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Brush up your act

Pitching is a costly process, both for pharma and healthcare communications agencies. How can it be improved?
Brush & shoes

Unless you have an established relationship with an agency, pitching is often the best way to find the right partner for your communications challenge. By its nature, pitching is competitive. Figures from the Healthcare Communications Association (HCA) show that an average of 3.5 agencies vie for each and every contract put to pitch. In many cases, the number is even higher. But not all contracts are won at pitch – according to the HCA, nearly half (45 per cent) of agencies' new business is secured by other means.

Going to pitch is an expensive process. For the agencies, investment in time and human resources is now estimated by the HCA to cost £23.6k for a £200k pitch – a figure that has steadily risen as competition becomes fiercer. For the pharmaceutical company, the need to involve brand, procurement and medics also ensures a high cost.

So for both brand team and agencies, it makes sense that the tender and pitching process runs as efficiently as possible. Marc Mitchell, health economy liaison manager at Janssen, says: "It is becoming more of a prerequisite to put new projects out to tender as robust procurement processes take an even stronger hold. Therefore, having a clear decision process or matrix in order to get to the decision is vital."

But what is the best way to undertake this? Below are some things to consider the next time you take a project to tender.

1. Have a sound reason to go to pitch
How do you make the decision to go to tender? Sometimes the decision is easy. If you have a new product or if you need to take your project in a direction that calls for a specific, tailored approach, then the decision may be obvious. Likewise, if your current agency just isn't delivering, then going to pitch makes sense. At other times, the choice is less clear cut.

A new agency will bring fresh blood, a different perspective and perhaps a few new tricks to an established programme, and this can have an energising effect. But it can have drawbacks too. Inevitably, there will be a period of adjustment. There's a learning curve for the new agency to follow and a change of people may have implications on established relationships with key opinion leaders (KOLs) and other stakeholders.

Some companies review their PR at regular intervals, and often use the pitch process to ensure that they are getting innovative ideas and value for money, whether there is a genuine need for change or not. Yet the so-called 'beauty parade' is often an expensive way to stimulate creativity and value. Ask yourself what you are not getting: is it people, skills, a more strategic approach, capacity? Could your existing agency provide it if briefed differently?

Some agencies regularly change team members to ensure that accounts don't become stale and to keep the strategic juices flowing. If cost is the issue, there may be more cost-effective ways to benchmark: other agencies may be willing to provide estimates for comparable projects and you could use that information in discussions with your agency.

2. Clarity of brief
Do you already know what you want or are you looking for a strategic, creative solution? A narrow, specific brief will give you the former; a broader, looser brief will hopefully provide scope for the latter.

A good brief should provide enough insight to establish where your brand or project is and where it needs to be. Business and marketing objectives are critical, as they help an agency to derive relevant communications objectives. If you are setting communications objectives, ensure that they are appropriate and commensurate to what an educational or communication programme can deliver.

Share any other marketing activities that will have an implication for the programme and be specific about the rules of engagement with any KOLs during the preparation phase. Finally, a brief should have internal buy-in and represent the whole team's view of what needs to be achieved.

3. Invite the right agencies, and stick to a reasonable number
Use a pre-pitch screening exercise to create a manageable short list. Examples of previous work will give you a sense of where the agency's strengths lie, but there are other factors. Integration with other disciplines, such as advertising or public affairs, and degree of domestic or international scope will also have a bearing on your choices.

If you're involved in a large-scale launch across multiple countries, a large agency may be most appropriate. But if you're looking for a more strategic approach or for the idea more than anything else, then size is less critical than great insight, relevant experience and access to senior counsel. Agency size will also have an implication on your budget.

4. Be transparent
Be specific about the stages in the pitching process and the time-frame for decisions.
If you can, be open about the criteria you are assessing pitches on, this will help the agency emphasise what really matters to the project and will help you get a more specific answer to your brief. Transparency means being totally even-handed. If you provide additional information on top of the brief to one agency, consider sharing it with the others.

5. Meet the team
Some agencies will send in their pitch team, but these may not be the people who will work on your account. If you want to see the team who will work on your account, brief pitching agencies accordingly.

6. Give feedback
When the pitching process is complete, spend some time feeding back honestly and transparently to all the agencies who took part. Those who have not been successful will have a chance to learn in the process: this will be appreciated as a valuable return on their investment.

The Author
Stefi Rucci is joint managing director for Say Communications and can be contacted at or on +44 (0)20 8971 6400

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17th March 2011


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