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Pharma Perspectives: The agency selection process (part 1)

S&H Group's David Higgins on the evolution of the agency selection process

S&H Group David HigginsHow has the agency selection process evolved?
David Higgins: I would say the biggest evolution in the last few years has been a significant shift towards agencies being selected at a global or regional level, rather than local. From my perspective - and I currently work within a global network agency - there seems to be a real decline in local new business opportunities and pitches. However, this is no surprise really, given our clients have moved towards a centralised model with marketing teams operating in global or regional hubs.

On the back of this global shift, I would say the selection process is also much more interrogative and demanding, often with multiple stages. There is nearly always an RFP/RFI stage before any face-to-face creative pitch with the client team. Gone are the halcyon days of 'biking over' a few concepts to the local marketing team to decide on!

The other significant change has been the role of procurement in the selection process. Years ago the whole process was managed by the marketing team, whereas now the responsibility seems to sit firmly with the procurement team. This means agencies have to be able to satisfy a whole raft of questions around 'efficiencies and savings', 'value-added' services, and even rate-card discussions before getting in front of the potential client.

Where does it still need to change?
On the positive side, I would say the selection process is now far more professional and transparent than it used to be (at least, most of the time). Because it is often facilitated by procurement, the process is very thorough and agencies are usually allowed to interrogate the brief along the way. However, from a personal point of view, I would like to see more interaction between the teams as part of the decision-making process. I know the 'partnership' word is over-used these days, but ultimately it is about people working with people at the end of the day - ideally for a long period of time.

What would an ideal process look like?
It sounds obvious, but the initial stage should be clarification of what the client is really looking for from an agency. This filtering process - which should address size, scale, location, expertise, clients etc - should mean that the next stage should only involve 'best fit' agencies. Then I would encourage clients to visit those agencies to meet the teams face-to-face. We can all look good on a spreadsheet or in PowerPoint. This should feed into the final selection stage, which really should be a 'short list' of agency partners, not a 'long list' of potential suitors. Then, and only then, should the strategic and creative part of the process be briefed. This is the most time-consuming stage for both parties, and adequate time should be given to this. It still surprises me how little time is often given to this crucial and decisive part of the process!

How could procurement get better value? 
Quite simply, I would encourage procurement people to spend time with their agencies and really understand how they operate. Often I get the impression agencies are viewed in terms of their cost rather than their value. There is a huge amount of investment from creative agencies in talent, technology and operations which, ultimately, are for the benefit of the client.

Who is best placed to make the decision - marketing or procurement?
Procurement is often best placed to manage the selection process, but ultimately it is the brand team that has to work with the agency at the end of the day. Therefore I would argue it should have the final say, provided everything else is in order.

Once the process is completed, how do you ensure success?
Sadly, working relationships often falter or fail because of an inadequate briefing or engagement following completion of the selection process. From experience, it is essential that the client and agency teams get together for 'immersion' meetings to start the relationship in the way they mean to go on. This includes everything from a full debriefing on the pitch to the client's SOP and expectations. Invest the time upfront, and I can guarantee it will pay dividends down the road.

Should agencies be compensated for participating in pitches?
This is a contentious one, but I suspect many clients do not appreciate the level of investment in time and money that agencies commit to the pitching process. I think we are one of the few industries left where we 'give away' strategic thinking and creative ideas with no financial commitment. Given that clients often invite several agencies to participate in pitches, this is an incredibly speculative investment.

David Higgins is S&H Group, UK managing director,

In Pharma Perspectives, published in association with the HCC, senior industry and agency figures address key marketing challenges. If you have a topic you'd like the series to explore please send it to

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

24th October 2016

From: Marketing



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