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Don’t be seduced by the dark side of the beauty parade

It’s almost an obligatory comment in digital agencies. “Yeah I love a pitch, gets the adrenaline going”. Any other response to the question of pitching marks you as a cowardly weakling who can’t cut it. There are also a lot of gurus out there who write articles about how to smash a client pitch and clinch the business from your competitors, thus guaranteeing your agency success for the next few months. There are rather less articles about changing this paradigm and encouraging brands and agencies to do the whole thing differently.

The truth is that only salespeople like pitches. Creatives and strategists loathe them. And that’s all about a broken process that doesn’t allow them to give the client true value.

Imagine trying to make any other purchasing decision this way. You want to buy a car, so you email your local dealer saying “It must have 4 wheels. Oh and a steering wheel. Mirrors are also desirable” You wouldn’t do it, you’d realise immediately that you’re stating the flaming obvious and telling the expert things they already know. And yet that’s exactly the sort of banal detail that most website pitch briefs contain. Ask yourself, have you ever written “must have a clean, fresh design” in a brief. I’ve seen it in at least 80% of briefs but, in 15 years in the industry, I’ve never met a designer who thought “I must consider a cluttered, outdated design for this one”.

What you’re more likely to do in our car dealer scenario is go to their showroom, have a look around and talk to them. You’d find yourself describing not what you want the car to have but what your life is like e.g. “I have 3 kids I need to ferry around”. You’re describing problems and letting the expert interpret the solutions. In doing so, you not only avail yourself of better insight into the correct choice of product, you are also able to gauge who to buy from. You get a sense of who is trying to push a certain model at you, who isn’t really interested in giving you their full attention, who is going to give you the best aftercare. Only after doing all this and gleaning all this information do you create a shortlist of both product and vendor.

Selecting a digital agency has far more opportunity to do this research than our car scenario. No one gets to talk to the car’s designer or the guy who bolted it all together (a robot probably did it). But when you’re commissioning an agency you can access the people who create the strategy of why that agency works in the way it does, you can find out what inspires the creative team (and whether that has any relevance to your brand) and even talk to the people who are going to craft the finished product. This is ultimately your process as the client, ask to meet the people you want to meet rather than being fobbed off by a layer of client services people who can’t tell you want you need to know.

The thing you need to remember is, they want to talk to you too! Strategists need data to benchmark their ideas, creatives know that brand isn’t a set of guidelines, it’s about how the people in that business speak and act every day. Exposure to this is what stimulates the creative mind. Don’t hide behind that briefing document until the agency’s concepts are set in stone. Take the time to hold a pre-briefing meeting, get your shortlisted people in a room and give them context. Plus it’s fun, agencies love virtual bragging but are much less comfortable being competitive in person, watch them squirm!

Overcoming the “V” and “B” words

Early on in every pitch a salesperson or account manager will tentatively say these words to you “and are you expecting to see some visuals of the ideas?” And you will reply yes, because that seems like the easiest way of overcoming any communication barrier, if you all have something to look at together.

Stop. Challenge that desire. Think again.

Before you blithely agree to having the tens if not hundreds of hours spent on producing an array of fully-designed concepts, ask yourself why this is valuable. The more clients who demand this done – for free – the more agencies are putting their rates up to compensate for the lost hours on the unsuccessful pitches.

You can either perpetuate that vicious circle or you can direct the agency to deliver their ideas in whatever format they believe demonstrates the idea. I guarantee you that when they  come to price your project you’ll get a better deal for allowing that freedom.

Of course this does put the onus back on you the client to have a process by which you can still effectively benchmark each pitch, but if that saves you 10% of your project fee then it’s probably time well spent. If you need a little help to ensure that’s effective, that’s something we can help you with.

The B word is budget. I’ll keep this bit simple. Tell them a budget. It doesn’t mean you can’t change the budget later, they can change their scope of work to fit. But if you haven’t set this key metric from the very outset then you are just wasting everyone’s time. Every agency costs differently, getting to the heart of where the money is going is hard enough already. If the overall budget every shortlisted agency is working to is also different then you are making it very hard to judge value.

