Lucid Thoughts

How agencies & clients can get better value from event pitches

Tuesday, 30 November 2010 11.32

Why do agencies do it?

Every day, somewhere in Britain, teams of creative people are responding feverishly to a highly competitive challenge. Almost always they face a very tight deadline – perhaps a week or if they are lucky two weeks in which to come up with a communication strategy, devise a creative concept, conceive and design a theme, write the outline for the event, select a venue, draw up plans, visualize the setting, research possible guest performers, plan the logistics, schedule and cost the whole thing, and then provide their agency's policies for health and safety, sustainability, ethnic diversity...

And in order to do this they must assemble a pitch team, many of them freelancers. The whole exercise may cost the agency anything between £10,000 and £30,000.

This expensive exercise is repeated week after week after week.

How much do the clients pay agencies to do this? You've guessed it. Nothing.

So why on earth do agencies do it? Quite simply, to win new business. The logic is that if they are good enough, they'll win enough of these expensive pitches to stay in business and if they keep their clients happy they'll get repeat business and make some real money.

Only, it doesn't always work out that way as clients' purchasing departments usually insist that the job goes out to tender at regular intervals.

Many years ago the leading agencies got together and agreed that there was a severe flaw in this logic. They made a commitment: from now on they would all refuse to pitch unless they were paid for it. That agreement lasted all the way up to the first tender.

As soon as one agency broke ranks the game was up. So much for commitment! Of course, commercial reality dictated that nobody would stick their head above the parapet.

Perhaps I should declare an interest. I'm not complaining about any of this. Far from it! I'm one of those freelancers who make a living from all this frenzied activity. But I do think that agencies and clients could get much better value from the exercise than they currently do.

So what does it cost clients?

Why clients? Surely, they don't have to pay for any of this so it doesn't cost them anything? Well, not quite. For a start, they have to dedicate a team of people to write the brief, assess the responses and decide on a winner. That's salaried time and it costs money.

More importantly, the event itself is not a cheap undertaking. The production budget for an event might be anything between £50,000 and £2,000,000 depending on its scale. Then on top of that, there's the venue hire, the catering, travel costs, and again (if it's an internal event) the salaried time of all those managers or staff in the audience.

And this is where the real value equation lies – the hearts and minds of the audience. At its best, there is no medium to match a live event for inspiring and engaging an audience which in turn can help the organization to deliver its strategy.

At worst, an event will instill boredom and cynicism, and all of that money will have been wasted.

Not surprising then that in recent years, three letters have been creeping into briefs – ROI. Quite rightly, clients want to see a return on their sizeable investment.

In many organizations the purchasing department has been taking a lead in driving down agency costs. Online bidding wars have been instigated as agencies are encouraged to outdo each other in reducing the cost of their people.

However, at this point I'm reminded of the astronaut who commented 'as I hurtled through space, I was comforted by one thought: every component on this space ship was made by the cheapest supplier!'

Being cheapest doesn't mean you're best.

What's an agency for anyway?

Of course, it depends on what you want your agency to do. If it's simply: stage the event, provide the lighting and sound and perhaps a pretty PowerPoint design into which your presenters will shovel over-abundant quantities of text...well, perhaps the cheapest supplier will do, providing they meet sufficient quality standards.

But if you want your agency to be a communications partner – to help you transform complex information into an inspiring experience, shift attitudes, make a difference, and measure what you have achieved – then selecting the right one is a critical decision.

What you are buying, of course, is people. People who can prove they have the right type of experience and creativity. But more importantly, people who can show they understand what you want to achieve with your event and apply their experience and creativity appropriately.

A specific response requires a specific brief

And to do this, they need a clear and highly specific brief. Primarily, you need to explain, not only the profile of the audience but what you want that audience to think, feel and do differently as a result of the event. This is an insight that only the client can provide. The agency won't glean it from your website which will invariably put the most positive spin on everything.

The agency (having signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement) needs to understand the true story 'warts and all.' They also need to know what you plan to achieve with this event as opposed to the one you held last year.

Let's take a look at a few examples.

Here are a few (edited) lines about objectives from actual briefs (disguised to protect the identities of the clients):

'The objective and key messages for the conference are still to be confirmed, however we wish to build on the aims from last year's conference.'


'The last event followed a more interactive format. This was a departure from the formal conferences of previous years and a great success; therefore we are looking for new and creative ideas to build on this success and suggestions should be included in your tender.'

OK, I'll chuck in some interactive techniques and hope for the best!

'The annual conference has been running for the last xxx years and is an opportunity for the leadership team to provide clear strategic direction for the year ahead to senior and middle managers. In addition, the event also provides the opportunity for networking and recognition.'

Fine as far as it goes but wouldn't this be true for every management conference? What do you want your audience to think, feel or do differently this time?

'We want the audience to go away feeling motivated, joined up and engaged with a clear understanding of the strategy and their role in executing against this.'

