Editor’s note: This is the fourth and final post from our interview with Ken Robinson, co-founder of Ark Advisors, the nation’s #1 ranked expert in helping marketers and procurement executives source agencies (creative, media, digital, direct, PR, SEM, etc.). Having worked on all sides of the industry — as agency CMO, as a marketing decision-maker on the client side, and now as an agency search consultant — Ken knows what it’s like to be in a pitch from all seats at the table. Read the first three posts from our interview with Ken here, here and here.
What are you looking for from agencies during the pitch?
Ken: In the course of the pitch, there are a lot of elements that need to come together for the client to have confidence that the agency team being considered understands their business, listens to directions, is open to feedback and constructive criticism, and is collaborative. All within the compressed timeline (and pressurized confines) of only a few meetings. Though we recognize that this is not the dynamic that will exist once the agency has been hired, we’re doing the best we can to simulate that collaborative working relationship.
When creative is equal, what decides the pitch?
Mark: I want to go back to what you said earlier, that sometimes the end result is you have two different agencies with the same creative. In that scenario, what are some deciding factors that might put one agency over the other? Obviously, it could be chemistry; it could be the team at hand, the folks in the room. Also, have you seen where an agency is kind of coloring outside the lines a little bit to ensure that they’re not going to get the same creative as someone else, is that something that agencies tend to do?
Ken: Well, that is a strategic decision that agencies need to make. Agencies do often try to be “a meeting ahead.” In fact, in a search we managed a few years ago, an agency included some spec video content as part of their credentials presentation. Now, that was an enormous leap considering the agency had never met the client, nor been briefed by the client. They received some background material from us in conversation, but the agency took the initiative to develop a video that was very low cost but really gave you a sense of what they were thinking about. The client ended up running the video that they were shown in the credentials presentation as the campaign launch spot on TV.
It’s a huge risk to be a whole pitch ahead (and we don’t recommend it). But there are agencies that try to differentiate themselves by showing how much work they put into each meeting, their commitment to the business, and their passion for the sector. This often leads them to do different types of things within the context of a search.
Mark: That’s a great story. What about when it’s a jump ball? When there are two remaining agencies, they both came up with winning creative, the same idea, even the same tagline. What are some factors that are going to make the client choose agency A over agency B?
Ken: It’s important for clients to understand that when you’re doing a pitch you’re buying an agency—you’re not buying a campaign. So you do need to consider the other factors (aside from creative). You don’t just buy the agency that gives you the best creative campaign. Often, the CEO will come in at the very end and just judge the campaign creative—which is disappointing because it’s really important to evaluate the entire process of a search.
What the CEO may not know is that the client had to spoon feed ideas to the agency, or the agency called every single day with questions that were either repetitive or not important or were bothersome to the client. Or the agency did a black box and didn’t really engage the clients as part of the process; they just came back with the result. So, when you get to the final presentation, while you’re judging the creative, you’re also really judging the process that led to its creation. And chemistry cannot be underestimated as a powerful factor during a search. If you like someone, you are very willing to forgive their minor failing; if you don’t, then you will not.
When the CEO jumps in at the last minute
Mark: Right. So how often do you see situations where all this great work occurs—from responding to the RFP, to the chemistry meetings, and through the process—and then the CEO steps in at the last minute for the final presentations and makes a call based on creative? As much as your client’s team can provide the backstory to the CEO, it’s still his or her first meeting with the agency. So the CEO will look at the creative and make a gut call on which one he or she prefers. How often does that happen?
Ken: Unfortunately, it does happen. And it can undermine the confidence, enthusiasm, and good will of the team. Now, there are some CEOs that just don’t have the time to participate early in the process, and frankly, may not have the marketing background to contribute meaningfully to earlier stages of the process.
What smart CEOs will do is say, “I would like to attend the final presentation, but I won’t vote. I’m not the one that will be working with this agency day to day, so I just want to observe.” There are other times that a CEO will say, “I like agency A, but you guys will be working with them day to day, so you make the decision.” That puts a bit of pressure on the marketing team because the marketing team has to think, “Okay. Do we disagree with the CEO and go with agency B?” And if there’s a problem, the CEO could say, “I told you we should’ve gone with agency A.” Or, does the marketing team choose agency A, even though they weren’t their number one choice, just because the CEO is happy with them, which kind of covers their behind?
It depends on how much autonomy the marketing team feels that they have. And sometimes how much passion they have for their decision. Some marketing teams will roll over and say, “Okay. Let’s just go with what the CEO wants.” Others will say to the CEO, “We know you like A; we really like B and here’s why.” Part of our job in a search is to explain to the CEO or the board of directors, or anybody else who might be coming at the very end, that we are judging a process and we’re choosing a team. And it’s very hard for you just to come in for the show at the end; you need to have been involved in the process all the way through to really make an informed decision.
Mark: Right. So, in that scenario where the board of directors and the CEO just attend the final meeting in a pitch, creative can win or lose that. You may have an agency that just killed it all along: the process, chemistry, and strategy. That agency may be relatively secure in thinking, “It's a no-brainer, we’re going to win this thing.” And then, someone who hasn’t been part of the process comes in, looks at the final creative and says, “I don’t like it,” and goes with agency B, which may not have been as buttoned up or on target throughout the process.
“I like this one best.”
