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Managing incumbents in a pitch is a tricky situation for both advertiser and agency but it can be handled sensitively and with respect.
When a big piece of business goes into pitch, it creates multiple challenges for the existing agency. Because while all the hard work goes on to retain the business ,the incumbent also has to manage the day-to-day tasks and ensure that service levels don’t drop.
It’s certainly true that, barring any toxic issues, the incumbent comes into the pitch with advantages. They’ve seen how the brand operates, they will have a clear idea for how they could improve. In most situations, it should take a knockout blow for them to lose the business.
But that doesn’t make the typical three to six-month process any easier – agency staff will be under pressure not just to do their normal work but also contribute to the pitch.
However, advertisers can ease some of the stresses while also making the process fair by taking four key actions.
First of all, media directors need to be open and transparent with the incumbent about why they are deciding to have a pitch. This should be early, before the process gets going, and is also a moment to highlight any gaps in service that the agency will need to address during the process. At the same time, incumbents need to be reassured that they have a chance of retaining the business.
Second, you need to be respectful of the partnership you have had, particularly, where these date back many years. That means understanding that they do have the additional challenge of managing both pitch and day to day. When work is required, make sure you give them time and advance notice so that they can prepare and don’t become overwhelmed.
Third at the same to ensure fairness, media and marketing teams need to have a strict separation between the pitch and the day to day purely. Put strict protocols in place to ensure that there are no side conversations around the pitch when ongoing work is being discussed. This is particularly important as people go back to working side by side in the office.
Finally, you need to provide consistent and regular feedback within the confines of the pitch process for both the incumbent and others participating agencies. They will appreciate it because it gives them the chance to proactively address any gaps in their proposals.
There are occasions where the incumbent gets eliminated early in the process and, in these situations, media directors will want to protect the business from any value erosion perceived drop of service levels.
It’s natural that there will be a sharp decline in enthusiasm among the agency team but if there’s a performance-related remuneration system in place you can use that to hold the agency accountable on key issues such as service and pricing. Where this doesn’t exist, some advertisers have put in place a specific incentive process to reward a successful exit of contract.
The good news for incumbents, however, is that we’ve also seen huge improvements in perceptions at the client as part of a pitch process. Advertisers notice when agencies take the feedback and re-energize their offer.
The lesson for media directors is that the process should give incumbents the confidence that they can come back with a really, fresh proposal and make it even harder for rivals to displace them.
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