Stop the PR pitch madness, part II…the nine point plan

So the post on Tuesday stirred up a neat little discussion. I was thinking that while it's obviously easy to sit back and say what might be broken with a process, it's also important to propose an alternative. So I thought I'd play client for half an hour, and try and work out how I'd go about selecting an agency in my perfect little theoretical world (though – and despite my flippant remark – you could do worse than read Gabbi's summary of the Winning Without Pitching Manifesto in the comments).

First off, for me to say that pitches should be banned was, of course, rather provocative. But I've found that being a bit provocative can be what encourages people to contribute… We need some way to sell ourselves, whether it's called a pitch or not. My issue is with what agencies are asked to pitch.

So, here we go. I'm a PR manager looking for a new agency. First off, I do my own research – speak to a few peers, perhaps, or journalists, contact an industry association, surf the web…you know the sort of thing. I reckon I should be able to narrow down a list of four that I'm going to ask to meet. Let's get in touch.

Hi,

I'm the PR manager of Les Chapelles Holidays, and I'm looking for a new PR agency. I've drawn up a shortlist of four agencies and you're company is one of them. As such, I'd like to meet.  This is what I'd like to propose:

1. I'll come to you if that's OK? I'd like to see your offices.

2. I'm only planning on meeting each agency once in the selection process, but would like a three hour meeting in the afternoon (the reasons for which will become clear a little later).

3. I'm presuming you'll do your research, so you'll be able find out lots about our business from our website, coverage search, social media analysis, etc etc. If you have any specific questions, however, feel free to drop me a line.

4. I'm not giving you a brief, because I'm not asking you to pitch me creative ideas and a communications strategy. I'm a forward-thinking guy, and (a) don't believe that you'll be able to get under our skin enough in the next fortnight to develop a decent strategy or associated tactics and (b) I respect that your strategic nouse and creativity are valuable, and I should really be paying for them.

5. When I come in, I'd like to meet the team of people that you would foresee working on the account. I think you'll be able to assess who those people might be from your research on our business, and our budget is currently about £10k a month, so I reckon I'll be meeting four or five people (and if there's more than one director in the room, I'll smell a rat). It'd be great if each of them could give me a five-minute precis of their experience, role and the piece of work of which they're most proud. I'd also like to know their favourite band and cocktail of choice.

6. I'd like you to present comprehensive agency credentials. Agency history, client base, key areas of expertise and anything else you feel would be relevant. I'd also like to see three case studies of work you've done for clients that you think are relevant to our business area. I'd expect these to include the business challenge, strategy you developed, tactics you implemented and the results generated. I'd also like the people in the room to have worked on the case studies, because I might have questions.

7. I'm going to test you guys out with an exercise that will take about an hour. It'll be challenging but fun, and will give me the chance to see how you guys work together (and with me).

8. I'd like to take contact details for three client references away with me.

9. After we've had the meeting, can we go to the pub for an hour or so? I'm buying.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Mark

Now, I'm sure I've missed a few things out – and would welcome suggestions for additions and tweaks – but how refreshing an email would that be to get? I think every agency contacted would be keen to win the business, I know I would. And I think I'll have gathered enough information about the agencies' expertise, resources, people, passion and abilities to make a decision.

Or am I wrong?
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23 thoughts on “Stop the PR pitch madness, part II…the nine point plan

  1. Drew B says:

    Nice. I say you should head client side 🙂

  2. Refreshing? Understatement!

    I think this approach works (and can work) in many areas of PR, especially with journalists. Yes, there are many who appreciate it if you cut the cr@p, get to the nitty gritty and level with them, rather than lead them a merry dance etc.

    And, as we’re interacting with consumers more than ever, even in B2B world (thanks to Twitter etc), they too appreciate a no-nonsense approach.

    Let’s save the fancy dressing for our salads and start a ‘cut the cr@p’ campaign in PR. 🙂

  3. Luke says:

    It would be jolly nice to receive this. I like the ‘fear of God’ element of the 7th point, but the 9th is definitely my favourite. The best friendships are forged over a pint – why not a professional relationship..?

    Can’t help but think an ‘industry’ discussion should be factored in. I’d like to know what the prospective agency thought about the world I lived in. So I guess you could ask – what are the issues facing vineyards in Charente-Maritime? Or – who’s the best DJ in Charente-Maritime? That sort of thing. Course a simple bit of research could tell an agency of note the answers – but in a pitch I’d like to get to know an agency that really know their grapes from their grapefruits, if you know what I mean. So maybe you should hint – “we’ll be talking about Charente – Maritime” – but leave the specifics for the meeting.

    Crikey – it’s all sounding a bit too much like an awful exam isn’t it…?

    *reconsiders career*

    For the record my favourite band are the Stills and cocktail of choice is a Dawa.

    • Mark says:

      Good thinking Luke, an industry discussion would be a great addition.

      I also thought about another point to add in…something like this:

      6.5 The first month’s work (and retainer) will be devoted to planning: devising a robust strategy, developing messaging and positioning, creating tactics and activities, agreeing campaign measurement. If you have a methodology for getting to these I’d love to hear it, otherwise, run me through the process you’d put in place to get us there.

      Dawa sounds lush by the way…don’t really know The Stills (but that’s the cutting edge of knowledge I’m looking for).

  4. Luke says:

    11 – When we finally get to review time I’m not going to want to know what the EAV is. After all advertising isn’t worth so much anymore. I’m open to paying for a new way of evaluating coverage if you can show me how it works..

    Wouldn’t that be nice.

    Dawas are lethal – couldn’t recommend them enough.

  5. Bezza says:

    Lovely stuff, but how often does a client PR Manager have such autonomy? Where’s the Marketing head, Sales Director and MD who all will want to be involved? Pitches are not always about selecting the right agency – they can also be about making sure political boxes are ticked.

