A perfect pitch process benefits pharma as much as the agencies involved. Mike Dixon, chief executive of the Healthcare Communications Association, discusses two initiatives trying to help identify best practice guidance for all stakeholders in the pitch process

“Sorry your agency did not win the pitch”. Words that are not pleasant to receive, but also perhaps not so pleasant to deliver. Can anything make them more palatable or give more confidence in their delivery? Well, one answer might to ensure that all stakeholders agree the pitch process was perfect – fair, open and appropriate. But, if discussions at industry meetings are anything to go by, all stakeholders agree we are not pitch perfect yet.

Two recent initiatives have considered the challenges and suggest ways forward. Both incorporated the views of the main stakeholders: pharmaceutical representatives from marketing, communications and procurement, as well as healthcare communications and advertising agencies. The first was the launch of the Healthcare Communications Association’s (HCA) updated Pitching Code of Conduct. The second is a survey of these stakeholders undertaken by the PM Society.

Perception vs reality

Perhaps one of the most startling gaps between perception and reality identified in the PM Society’s survey was that more than three- quarters of medical/marketing responders believed for a £200,000 pitch an agency spent less than £15,000 on staff costs and out-of- pocket expenses. Conversely, 61% of agencies actually spend over £15,000 on just staff costs before any additional expenses, with 41% spending more than £25,000. Some might feel those investments for potential returns are reasonable but, like pharma, agencies need to balance the books so the costs of successful and unsuccessful pitches are, by definition, reflected in the rates charged to remain in business. It is another reason why agencies should be given some idea of the size of the business they are pitching for, so they can assess the investment they should commit. This also benefits pharma by helping ensure the ideas presented are appropriate for its likely budget.

While a budget may not have been finalised, open conversation in these areas will demonstrate a company’s commitment to working in partnership with the agency it ultimately chooses, which, in turn, will engage a more motivated group of responding agencies.

If it’s important, don’t rush it

Another potentially contentious issue in the pitch process is the time given between brief and final pitch presentation. In the survey, 73% of agencies said they typically get two to three weeks, but feel a little more time would benefit their response – 78% stated four weeks or longer. Let’s consider why agencies prefer longer; the best are busy and although capable of building in a new client’s work after being awarded a contract, at the pitch stage that is harder. To provide the best response agencies will also want to thoroughly consider a brief, perhaps do their own research, ask questions and then prepare strategy and develop tactical ideas, potentially with creative input and budgets. Doing all that in two to three weeks is challenging. Giving that little bit longer will facilitate a better outcome and allows a client to get a full measure of an agency’s capabilities. In hiring an agency a client is seeking the best team for the brand, not the one with the most free resources at that time. For agencies, in accepting a pitch invitation, they must be committed to providing a dedicated account team and appropriately utilising the time provided.

Honesty and openness are paramount

In choosing an agency a pharma client is looking for a partner to trust with the most precious of commodities: its brand. For such an important process there needs to be full commitment from all stakeholders and honest and open dialogue is needed so no party’s time or resources are squandered.

Honesty from the agency as to its capabilities was recognised by pharma as an important expectation in the Pitching Code of Conduct. In fact, it was suggested that agencies who say ‘no this isn’t for us’ early on are more likely to be invited back for future pitches compared to those who attempt but clearly don’t have the requisite capabilities. Similarly, there should be honest and open dialogue with agencies around why the pitch is taking place, exactly what the brand is looking for, and the detail on the criteria on which they will be judged. Surely, there can be no harm in sharing with agencies in advance the scoring sheet, or equivalent, that will be used to assess pitch responses? This can only help ensure the pharma client gets to see the abilities in the areas it is looking for.

In taking on an agency partner, a pharma client is buying the skills of the individuals who will be working on its account daily. To start a successful partnership, agencies need to be honest about this in the pitch teams they present – clients need to meet the team they will be working with daily. Everybody recognises that some practitioners who are the best at their skill set and desirable to have working on a brand, may not be the best presenters. However, for a true assessment, all stakeholders need to work together to manage this dichotomy. Enhancing the ‘chemistry’ element of the pitch process is one way to address this whilst also enhancing the selection process as a whole.

Much more than a speed date

‘The right chemistry’ is widely stated as a reason for a continued successful agency-client relationship. Getting to know the agency, its culture and individuals is therefore an important element of choosing the right partner. However, the survey found that for 70% of agencies responding, they only met potential clients face-to-face once, at the pitch. Alongside this, 65% reported that no clients had visited their offices for any pitches in the last two years. Successful pitch agencies are good at putting on that one-off show, so does this fully assess everything a client needs to know?

One solution might be a GEMBA (a Japanese term meaning ‘the actual place’ used to describe the idea of walking around the factory floor). This is what GSK called a stage of its pitch process in a recent large global procurement initiative, which allowed client teams to visit prospective agencies in their offices. This element could be included at any stage of the pitch process and might include some form of workshop. It can be used as part of drawing up a final agency pitch list, a ‘get to know’ component for shortlisted agencies or even post the pitch presentation to explore ideas further and clarify a winning agency choice.

Feedback matters

Another disconnect identified in the survey was in the feedback to agencies. After the time, effort and expense of pitching it is only reasonable for an agency to receive honest and detailed feedback. While pharma stated the most common reason for choosing a winning agency was strategic thinking, with costs way down the common list of reasons, agencies report the most common feedback for not winning was their costs. Whatever the reasons for this disparity, it adds to the suggestion that there is potential scope for improvement in the level and format that feedback is provided. The initial call to an unsuccessful agency is difficult for the deliverer and emotional for the recipient. A follow-up call from somebody within the client team who can share the comprehensive collective feedback and answer questions, is therefore valuable. That this is undertaken in a timely period is also important.

Shaking up the pitch process

With the large costs of pitching for agencies and the desire for pharma to find ways to better identify long-term agency partners, some innovative companies are challenging the traditional process and looking to perfect new methodologies. At Bayer, Philipp Schuster, global category lead, Creative & Digital Insights & Creative Development, says the whole timely and costly brief, prepare, pitch process has been removed. Incorporating shortlisting and chemistry elements, for the final pitch agencies are tested for what they can deliver on the spot. In a one-day session agencies are briefed, given time to interact with client teams whilst preparing a response and then present their proposal. This really allows a client to see a team’s capability ‘live’ and, by ensuring the team comprises those who will work day-to-day on the account, the client is also seeing the skills of the right people.

This idea may sound familiar as it mirrors how PharmaTimes runs its communications and marketing team awards. It is amazing how much this process demonstrates the strategic and tactical development skills of the teams who compete. Bayer certainly seems to agree it is a more effective way to help choose an agency partner. Perhaps we will see more companies replicating or building on this methodology. In preparation, agencies might want to enter teams into this year’s PharmaTimes awards as a safe environment to test their own skills before the stakes are even higher.

With what has been identified in the PM Society’s survey, enhancing the rationale for the content of the HCA’s Pitching Code of Conduct, we do have a good framework for all stakeholders. What is important is that all stakeholders consider best practice and strive for the perfect pitch. Setting the right tone during a pitch is the important first step in developing a successful client/agency relationship.

Mike Dixon is chief executive of the HCA, a communications consultant and member of the PM Society’s Industry/Agency Relationships Interest Group. The HCA’s Pitching Code of Conduct is available to download at: https://the-hca.org/Media-centre/Highlights/Updated-HCA-Pitching-Code-of-Conduct