How PR agencies prepare for client pitches

by Paul MacKenzie-Cummins
by Paul MacKenzie-Cummins

The media landscape is more competitive than ever before – not just in terms of there being such an extensive range of outlets to reach and engage audiences, but also in terms of the number of organisations vying to get their messages ‘out there.’ This is where PR agencies come into play.

Truly standing out as a business takes creativity – a way of expressing ideas and facts that appeal to the right people in the right way, and at the right time. That could be a press release, video, blog, infographic, podcast, social media campaign…the list goes on, the choice is plentiful.

This is what clients want – ideas that can positively impact their businesses both in terms of brand perception and the bottom line itself. So, when the time comes for you to procure the services of a new PR agency, it is important to understand the process agencies like ours go through before setting foot inside your premises on pitch day.

Creative ideas can only happen after lots of homework

We love a good brief. While there may be a temptation among prospective clients to draft a document detailing everything there is to know about the business, this isn’t necessary. What we want is clarity regarding the key objectives of the PR campaign and an expectation of what ‘success’ looks like.

The rest of the dots we can connect ourselves via the pre-pitch research we undertake. This typically involves:

  • Going through the client’s website with a fine toothcomb to better understand how they position themselves, what’s important to them (causes they champion etc.), how they champion their people and get an understanding of their products and services
  • Scanning the web to see what news they have put ‘out there’, who has written about them, what they have said, and what the perception is of the business in the public domain
  • Researching their sector to identify past trends, current developments and future expectations across the sector – things that are likely to impact both the client and the customers they want to attract
  • Checking out the client’s competition – what makes them stand out, how they differ, how they promote themselves and what are they saying that gets them noticed
  • Reviewing the backgrounds of each of the people involved in the pitch – how long they have worked there, where they were previously, where their interests lie, what content they create themselves and what stories they share across their professional networks such as LinkedIn

This is the tip of the proverbial pre-pitch research that we undertake prior to any pitch meeting. Yes, it takes considerable time to get right, but it is an investment which in our view is essential for several reasons:

  1. It ensures that we understand the nuances and challenges facing our potential new client, and that we ‘get’ them as individuals.
  2. It also gives us a head-start in terms of acquiring the knowledge we need to have before commencing the project. So, rather than spending the first few weeks getting up to speed, we can literally hit the ground running.
  3. It tells the client that we really want to work with them. By showing our commitment to investing in them before we’re even appointed carries an awful lot of sway.
  4. Lastly, it could also open up the possibility of either a longer-term partnership or repeat business further down the line.

But this is not just an investment in time, it costs money too.

The true cost to the PR agency

As much as the media landscape has broadened in recent years, so too has the challenges facing clients. Their needs are ever-changing and the traditional approach to PR is no longer enough – clients need and expect to be presented with a much wider choice of creative solutions. This takes time to put together.

Indeed, the total amount of time we typically dedicate to preparing a pitch, attending the meeting itself and finalising the proposal amounts to around three or more days.

In monetary terms, this can equate to around £3,000-£4,000 in non-billable fees. It’s not cheap, so why do we do it when there is no guarantee of any recompense?

Simply put, if we win the client’s business we see a return on our investment over the long term. If another agency is appointed instead (how rude), we simply have to write it off as an expense. Some clients recognise this investment, others don’t.

Word of caution to clients

Clients are increasingly picky when it comes to choosing which PR agency to partner with. Quite right too. But some clients have already made their mind up on who will win their business even before the pitch meeting takes place.

More often than not it’s the client’s existing agency who retains the account, with the account being put out to tender simply to give them a kick up the arse to drive new ideas or – cheekily – to get a better deal on their retained rate.

This has sparked a debate within the PR industry over how to either negate or at least reduce the financial impact of pitching new business.

The traditional approach to PR is no longer enough. Clients need and expect to be presented with a much wider choice of creative solutions. This takes time to put together.

There are many agency owners who argue that PR agencies should be paid to take part in pitches – not necessarily covering the full cost of the pitch, just something. The suggestion is that doing so is a strong signal of serious intent by the client and a commitment to the pitch process. I’m not sure this is necessary.

We have, like most agencies, fallen victim to clients giving us the merry dance only to either reject our proposal or do a disappearing act only to never be seen or heard of again (yes this does happen). The lesson we learned is to only attend pitches once we know that the client is serious about appointing a new agency.

So, when it comes to looking for a new agency, take heed of what BC Forbes once said: “The bargain that yields mutual satisfaction is the only one that is apt to be repeated.”