What really grinds my gears close

David Hart
16th February 2012
What really grinds my gears


The regular light-hearted whinge about life in a busy agency. Although this time, it’s less light-hearted than usual. It’s not an original idea and people have debated it forever: it’s about whether agencies should be paid to pitch.

It’s not that we should profit from the pitching process (not proposing that agencies make a business out of pitching for jobs that they never win), but what grinds my gears is where you spend time preparing something and the response you get is woefully bad. And the problem is, and we know this from everyday life, that if you don’t pay for something, then you don’t value it.

I’m not talking about “can you prepare me some costs” or “can you give me your thoughts on this”, I’m talking more about a competitive pitch where you are expected to do a PQQ, followed by a proposal, followed by a pitch presentation with some creative thrown in, too. Where you are up against 3 or 4 others so the odds are you won’t actually win anyway. They cost an agency an absolute fortune, which, dear readers, ultimately has to be passed on anyway. 

As an example of something a little tamer, I recently responded to a brief. It took about three days of my life to prepare: those three days I could have spent with my baby son, or lying on a beach somewhere, or working on something else that would have been useful for Codegent. But instead I spent it writing a proposal. There was a slightly contentious issue that I identified right away and asked the person who prepared the brief whether the solution I was proposing would rule us out: without going into detail we had a different technical approach than the one that the brief implied. Would it rule us out? The answer came back: “no”. 

Great – seemed like an interesting project and up our street and no issues around our proposed technical solution. Three days later, the proposal was sent off.

A day or so after that I got an email saying that “on this occasion”, the technical solution we proposed was too much of a step away from what they had. In other words, my original question about whether our technical solution would rule us out, really had a simpler answer, which was ‘yes’.

Had that person given me this answer, then that would have saved me 3 days of my life. The 3 days that I won’t ever get back. The 3 days I could have spent with my family. The 3 days I could have done something useful with. But, for them, there was no incentive to put me off writing a proposal. No doubt they thought, ‘we might as well get a proposal from Codegent, you never know’. 

So my question would be: had they had to pay for me to write a response and I had said “will this technical solution that you don’t want rule us out?” would they have said “actually, yes it will so it would be best that you don’t respond on that basis”? If, internally, someone had had to sign off an invoice for the production of a proposal that never stood a chance of being accepted, would that have reflected badly on that procurement person? 

Anyway – here are my thoughts about how it could work:

  1. The client puts out a simple PQQ so that they can establish that the agencies they are talking to have what they are looking for. The PQQ shouldn’t ask for more than is needed: just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in many cases. This is at the agency’s cost.
  2. The client then selects a shortlist of no more than 4 agencies and gives them a proper brief to respond to.
  3. There then follows a week to get any questions in and on that basis the agencies/client decide whether to proceed.
  4. If they do, a token amount is agreed with the agency. Maybe something approaching half the cost of preparing the response. If a client feels this is a really important thing they need to achieve, then they may say – our ambition for your response is “x” and therefore our budget is “y”.
  5. The agencies and clients are then dually committing to the pitch process. In effect, they are saying we are both going to invest our time and money into getting this right.

I think this would achieve a number of positive things. Agencies would feel that their efforts were properly respected: pitching for a job isn’t something that agencies love to do for the sheer intellectual pursuit of it all and it isn’t ‘free’ just because you’re not the one paying for it. Clients could reasonably expect a higher level of R&D into their specific challenges and contact time they spend with the agency prior to appointment: which also means they could get a better sense of who the best agency is. Clients could probably ask that the successful agency offset the costs of the pitch against project management and planning time, since more of the work will have been achieved prior to being awarded the contract. 

But as I said earlier, this has been talked about for years and never materializes. The reality is that clients don’t want to pay for anything they don’t need to and agencies don’t have the balls to demand payment for pitching because they know there will always be a competitor waiting in the wings ready to pitch for free. And in fact, whilst we don’t always say yes to every Invitation to Tender, we accept that a high cost of sale is something that we have to factor into our business: in short, if we were the competitor waiting in the wings and the client was someone we’d love to work with, we would definitely take advantage of an incumbent refusing to pitch for free. And that, my friends, is what really grinds my gears.