OK but wouldn't you have said that about every other event you've held? What's special about this one?

You get the picture.

Mind you, they're not all dull. Take this one for instance:

'We are looking for the successful agency to help us create a real 'wow' factor – to unite and inspire each respective sales force collectively to deliver a significant ramp up in performance and to encourage the behaviours that underpin a winning mentality. These behaviours will form the basis of the themes and content we want to build the conference around. The conference should be focused on motivation and inspiration as well as educational – delegates need to leave the conference highly charged, ready to sell and fired up for the challenges ahead.'

Putting 'the wow factor' aside (there seemed to be a time when every brief had to have one!) this recognises a key truth about the events medium – their true potential is about

motivation and inspiration rather than the offloading of shovel-loads of information, most of which will be forgotten. However, you could argue that it is still quite generic (ie. like most other sales conferences.)

So, this brief-writing business isn't easy, is it?

Perhaps we should draw a distinction between regular events and those that are linked to something big happening in the organisation – a major product launch, a merger, re-structuring, a new brand. At least here there will be some obvious issues for the client and agency to really get their teeth into – exciting customers, dealing with staff morale, driving up commitment. But despite the fact that we are constantly being told 'change is here to stay' (and 'change' will always provide plenty of issues to deal with), when it comes to writing the brief for a regular event inspiration somehow seems to desert the brief-writer.

How to handle questions

But at least agencies are usually given the opportunity to ask questions to clarify what the event might be about. Sometimes this is done live. The issue here is that none of the agencies want to give away their early thinking in front of their competitors so questions often end up being anodyne. More often, clients ask for written questions.

The usual problem here is that the answers to questions which may be full of insight and wisdom are then shared with every other competitor.

If you are trying to sort out the sheep from the goats why give everyone the advantage of these great questions and the answers?

COI Events take a good approach to this: if a question unveils something that is fundamentally missing, changes the brief or shows up a fundamental error, then the response is shared with everyone. If it shows real insight or is part of the agency's thinking then the question and response is only shared with that agency.

The other practical problem is that because time is so constrained, the answers to questions often only turn up a day or two before the agency has to submit its response. By this time the concept has been set in stone and they are busy finalising (and panicking about) the costs. It's far too late to go back and start unpicking everything!

Why presentations matter

Another key element in the pitching process is the presentation. Some clients prefer to do without this entirely and appoint an agency simply on the basis on their document (or response to an online questionnaire).

I would suggest that this is a risky approach.

Staging an event usually involves exposing senior executives to critical audiences. As an events team you want to be sure that you have selected the agency that will enhance their and your reputations.

How are you going to do that unless you've had the opportunity to grill the agency team on their proposals, check that the individuals in the document will also be those on the delivery team, and see whether the 'chemistry' between you and those people is likely to be productive?

Why do briefs go wrong?

However, the fundamental issue remains: why are so many events briefs unsuited to what should be their fundamental purpose: selecting the agency that is most appropriate for the client's organisation and event?

Too often creative briefs give the impression of being a 'cut and paste' job from previous years. This isn't necessarily laziness. I think more often the problem is that the Communications department hasn't been briefed by senior management on what they want the event to really focus on.

That's because they haven't thought about it themselves

(the idea that clients are pressured by the event itself to define policy as they have to announce something may not be as much of a myth as it sounds!)

But for the moment the event is many months away and you can sort out what you want to say much later. In fact if the worst comes to the worst you can even decide on the day itself, get it typed into the teleprompt or your slides and away you go. Believe me, it happens!

I suspect that this approach also infects the deadlines for pitches. Because modern technology allows you to write or design

something rapidly, a one week response time looks positively generous!

This approach confuses two things: technology and the human brain. Research, thinking, creativity, debating and refining ideas take time. Emailing a document takes seconds, working out what to put in it takes somewhat longer!

Back to the brief (something agencies don't do enough of even if they are flawed!): if the Communications department doesn't know how to differentiate this year's brief from last year's, what's to be done?

'It's like throwing darts with a paper bag over your head!'

Although clients have tried to make the selection process much more professional by publishing evaluation criteria and marking agencies against these, the fact is that it's 'the big idea' which will capture their imaginations. Nobody wins pitches simply by ticking the right boxes.

At the moment too many agencies are forced to come up with a 'big idea' without any real insight into what they are trying to achieve. As the head of one agency once said to me, 'it's a bit like trying to throw darts at a dartboard with a paper bag over your head!'

The brightest, most shiny idea catches the client team's attention. It might be a big idea but is it the right one?

All too often agencies say, 'well, it all changes after the pitch anyway!'

It's quite a revealing statement. What it suggests is that agencies are being put through their creative paces but there's a disconnect between the idea and what the event will eventually be about. In effect, the brief should be a big question looking for a suitable answer. What seems to happen is the client will select an answer without having asked the right question.

