It’s time to review agency reviews, says Atomic 212° CEO Claire Fenner. Instead of focusing on creative responses to briefs that will never see the light of day, marketers need to look at the people and process engines that will drive business growth. Forget the paint job, get under the hood and ask these three key questions.

What you need to know:

  • The weighting of campaign briefs in media pitches needs a major overhaul.
  • Responding to campaign briefs with creativity and innovation is fun, but it doesn’t showcase the important stuff, the agency’s underlying processes and culture.
  • Short-term campaign results result in stop-start growth – long term gains and MROI require solid process wins over innovation.
  • Which is why it’s time to review agency reviews – and marketers should be asking three key questions.

The pitch process can be both a maddening and thrilling opportunity to showcase and showboat, but it occurs to me that we’re often having the wrong conversations when it comes to the pitch.

Rather than admire the paint job, pitching should be all about what’s under the agency hood.

Pitches should be about a whole business, not about an idea

When responding to a brief, media agencies can be at our most creative – because creative ideas get the client excited and win hearts and minds.

But how much does this reflect the reality of what the working relationship is going to look like on the daily? There’s probably a better way to assess long term fit.

Pitching takes a lot of time and energy – and on average you lose a lot more pitches than you win. But we continue to engage in them because it offers an opportunity to establish what both sides hope will be a long and fruitful business relationship. And you learn from every pitch.

But where people tend to focus on the ‘fruitful’ part, ‘long’ is just as important.

A successful pitch can lead to a deal that will span years. And let’s be realistic, the majority of any business’ time is not spent in the throes of creativity, it’s in the grind – following process.

It may not be exotic but that’s what drives results.

So, really, a pitch should focus on the fundamentals of how an agency works; what confidence do they have in achieving their business results and how have they forecasted this; how robust is their process and how will it be applied to solve different business challenges.

There is value in demonstrating the way an agency works through responding to a brief, but all too often the specifics of the recommendations, tactics and ideas distract from the underlying process, which is what will determine the ongoing fit of the agency and client. 

Let’s talk real process, even – and especially – for fake briefs

Pitching takes time – there’s no getting around that, because a worthwhile pitch requires a tonne of work.

Plus, the lengthy nature of the pitch means the campaign brief is often a dummy brief, or one that is already going to market. Which means the agency’s plan will never see the light of day.

I don’t see that as an issue in itself, but I take issue with how much emphasis is heaped upon the output for a single campaign, rather than the underlying process that will determine how replicable the quality of work is.

Given a dummy pitch is not going to solve a pressing concern, and everyone appreciates the process will be time consuming, why not ask different questions?

The only real question to ask during a pitch is: How will this agency’s process uncover the right solutions for my business? Marketers should be looking for a process that will determine the most effective media strategy and tactics for their business. Every time, not just in response to one specific brief.

An agency’s process, like the one James Dixon and I outline in our Effective Media book, should involve testing and experimentation to uncover what will work for a client’s business.

Knowing that an agency will base recommendations for each campaign on data-driven insights specific to a client’s business should be more reassuring than seeing that an agency came up with a good idea for one campaign in a pitch environment.

Value trumps cost

With the focus of pitch briefs too often missing the mark, once an agency’s output has been evaluated, it usually comes down to money.

Rather than just selecting the cheapest option, increasingly this is becoming a negotiation with the preferred agency to get the cost down to where the client needs them to be. But rarely is there value or a premium assigned to the stronger agency. 

When a client sees an agency who has the right process, people and approach, they shouldn’t expect a bargain – they should be willing to pay for the service and benefit delivered.

The value for a client’s business when a process is successful and effective far outweighs the risk to their business if their media investment is not managed well – the risk being that they forgo significant upside or, even worse, watch sales slide.

But this shouldn’t be a one-sided approach. An agency’s confidence in their process and how successfully they can consistently drive their client’s business results is best tested with a willingness to put skin in the game. And ‘skin in the game’ means against critical business metrics, not softer marketing or media metrics. I.e. part of the fee should be tied to driving growth.

It’s time to review reviews

The media agency pitch process has developed bad habits. The weighting of campaign brief versus process credentials deserves a review.  Too much focus on the brief overshadows the appraisal of process and long-term return on media.

If I was a marketer, here’s how I would score media agencies:

Process: Will the process work with client systems, people, and product?

People: Will the people presenting deliver on the process?

Campaign response: How will the process and the people deliver on a typical brief?

I am proposing a rethink of weighting and scoring. The paint job may be shiny, but it’s the engine that drives businesses forward.

Article originally published on Mi3