Ken: So, that being said, keep in mind that creative can win or lose a pitch. But also, creative is an entirely subjective thing. You could have two people who see a piece of creative and have very different reactions. There is a difference between liking creative and having creative that is designed to appeal to your targeted audiences and elicit a systemic response.
So it's challenging to talk about “liking” creative—often it's a very hard decision because it's part of a process. There are workshops involved and clients that are providing feedback. So when we get to the end of the process, there are a few agencies—any of which could do the business for you, if we’re doing our job right—and their campaigns should all be able to work because they have been getting direction and feedback from the client throughout the process of the pitch, both on strategy and creative. So it should be a really hard decision at the end, and it's not always obvious.
Other factors that influence the search
Mark: So, for other factors that may give a winning agency the nod, how often does industry expertise come into play, or geography, or other factors? For example, I read that Walmart excluded a lot of East Coast agencies because they wanted people who drove to work in their cars every morning to be a part of the winning agency. How often do factors like these come into play?
Ken: Well these factors come in at the very beginning of a search. These are the types of things we discuss with the client. Do they have a geographic preference? How often do they need to see the agency face-to-face? If they see the agency twice a year, it's probably not necessary to have them in the same city. Sometimes clients will say, “We want them in our time zone.” Other clients might say, “We don’t care where in the country they are.”
Some will say, “We are looking for the best talent,” which is terrific. Some clients are much more limited by time, so they may need an agency that is on the East Coast because the time difference is too big between Europe and the West Coast. So there are some operational factors, and also the potential of spending a tremendous amount of money on travel expenses for agencies that they have to fly in on a six-hour flight and put them up in hotels every time they come to make a presentation.
As far as having experience within the sector, it's helpful generally. Some agencies will say, “We don’t have experience in automotive, and that’s really a good thing,” and frankly, sometimes that is the case for clients, but usually it's not. Usually, clients want to have some confidence that the agency understands the language of their business, the players, the influencers, the media, and the calendars. When are the trade shows? Which influencers are key? Those types of things are often really important to a client because they don’t want to necessarily spend the time and money teaching an agency their business.
On the other hand, agencies are very good at learning businesses quickly. That’s what they do for a living. So there is an argument to be made that top agencies can ramp up quickly—they know how to ramp up in any sector, they know how to understand the management of a piece of business within the sector. They learn the language, they read the vertical publications, and they can do this quickly because that’s really the business they're in. So it depends on the confidence that a client has in working with an agency outside of their category.
Also, keep in mind that some sectors—like financial services, liquor, and telecom—are highly regulated. So it's really important that an agency understands the regulations so that they can develop creative and pitch within those regulations. That’s where the hazards come in of having an agency that does not have experience working in their sector. They may come up with a great campaign, and the client would say, “Yeah, that’s really compelling. It's really beautiful. We could never run it. We would never get it through legal compliance.” So that’s a waste of time and energy.
Mark: Okay, great point. So, do you ever experience situations where clients want the champagne taste with a beer budget? Like they want to have one of those agencies that we can’t open AdAge or AdWeek without seeing their latest work or seeing them mentioned on the front page? Does that often come into play where the agencies they want are inconsistent with their budget, and then you have to persuade them to go from some of those big name agencies to those that are more the right size for their budget?
Agency heavy-hitters, client budget, and “the A Team”
Ken: Price is not always a primary factor in right-sizing the agency to the client because there are some clients that work in sectors that are highly desirable to agencies. We had a client that was in one of the top three industries that agencies all want to work in and we had one of the world's best-known agencies say, “We want to pitch the business, even though the revenue is at 10% of what we would normally pitch for,” because they really wanted experience in that sector.
A concern in this type of situation is that you may not get an agency's top leadership talent on an account with small billings, because top talent costs top dollar. Clients will often say, “We want the A Team.” But what they don't understand is that some of the world's best agencies, meaning the most sought after agencies, are talent magnets in the industry, which means that their B Teams are often more talented than the A Teams at other agencies.
So, the focus should really be on the team that would actually work on the account. Even within an overall agency organization, you're likely only working with a small group of key people. Rather than comparing overall agency to agency, you should really compare team to team.
Size is a factor; clients don't want to be the largest account at an agency, they also don't want to be the smallest. So, it's finding a nice balance in the middle. Like Goldilocks.
Big impact or big preparation?
Mark: All right, that’s solid insight. Is there a trend that you're seeing agencies do to make an impactful impression upon the client or is it mostly back to the fundamentals of just being buttoned up, and having good chemistry all the way through?
Ken: There used to be a time when agencies went out of their way to be incredibly dramatic. They would dress the conference room to look like a McDonald's franchise, or they would do enormous dramatic stunts like hiring actors to role play. Like David Ogilvy said, “If you have nothing to say, sing it.” Agencies should spend less time planning these big stunts and focus more time and attention on doing their homework and honing their strategy.
I think agencies have since recognized—to their benefit—that accountability and strategy and insight are much more important than a dramatic stunt as part of their pitch. So, they have pulled back and refocused their energy and attention on preparing for a meeting with insights, which is a much better use of their time.
Don’t miss our next post!
If you haven’t already read the other posts from our interview with Ken Robinson, what are you waiting for? Get valuable insight into factors you may be overlooking when you enter the pitch process...or find out why you can’t get into the room in the first place.
Read the first three posts in this series:
- Pitching Insights for Small to Mid-Sized Agencies
- How Media Agencies Botch Their Pitches (Insider Insight)
- A Fair Approach to Spec Creative for Agency Pitches