Determining a new process

There’s a really interesting parallel between how we commission creative work and how we recruit staff. Ten years ago recruitment was handled much like a pitch. You wrote a job spec describing the skills rather the person (most still do), sent that out, had a non-expert recruiter filter those CVs into a shortlist, arranged for people arrive in your office for a skills interview and then let them tell you why they thought they could do the job. These days smart employers take a more holistic view, it’s as much about the person and how they fit your culture than it’s necessarily about the software packages they know. Brands have realised what can be taught and what cannot. When a CV arrives you check that person’s social media persona, have they been recommended much on LinkedIn? Does their Twitter feed suggest they care more about Pokemon Go than about their career? You also consider what you have to offer them. Are you paying above market rate for this role? If not, what else can you offer them? If you are a truly lovely place to work, how are you going to make them realise that’s genuine when all your competitors will make the same claim?

Choosing the right agency requires the same care and attention, all these same models apply. We can distil this thinking down into some key questions to consider and issues you need to be posing in your brief:

Do they understand our challenges?

Are you getting a truly bespoke solution? It doesn’t necessarily mean you need a high degree of customisation and therefore cost. It means you need to know that they have thought about the right solution for you, rather than fitted you to a “package” or a generic standard offering. What that requires is for you to have explained your business and those challenges fully and in your own words.

Is their “product” the right one for me?

In other words, is their suggestion of content management system (CMS) the right one? What marketing channels do they recommend (and are they offering that recommendation impartially or to suit their own skillset)? Are they pushing an app solution over a responsive website for the same reason? As the client you’ve got to make sure you explore this carefully even though you”ll undoubtedly be a little outside your comfort zone with some of the technicalities.

What’s the cultural fit like?

We all work differently. Are you a time poor business owner trying to run your marketing alongside a hundred other things? That’s ok, it’s normal! But be honest about that and ask how they can make a success of this project given that challenge. Likewise, if you have people in-house with strong marketing skills, how are those egos on both sides going to work together positively?  These are the the realities that affect the success of an agency relationship. You may also have other resource you want to use, you need to make it clear in your briefing if there is anything you want to handle for yourself that doesn’t need to be costed for.

What do we have to offer them?

This is probably most important of all. It is partly about benchmarking your spend, you should find out if you’re going to be a “Top 5” client on that agency’s roster of accounts or if you’re punching above your weight in selecting a big agency where you might be placing more emphasis on product rather than service. But if we’re being holistic about selection then this is not just about “my cash in return for your services”. Are you a business who proactively recommends good suppliers to others? Are you a brand that has kudos for a particular agency? If so make it clear if you are happy to have your work entered for awards, used as a case study or even just supply a testimonial.

You might be the client, but if you’re prepared to sell yourself a little to the supplier then it suggests you see this as a genuine partnership where you expect value and offer it in return.

I guarantee that will give you competitive advantage in getting a great service from your agency. The old adage about “people buy from people” works in reverse. People also choose, based on people, whose business they really want to win – and price accordingly.

In summary

The traditional “creative pitch” process is becoming an out-dated, ineffective model for selecting a web development or digital marketing agency. There are so many success factors which are not visual. If you encumber the agency response format with an insistence to focus on look and feel then a shiny bauble is all you’ll end up with. Allow the experts to be expert, present their recommendations as they wish and keep your focus on explaining your business and its challenges, as well as considering how to ensure you get a great service as well as a great product.


At Agency Interface we help brands work effectively with digital agencies.

We do this by helping our clients understand the fundamentals of modern digital web design and marketing and helping them work with the creative community who can make it happen. Our success is measured in the time and money that our clients save in getting the right people doing the right work and taking away guesswork, frustration, miscommunication and wasted time. Chat to us today to find out more about how we can help your brand.