Game, set and match: Avoiding a balls-up when running a new agency pitch process

Game, set and match: Avoiding a balls-up when running a new agency pitch process

Claire Walker

Claire Walker

Wimbledon may be over and done, but while the sun is shining, tennis – followed by strawberries and cream, of course – is always on my to-do list. And it often makes me think that choosing an agency and running a pitch process can be a bit like a game of tennis. In short, sweaty and exhausting but thoroughly rewarding when it’s done right.

I joke, but it’s not easy on either party. And sometimes you’ve won or lost before you even get on the court; the wrong choice of opponent (or wrong shortlist of agencies) or playing on clay when you’re used to grass – inviting an SEO agency when you need a social media firm – can cause you no end of headaches for the rest of the contract period.

So, with that in mind, dust off the old tennis whites, re-string that racquet sitting in your cupboard and join me as we run through how to get the most from the pitching process – and avoid your boss uttering the infamous line “you cannot be serious!”

Before the game

The other day I played tennis with my sister, Helen, for the first time in months, but I know that we’re about the same standard. In the same way, picking the right longlist and shortlist of agencies is important – and if you haven’t played before, get a coach. There are plenty of freelance senior PR advisors who are familiar with the agency landscape and can help you find the right agency to fit you.

This is a crucial first step; working with a small, boutique agency can be very different from working with a vast multinational, full-service agency, and there are pros and cons for each. Similarly, marketing is a vast, sprawling discipline these days, so you may not be sure whether you need a ‘traditional’ (i.e. media relations) PR agency, an SEO agency or an influencer relations agency – but when you only have the budget for one of them, the temptation is to invite all three to pitch.

This ‘mixed doubles’ approach towards selecting an agency isn’t necessarily a mistake, but it’s something you should walk into with your eyes open. Different agency types have very different styles of responding to a brief, so you should be firm in specifying how you want them to respond if you’re to avoid comparing apples with oranges and giving yourself a huge headache.

It’s all in the opening serve…

Playing against a ball machine always seems like a bit of a novelty, but after a while you’ll find yourself craving a human opponent, however much they may grunt (sorry Helen, but it’s true). In the same way, during the first stage of agency selection, do a lot of it in person or over video calls.

Many of our contemporaries have made less flattering comparisons for the initial stages of the pitch process, saying that you wouldn’t marry someone after just two dates, and without having met them – and this is totally fair. You’ll be working in close proximity with this agency for (hopefully) a number of months and years, so you need to understand that their vision and energy matches yours, that they understand your company and have good experience in the space – and that you think you could work well together. Doing this face-to-face is much easier and more effective than doing it over email.

… and the final smash

The most important thing in securing the right agency partner for you, whether it’s in a phone call or during a face-to-face briefing session, is being clear about what you want to get from the relationship. Imagine the final smash that wins the match – or even a post-game review where you’re assessing the project in a year’s time. What was successful about the campaign? What did the agency achieve? What made your boss crack open the bubbly in celebration? Play this back within the brief and you’ll be onto a winner.

However, the other important component is that the resources you provide (i.e. the budget) must match your requirements. I think most people would confess to having champagne taste and a beer budget – but this rarely works professionally! If communications and marketing are vital to your organisation, then the leadership team must provide realistic resources for this – or compromise. You wouldn’t expect Rafael Nadal to come onto court with a second-hand racquet, trainers falling apart, having forgotten to train for the last fortnight – he needs the best equipment and training to stay number one.

There you have it – a few more tips on how to get the most from your agency selection process. It’s something we’ve written on quite a lot, so if you want further guidance, please don’t hesitate to contact me, or to read some of our previous pieces. It can be a tough process, but by following these steps, you can court the right agency and ace your marketing plan!

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