Alternatively, it could mean that the client strikes lucky and the agency's big idea sparks a new approach – a highly productive means of drawing out what the event should be about. But isn't that 'putting the cart before the horse?' Surely, it's the job of the brief to define what the event should be about!

So agencies feel they are being made to jump through hoops and clients hope that this process will expose the right agency and perhaps inspire a fresh approach.

So, what's the answer?

Solution 1: make connections

My suggestion is that clients put real pressure on their internal stakeholders to make sure they truly get to grips with the desired outcomes from their events. One approach is to stop looking at the event as an isolated moment in time and start looking at it strategically – 'how should it contribute to our business and our ongoing communications? What do we want the audience to be doing six months before and six months after the event?'

Far too often, the event is 'a day out from the office' without any thought or preparation by the audience beforehand.

Likewise, the event may produce invaluable outputs which are then forgotten about (beyond a notional 'cascade' programme).

Time moves on; the organisation changes. The event was 'someone else's responsibility'.

Consider how much more you could achieve by making connections between the event, the ongoing life of the organisation and its stakeholders.

This starts to address the other side of the ROI equation – not the cost of putting on the event but the value you get from it.

Solution 2: RFB before RFP

But if none of this is possible, if it's to difficult to exert that pressure and you don't have a brief that would withstand rigorous scrutiny, what then?

Well, there is another way of doing things and if you pick the right agency it can be very productive.

A few years ago I worked with an agency to tender to a large national organisation. This wasn't a creative brief, it was a brief to work in partnership with the client on what would eventually become a creative brief. We won this first tender.

As it was a major communications exercise it involved a small team working intensively with the client over several months; we then wrote an extensive consultation report upon which the brief was based.

Clearly, the scope of this work was dictated by the scope of the eventual project and it doesn't have to involve months of work and long consultation documents.

Of course, many organisations already have internal events departments. They may feel that bringing in a bunch of outsiders to help them do their job better might not be a good career move! But looked at another way, it can make a lot of sense. A team from an agency who are constantly creating events for all types of organisations and don't carry the baggage of an internal department can bring a fresh approach, helping the client to look at their event in a new way. In effect, they are helping you to ask the right questions.

Now, transforming what was a dull, predictable event into something vibrant and valuable starts to look like a good career move!

So before a Request For Proposal, we might call this a Request For Brief or at least assistance in getting to an effective creative brief.

Of course you still have to interview agencies to select the right one and the work with them will cost something – your time and some agency fees. But consider this modest expenditure against the benefits of developing a new approach based on solid foundations. It certainly beats the paper bag over the head test!

What about the budget?

Where does that leave the event budget? Isn't that a key reason for running the tender? Some clients provide a guideline budget for agencies at pitch stage. This is immensely helpful because quite simply 'ideas cost money'.

Agencies can tailor their ideas to suit the budget. Other clients deliberately withhold information about their budget,

presumably because they hope someone will come in at a far lower cost than the others. I can never see the point of this.

Aside from eliminating good agencies with great ideas that are too expensive, they may encourage others to cut everything to the bone in order to appear the least expensive, only to pile on costs after winning the job; far better to be clear about it to start with.

If an agency comes in well within your guideline budget and they have great ideas, so much the better. But there's no point in going through the motions of putting numbers against ideas unless the ideas are based on something solid.

And that takes us back to the quality of the brief.

Specific recommendations

  1. Clients should be as clear as possible in their creative briefing, defining what they want their audiences to think, feel and do differently, and where possible make a strategic link between the event, the organisation's business objectives and ongoing communications
  2. Where a brief cannot withstand rigorous appraisal, consider selecting an experienced agency to help you develop the brief
  3. Following evaluation buyers should invite 3 (not more than 5) to enter the formal tender process from which a single supplier should be appointed (IVCA Effective Partnerships Recommended Code of Practice for Buyers and Suppliers within the Corporate Media Industry)
  4. Questions and answers on the brief should only be shared with all competitors if they expose fundamental omissions or errors in the brief. Response times should take into account the ability of agencies to make changes within a tight timeframe
  5. Agency selections should always follow face-to-face assessments and/or live presentations
  6. In a best practice environment, Internet auctions are not recommended as a suitable method of procurement (IVCA Effective Partnerships Recommended Code of Practice for Buyers and Suppliers within the Corporate Media Industry)
  7. It is recommended that the buyer should disclose a budget figure to ensure they receive an appropriate tender (IVCA Effective Partnerships Recommended Code of Practice for Buyers and Suppliers within the Corporate Media Industry)
  8. On request, clients should provide a debrief (verbal or written) for the companies which were unsuccessful in their pitches, preferably within 10 days of the decision reached on the pitch (IVCA Effective Partnerships Recommended Code of Practice for Buyers and Suppliers within the Corporate Media Industry)
How to stop the cuts…to your event budget