So, who exactly, are you pitching against?

I’ve been in a good few agency board meetings this month, once again the time old conversation about pitching and qualification has come up.

So, firstly this is not an article about the pitch vs no pitch agenda. This article is for those who are happy with the concept of pitching or unhappy with it and accept it’s part of agency business life ;-)

This article is also, a reminder for those of you, who are just sending in proposals to new prospects (or have slipped back into the routine of doing so) thinking you are not in a pitch; because you probably are and don’t even realise it.

This month, in particular, the conversion of knowing *who* you are pitching against has come up time and time again.

I was in a friend’s (larger) agency last year, who was explaining about the large pitch process he was in and I replied “who are you up against?” he replied, “I haven’t asked, I guess we’ve stopped asking these days”.

I get it, I’ve been there, I am there, it’s so easy to slip out of habits, I’m always being told: “we used to do that” when sharing agency best practices with clients.

A reminder all, pitches and proposals cost a hell of a lot of time and money. You’re expected to do it for them for free. But you should only really enter a pitch process if the opportunity qualifies and your statistical odds of winning look realistic (At least 33%, ideally 50% chance of winning). Even if you are someone that bets £10k on a 100–1 at the National.

I regularly see agencies wrongly disillusioned by the pitch process taking on pitches where their qualifying odds are 8% or below believing the odds are much higher and willfully blindly accepting they can win. Wise up folks!

One of the most critical qualifying questions is:

“Can you please share, if we will have competition in this process and if so, can you please tell me who they are?”

Before we address a typical response to that question, let’s pause and think the situation through a little.

When you think about it, why would — a company “not share” who the competition is with you?

Surely it, has to be a more of an honest, open and fair policy to share than to hide?

Unless there is something to hide?

In fact, there are only a few *real* reasons for a company not to give you the competition in a pitch scenario.

Firstly, they suspect that all the agencies in the pitch are going to collude over the pricing; This probably the only real objection that can’t be overcome if it’s policy. The good news is this is a ridiculous objection that rarely comes up. Point out you are not selling products and as an independent agency (not part of a group) with at least 60% of its turnover being wage cost, is hardly going to risk losing an opportunity by price fixing with its competitors!

Secondly, the prospect can’t tell you, because, they would need to backtrack, as while they told you there was competition, the prospect possibly exaggerated to make you work harder and be more competitive on price.

Thirdly, they are just using you for a price comparison against the incumbent agency, or are trying to make the process look fair, but in fact, the stakeholder from the client has already decided who they want to win, and the pitch process is making it look fair.

Fourthly, because they think you’ll give them a lower quote if it’s a competitive pitch and you don’t know who else is involved.

At this stage, it’s brave for you to say, “we can’t pitch unless we know who we are pitching against, as that way, we know the process is truly transparent”.

On the whole in our experience, if you are not told the competition’s names then “allegedly” ;-) there is a significant chance that there is already some bias in place, and they are potentially scared you may find out.

If they ever decline to share, please be polite and say, “would you mind if I ask why?”

Don’t sell out and accept it!

It can take a few times of asking to break down a prospect to give you competition, so please don’t give up, overcome their objections.

Plenty of people will go on to share the details especially if you make it clear you are happy for the others to know you are in the pitch.

Explain, for your agency to quote for free, and invest the time and money required, you need to know that you are in the right pitch in the first place:

For example here are the reasons why you need to know who you are pitching against.

1. Is the competition in the same geography as your agency? If the client is located in London and three other agencies pitching are London based, and your agency is in Scotland, you need to be able to check that you won’t learn when you lose pitch that location was the reason. It’s better to be told that location could be an issue up front and address that potential objection in advance of your pitch investment wasting *both sides* time and money.

2. If the competition is a different type of businesses; Let’s say they are looking for a search business and you find out that you are up against two full-service agencies that search. You need to check that they are not looking for other periphery services that may cause you to lose the pitch as they want everything from one supplier. You’ll also need to spend extra time to demonstrate the advantages of specialist vs generalist agencies.

Another example of why you need to know who you are competing against is what if they all use the same ”alternative” tech stack to yours? — again you need to know you are in the right pitch or you aren’t going lose as they ideally want the other tech stack!

Or what if you create bespoke technology and the competition all have and out of the box product? Maybe you need to take a product partner into the process with you as an other option to your bespoke solution just in case.

3. What if the competition is a one-man band or a £800 million agency are you in the right pitch? Maybe they should select one of those instead?

4. Is the incumbent also in the pitch process? Are you sure this is not just a pricing exercise? You need to be sure that there is not another relationship holder with that agency that could overturn the decision.

5. If you are the incumbent, everyone knows who you are so you need to know who the others are to make it equal.

6. Hard to communicate, but explaining your team like to compete and if we know who we are up against it is extra motivation for us.

If they still won’t tell you, ask them “would they then consider paying for the pitch ?”

Oh, and when your pipeline is massive, bow out if they won’t tell you; if it’s a genuine opportunity they will suddenly convince you to stay in the pitch.

What I’m suggesting you do is not always easy. When our pipelines are low, we will usually find it hard to ask essential questions and convince ourselves that opportunities are stronger than our qualification scores allow.

So..my challenge to you is to persevere, maybe you won’t be able to convince the next 99 prospects to share who you are pitching against, but the one prospect who does should spur you on to do a better pitch in a more transparent environment with better pitch odds of winning.

Let me know how you get on.

Spencer Gallagher
@cactus
@agencynomics