Media roundtable: Switching up the pitching

Does an agency need to be everything to every client – and whether or not some have the luxury of saying no.


Over the years, agencies have shifted their dollars and invested in new tools, data and talent in an effort to blow past the status quo and end every pitch with their competitors eating their dust.

But sometimes clients just want to know one thing: who will get them the best rates?

Those at the latest MiC roundtable have been through the thick of it, striving to improve on their offerings only to be beat out based on rates. In the final part of the roundtable, they share how they’re balancing the need to build their client base with their efforts to maintain a selective and sophisticated reputation. Together, they debate: does an agency need to be everything to every client, or do some not have the luxury of passing on an opportunity?

Partaking in the discussion were Cossette Media GM and SVP Brooke Leland, General Mills VP of marketing Emma Eriksson, Tourism Toronto CMO and EVP Jon Mamela, Touché! CEO Karine Courtemanche, Initiative president Helen Galanis and Kinetic Worldwide owner and CEO Kevin McDonald.

Moderating the discussion were Media in Canada‘s Bree Rody and strategy‘s Mary Maddever. Also present were strategy associate publisher Lisa Faktor, The Globe and Mail managing director of client partnerships Penny Hicks, The Globe and Mail CRO Andrew Saunders and Media in Canada staff writer Kristyn Anthony.

Read part one and part two here.

Responses have been condensed for clarity and length.

Rody: Really, after all this how do you clients actually distinguish when selecting an AOR? Does it come down to them taking you by the hand and showing you something new? Do they do something really special?

Galanis: Every pitch is different and every client will answer this question in a slightly different way. Not to disparage the pitch process, but you’re picking the narrative based on what you think the client wants to see. One thing we’ve done in the last two years that we couldn’t afford to do in the first year of my tenure in this role was to be true to who we are and not pitch everything. We’re not the only strategy-led agency, even at the table, but some agencies are more trade-based, and that’s okay. We’d pitch those accounts at first, but the truth is, that’s not the best fit for Initiative. We’re more true to that now, and we can afford that luxury right now. Maybe we won’t be able to afford it forever. Yes, we are playing up certain aspects of our business for some clients more than others, but there still needs to be some genuine integrity there. I think as an industry, there’s been some overselling, some “What do you want to hear?” But those relationships never work, and they’re a short term thing. We’ve also walked away from businesses that weren’t a fit – from three clients. It’s great to have a holding co that lets you do it. But you can’t preach one thing in the pitch process and then go back and work on clients that don’t fit that.

McDonald: But pitches have changed a lot in the last five or 10 years. Back then it was all about ideas and chemistry, and “Yeah, we’ve got thought leadership and vision.” Now, that’s still a huge part of it, but there’s these procurement-led exercises, especially at the hold-co level, it’s just, “Here’s a chart, put your lowest rate in.” There’s so many pitches that are just about the rate. And pricing is a super-important part of the relationship, but finding that in a lot of these big pitches, the team, the vision, the chemistry, it all gets lost. From an agency standpoint, it sometimes ends in us just putting numbers on a spreadsheet and saying, “Yeah, we’ll figure it out later.” And everybody else does it, and it becomes a race to the bottom. It commoditizes what we do. Selfishly, we have great ideas, we can be an extension of your team, but it’s hard to stand out in that model. A lot of agencies can throw out there, “We can beat these rates by 30%.” Then clients jump at it, and the agencies can’t deliver.

Courtemanche: Then you don’t pitch on those.

Galanis: Yeah, we don’t pitch those anymore.

Mamela: If you’re finding yourself in that reality where you find that there’s not a recognized balance, that’s an unfortunate position. I was in a very accommodating procurement group that understood what was right for the client, that helped us make a procurement-led decision, that helped us get the best results, but at the same time respected the business relationship.

McDonald: Which is great, because not a lot of clients are like that. We had two pitches recently where there was a reverse-auction tool with five or six agencies on this kind of glorified Excel chart on a CPM-based pitch. You can see the other agencies pitching, and it highlights the lowest rate.

[Collective expressions of disbelief]

McDonald: It’s this new company out of the U.S. that’s getting a lot of attention.

Maddever: We’re back to the Hunger Games metaphor!

McDonald: It really is! But yeah, we’ve walked away and said, “We’re not going to play in this space.” We left at 12:15 and went for lunch, we’d had a few items in yellow. When we came back, none of our stuff was in yellow. And that doesn’t make sense to me, because you’d have to go to your partners and confirm those rates.

Galanis: That process is so flawed to me, because what would change between 12 p.m. and 2 p.m. that day? What allowed one agency to suddenly drop their prices, magically?

McDonald: And both of those situations ended with business being awarded without an in-person meeting.

MiC_Sept10-38Leland: Wouldn’t it be funny if it was just one guy sitting in a basement pulling those strings?

Courtemanche: Whatever pricing you’re putting forward is never going to be what’s put to life afterward. It’s all speculations, both on the pricing front and the strategy front. For creative, for media, for any discipline, there’s one thing we can all agree on: case studies. Look at what they’ve done in the past, what they’ve been able to accomplish with actual clients. Then you’re going to save lots of time.

Galanis: I agree that building those case studies takes time, but a lot of the rest of it is counter-productive and won’t work out in real life.

Courtemanche: Especially going back to technology. We see and get exposed to a lot of technologies. Unless I can spend a week onboarding my clients’ data and really try to communicate to the platform and merge the data sets with it, I can’t fully understand that platform. So I don’t know how in a pitch, clients can look at that platform for 30 minutes and say “that’s it.”

Leland: One thing that we used to do back when I was at Jungle was that we put one idea in every pitch that was a little risqué just to gauge the reaction. Four out of five were fantastic. One failed miserably. And it wasn’t a deciding factor, but after the fact, we got some great feedback.

McDonald: It also helps you make sure they’re paying attention.


Rody: Has anyone here, like Helen’s said, made those hard decisions to walk away from clients that weren’t good fits?

Courtemanche: I think tantamount to everything is, is the client and their business and the relationship growing? They need to be growing. Every six months to every year, you need to be giving them the opportunities to learn, and if you’re not growing, it gets really tough. We’ve probably all taken those hard decisions when we got lucky and could grow enough to let the client go. Where I have tremendous respect is the agencies that are smaller and let clients go when they could not necessarily afford to.

McDonald: The other thing is, as a small agency, it’s about building a reputation. When you’re more established and part of the holding companies, what’s important to you and the outside vision of your company is going to change as time goes on. What we’re doing at Kinetic, because we’re an independent agency, is very different from Touché! for example. It’s interesting, because the resounding thing between the four agency people here is, tools, innovation, retention, the ability to be an extension of your client’s team, thought leadership, we all ultimately do the same kind of things, but we put different weights on the top five things.

Courtemanche: And in pitches, you have an hour, an hour and a half, and you have to decide what you’re going to go for. And I bet with all of us, we could have produced the exact same reputation. It’s just a narrative and choice that you make that plays up one thing over another.

Photos by Kevin Cordick