For all the criticism levied at clients for being transactional, noted search consultant Lisa Colantuono says it’s agencies that are compromising themselves by approaching the pitch process transactionally.
So far this year, Colantuono, president of AAR Partners, has conducted 11 agency reviews (twice the average) and fielded requests for 22 more. Clients’ most common reason for reviews is now a feeling that “my agency doesn’t worry about my business the way I do,” she told a gathering of independent agency owners at this week’s Americas Summit in Denver for Worldwide Partners, the independent agency network whose membership has swelled to more than 70 agencies in 40 countries.
Agencies keep prioritizing the work when it’s the “intensity of trust” that determines whether they get and keep clients, Colantuono said. And they oversell the agency when it’s the quality of relationship established that determines who wins.
“You can’t win two battles in one pitch,” she said. “Stop trying to sell your agency and build relationship at same time. Focus on the relationship.”
Focusing on relationships means changing several key tenets of agency pitching, starting with prioritizing the client people over the current pitch. Increasingly, clients end up torn between two agencies at the end of a formal pitch, said Colantuono. One agency won a tiebreaker by sending a thank you video after the final presentation. Another kept in touch with the CMO for a year after coming in second, and when the winning agency faltered, the CMO overrode his search committee and gave the account directly to them.
“Keep in mind there are other projects down the road,” said Colantuono. “This may be the client’s current RFP, but it’s only one of many things they need to accomplish.”
In the pitch itself, she said, agencies unwittingly subvert relationship building by emphasizing hired guns and promising big teams they don’t have at the ready. “With hired guns, clients feel like they’re not really hiring the agency, and they’re afraid the stars won’t listen,” she said. “With teams, agencies really need to show the current leadership team and show how they build teams.”
Importantly, account leads need to run pitch meetings to establish leadership and relationship with clients. This includes avoiding concept overkill by making a clear recommendation instead of showing all the things the agency could do creatively.
“This year, clients do not select agencies based on creative,” said Colantuono. “Clients do not select agencies based on a team or based on dollars. They select agencies based on the combination of everything. And does that agency truly understand my business and operations? That’s the source of deep relationships that endure.”
Worldwide Partners summits bring together independent agencies that are partners in the global network. The meetings are designed to highlight one of the principal values of the organization – collaboration and feedback on the pressing issues and opportunities reshaping agencies.
Colantuono’s address kicked off the first in-person summit Worldwide Partners has held since October 2019. Worldwide added six partners in the past 12 months and is on pace to grow 20% this year. Because it brings together specialists across disciplines and geographies, the network increasingly fields inquiries from clients looking for bespoke agency solutions.
I agree with Lisa. Clientts are evaluating agencies based on capability and chemistry. This is a relationship business. I ask people: if you were locked in an escape room, who would you trust to get you out.
In other words you can do shitty work as long as you kiss the clients arse.
The basic problem is that most agencies have lots of generally capable account handlers, "creatives", media and research people but very few stars. So it's not feasible for most clients to have stars working full time on their business and bond with them in "relationships"---there aren't that many stars to go around. The, alternative---developing stars who work on the client's business full time---takes time---if it even works---and most clients are unwilling to pay for that level of depth or service. So you get what you pay for.
That's not at all what she said. In fact, it was quite the opposite: That a deep understanding of the client's business is perceived (rightfully so, IMHO) as a promise/driver of even better work to come.