itself pitching to a marketing professional with little prior experience of the sector. But event managers who frequently offer out new business will tend to have their own defined style, and are more likely to respect the importance of a thorough brief.

"That is vital so that they understand the rationale behind the project, they appreciate what we would see as success and how we will measure that success," says Martin Webster, UK event manager at Nestle Food Services.

In response to his initial brief, Webster also asks for a paper-based report before the pitch takes place. "That levels the playing field so that I understand, without all the smoke and mirrors, what they are trying to achieve," he says.

Webster says pitches at Nestle are usually fought out between two or three companies, though he stresses the need for imagination in the execution of the pitch. "That is one of the key things that will help somebody move their pitch on," he says.

The boundaries of pitch theatre are usually rather narrower outside the advertising world, so straight PowerPoint pitches are rather more common than gimmick-strewn ones. "If it is a very formal client presentation, turning up in a clown outfit to help demonstrate the idea is likely to be completely wrong," says Macgregor. "If it links in to the idea, (a flamboyant presentation) can be a benefit, but if it is just a gimmick, most clients are too cynical to be particularly impressed."

Given that most pitching pains owe themselves to poor communication on one side or the other, there are clearly far worse things an agency can do than be as direct as possible, particularly if pre-pitch contact has been limited.

"You can't just go in and sell to them," says Compass's Kay. "As soon as we get through the door, we say, 'We are going to be here for an hour, what do you want us to give you?' That way, we respond to their immediate needs."

Even without any props, the price of pitching is a significant cost to suppliers, even if it is one most would prefer not to dwell on. "If you think of what our day rate is, it goes into thousands, beyond a shadow of a doubt," says Kay.

Because of the financial implications of preparing a detailed pitch, and because many agencies have found themselves enduring whimsical pitches called by clients who aren't sure quite what they want, the spectre of the pitch fee has risen over the event industry in recent times.

One objection to unpaid pitches is that prospective clients receive a whole range of expert advice for free, with no obligation to pay either for agencies' creative solutions or the time that has gone into generating them. These are the facts of life, according to most clients - if you don't pitch, you don't win the business.

"I understand that they go to a certain amount of cost," says Nestle's Webster. "But in business, you speculate, don't you? You have to invest in these things and you have to faith in your own ability."

But among those who advocate pitch fees, the motive is rarely a purely financial one; indeed, the prospect of pitching agencies claiming back the full cost of a pitch is scarcely practical.

More important is the goodwill the gesture demonstrates, according to Allen, who says TRO has been paid such fees, but only when it was being asked to pitch for extra business by a company for whom it was already working. "The fee offered seldom covers anything like the time costs involved, but it represents a much-appreciated gesture and indicates that the client is serious and respects the agency," he says.

In a recent column for B2B Marketing magazine, John Stanton of the Association of Business-to-Business Agencies went one step further and suggested doing away with pitches altogether, right across the board, for the benefit of both clients and agencies.

Stanton recommends two possible alternatives: an interactive workshop, in which shortlisted agencies spend an afternoon thrashing out a solution to a pre-agreed brief with the client's involvement; or a more traditional presentation in which agencies answer a dummy brief, which bears no direct relationship to the one which is actually under tender, but which enables them to flex their creative muscles on a neutral issue.

But given that pitches are ultimately the prevailing way in which clients choose to initiate contact with the agency world, their future looks sound.

All event specialists can do is make sure they come out on top.

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