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Pharma Perspectives with the HCC: Ben Davies on the pitching process

Havas Health's European CEO gives an agency view

Pharma Perspectives with the Health Communications' Council (HCC) is a regular feature from PME and PMLiVE where senior figures from industry and agency discuss a critical topic impacting the healthcare marketing and communications field.

In this article, Ben Davies, European CEO of Havas Health, shares his thoughts on the pitching process.

For an industry view read Malik Akhtar, category lead for agency services at Bayer Healthcare, answer the same questions.

Q: How well does the pitching process work for agencies?

Ben Davies: Generally it works reasonably well. There are always bad experiences or client processes that aren't ideal, but you have to remember that pitching is part of the game. If, as an agency, you moan about pitching, then you're in the wrong business. So it is a necessary evil, I think, for both sides.

Q: What does the pitching process get right?

BD: A well-run and intelligent pitching process can be a good way to assess whether an agency is the right partner for a client, assess their strengths, their resourcing, their creativity, etc. It's not a bad process, if it's done properly.

Q: What problems can the process cause for agencies?

BD: If the process is very cumbersome and ridiculously detailed that's a problem, because we will budget new business time based on what could be reasonably expected.

We can also legitimately grumble when there's not a level playing field, such as when the incumbent is asked to re-pitch when there's no chance of retaining the business.

Another problematic area is processes that are too remote and don't offer a chance to meet the key people involved.

Q: Is there an ideal number of agencies pharma should call in to pitch?

BD: Three or maximum four - any more than that says to me the early steps of the process weren't thorough enough. But five is not unusual these days, and that's too many.

Q: How would you change the process?

BD: Abandon telephone Q&A sessions and get back to face-to-face briefings to focus on chemistry, relationships and questioning the brief, all in one efficient one-hour meeting. When it comes to pitching, ensure chemistry meetings have been held beforehand and, ideally, that the clients come to the agency to see them in their own lair. Another key area is transparency.

We are often asked for a level of transparency that would make Lady Godiva blush. We don't mind supplying information that's useful, but quite often that transparency isn't both ways. I'd want to know what the process is, how many agencies are taking part and what's the prize. You never know the exact budget, but give us an idea so that we can tailor our proposals accordingly.

Q: What should pharma companies ask of their potential agencies?

BD: First of all they should ask for permission to speak with three or four of the agency's current clients, and one of their ex-clients.

Then they should ask: Can I go to lunch with your creative department? Can I have a coffee with your strategy team? Or can I go and have a beer with your medical writers? That's what I would do to find out what the agency's really like. 

Q: How has the involvement of procurement changed the process?

BD: Generally it's had a positive influence and I'm very pro-procurement. There were previously some procurement managers who were a bit old-school and came from procuring goods and not services, and then applied those types of practices and negotiation tactics, which really didn't work.

But over the last ten years we've seen a new breed of very specialised marketing services procurement people. If you work positively with these people within a sort of triumvirate of them, ourselves and the marketing team, it can be very beneficial for all sides.

Q: Is pitching the best way for pharma to choose a long-term agency partner?

BD: No. I mean, is walking into a party and seeing the most beautiful-looking girl the best way to choose your wife? As alternatives to the full pitch you could start with a much more in-depth chemistry session, or a workshop - which is less artificial than a traditional pitch and gives both sides a much deeper insight into working together, or a trial project that tests the relationship before a formal commitment.

One final point to make is that some clients don't seem to realise this is very much a two-way process – the agency is selecting the client as much as the client's selecting the agency. Great work from great agencies comes from a great relationship with great clients.

The Health Communications' Council (HCC) is a specialist division of the European Association of Communications Agencies (EACA). For more information visit:

If you have a topic you'd like the quarterly series to explore please send it to 

Article by
Ben Davies

Ben is European CEO of Havas Health

He has 28 years’ marketing and advertising experience in pharma and has worked client-side for SmithKline & French (now GSK) and IVAX (now Teva) before heading up his own agency PAN, which was sold to Creston, and co-founding the Indigenus global network of independent healthcare agencies.

14th August 2014

From: Marketing



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