  6. Mark says:

    Of course Bezza, you’re right. But if I were a PR Manager I’d like to think I’d fight for my right to select an agency in the way in which I thought was most effective. Other interested parties could, of course, come along to the meeting and be involved in the decision-making, but I’d own the process. And, in fact, the email could have come from the head of marketing if, for instance, the PR lead is more junior. I think it’s more about the philosophy of what you ask the agency to pitch and what you need to know as a client to make a decision.

  7. Countryboy says:

    That process makes lots of sense and is the absolute ideal. The question that remains in reality is investment in PR from a client perspective. That process is perfect for someone with lots of experience in PR, or in other words a company that can afford someone like that. For example, there are hundreds of consumer agencies out there, many very small, fighting for 2k or 3k per month clients. Now, those clients more often than not will have someone much less experienced than you managing the process, someone who can only choose an agency based on ideas for their business, and also the only way they can sell internally. It really is a very fundamental problem. Many internal PRs are utterly hopeless and don’t understand what PR is. I still hear many times of clients asking to approve an article before it is published in a national newspaper! Perhaps we can tweak this ideal process for these kinds of scenarios?

  8. Matt says:

    All good. I’ve just been involved in a pitch which ended up not far from what you described, but of course took three stages to get there. Fact is, this works until and/or unless (as Bezza says) too many stakeholders have a piece of the decision. Procurement, for example. Procurement-led pitches are a nightmare. They get off on seeing agencies leaping through flaming hoops, naked, into vats of excrement … sorry, I’m losing it, but you know what I mean. And the stupid thing is procurement will NEVER stop the PR/marketing folk selecting their agency of choice. They will just make it as awkward as possible. Effing jobsworths, the lot of them.

    • SimonM says:

      Please don’t get me started on Procurement.

      When I was in-house at a well-known mobile phone operator, I was trying to hire a local agency to handle some work for us in Scotland (where all the call centres are based, etc.). I knew exactly who I wanted to hire and had already figured their costs into my annual budget.

      Then I was told I had to go via Procurement to get the relevant Cost Centre Code and PO number.

      For the squeamish I will leave out all the awful details, suffice to say that no PR agencies were hurt in the process, but I, the Corporate Comms Manager, was severely traumatised.

      I left the company 7 months later and I was still no closer to actually hiring the agency.

      Procurement should stick to buying paper clips and keeping the snack machine fully stocked.

  9. Chris Wright says:

    I don’t know any pubs which serve Dawas. Must be in the wrong business?

    Got me thinking about the parallels with the Conservation Building world though.

    1. When I’m contacted by the ever-so slightly over-the-hill PR manager who has just bought his country house “ripe for refurbishment”, I have to work out on the phone whether he’s after our advice and ideas (in which case he receives a letter with our terms and conditions for a consultancy visit/report) or he wants our company to do the hard physical work, in which case we arrange a meeting on site.

    2. Seeing what you’re up against and assessing if you have the skills and time to do it properly is the next step. It’s at this stage that you can usually tell if you are going to get on with the homeowner/PR manager – their previous track record with old houses is relevant. Words like “gut it, rip it out, more light, renovation, our last builders were cowboys etc” are countered with “have you ever considered attending a training course – Care and Repair of Old Houses?”

    3. Money is the next hurdle. Little old ladies rarely read the reports/estimates/contingencies/terms and conditions etc, but always pay on time. PR manager-types read everything. If they ask questions, then great. If they pretend to understand what a dubbing coat is (when it’s pretty obvious they would rather wear one) and don’t ask questions, warning bells ring. This where all that setting expectations stuff comes in.

    4. I’ve always found references a dodgy area. Whenever someone rings me up about an ex-employee they are considering hiring, my default setting is to say nice things about them. Sometimes I’ll let slip a slight concern and then feel guilty about it later. Only very rarely do I get the chance to say “oh no, he’s a complete tosser and will ruin everything he touches”. We drag ALL our clients on a tour of previous works, so they can meet clients and see what they will be paying for. This is where we include the other stakeholders – usually wife, husband or partner, but occasionally kids as well. If they go away smiling, then high-ho, high-ho, it’s off to work we go.

    5. If we’ve done the above correctly, whenever new things do occur or we make mistakes, they can be resolved immediately and we all live happily ever after. We might even go for a warm beer.

    I guess you have to find out what works for you and stick to it rigorously through peaks and troughs.

    By the way, are there more PR agencies than daddy-long legs around this year?

  10. Countryboy says:

    Procurement people really only want to be lawyers… which makes them VERY ANGRY. Their favourite film is A Few Good Men. “you want the truth, you can’t handle the truth… son we live in a world that has reputation, and that has to be guarded by people with press releases, who’s gonna do it, you, you Lutenant Weinburg… I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom… I have neither the time or the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very protection I provide and then questions the way in which I provide it… I’d rather you just said thank you and went on your way… etc, etc”

  11. David Brain says:

    I hope and pray that you one day become a client

  12. Countryboy says:

    This week’s PR Week reports that Vuzix, a relatively unknown video eyewear company, had a 5-way pitch for its PR. I happen to know that the budget was naff-all (no more than 2.5k pm I reckon), that the in-house PR person had little or no experience and at least one of the agencies that gave ideas never even heard back from them. Nice.

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  15. […] a great response from Kelly Davies at Confused.com (quoted below). Mark has a follow up post here and Clive Armitage weighs in on the issue here. My two cents? Hiring the right PR firm is […]

  16. […] out there in the internet, the discussion raged and I came across this. It’s a nine-point plan for a client approaching an agency, aimed at making the agency […]

  17. Louisa says:

    How wonderful to receive such an email! Something like that would show that the client knows what they want! I like.

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