PR Hell – when pitches go bad!

By Darryl Sparey, Director, Hotwire,

Whether you’re in-house or at an agency, the life of a PR practitioner can be a challenge. Mediating between the objectives of the boardroom, the demand for leads from the sales team, the deadlines of the product and brand teams and an indifferent, uninterested or uncaring media, PR professionals can have a difficult job.

But there is one aspect of PR life that can, at times, be especially torturous for everyone involved. The pitch process. Agency side you can find yourself struggling with a lack of information or engagement from the prospective client, or a changing set of circumstances and stakeholders. Client side you might struggle to accurately distil down into a document exactly what the organisation needs from third party support. And even if you do, the procurement team might want you to articulate that through a spreadsheet which can be scored against, and benchmarked.

This week, Tom Rouse and I shared some of our “PR Hell” experiences, using the very creative hashtag #PRHell, and sought the opinions, experiences, confessions and car-crash recollections from PR folk from across the land. Here, for your delight, delectation or disagreement are the eight circles of Hell that we were able to identify from the pitch experience with help from our peers:

1st Circle of Hell: The blazes of the brief – This should be the accurate distillation of the history and development of the business, the current marketing and communications plan, the needs and objectives of the business and, crucially, the budget. As an agency, if you have no idea of the budget that the client has to allocate to PR you have little clue as to the resource that you can allocate to an account, the scale of their ambitions or the value the business places (literally) in PR. As I said myself:

“We don’t want your thinking to be constrained by giving you a budget”. This is rarely uttered by a client with a budget greater than the cost of the train fare to go and meet with them…

2nd Circle of PR Hell: Preparation perdition – A lack of preparation by agencies pitching for business can be the Hades in which a client’s enthusiasm for the process goes to suffer. Technology evangelist Theo Priestly recounted an experience of being pitched by an agency here:

“I have sat in on pitches and nobody realised who I was and what experience was sitting at the table.”

A similar experience was recounted by Flight Club’s Juliette Keyte here:

“Whilst pitching us ‘oh so you’re *just * darts then” “ooh, there’s technology involved?’ ‘so to launch your bar, we’d do… A launch event’ (no further details given) Love being pitched by someone who hasn’t even bothered to go on our website.”

3rd Circle of PR Hell: The ideas inferno – At Hotwire, we have a standard question for prospective clients which tries to ascertain how creatively brave they are, so that we can propose ideas which are appropriate to their business, and their tone of voice. Clearly, we failed in this instance, which Tom Rouse, our Creative Director, shared here:

“There’s a special circle of PR Hell reserved for clients who tell you the other agency had better ideas then you see the campaign and it’s a survey and a white paper.”

4th Circle of Hell: The ever-lasting fire of expectation – Unrealistic expectations are fuel to the fires of disappointment. Sometimes, prospective clients may have a belief that their product release is “news” which might not be shared by any journalists on the media list. Or anybody else for that matter. Hotwire’s own Eleanor Sampson shared this example from her own experience here:

“News of major player announcing major news gets massive amounts of coverage, and your client who offers something kinda similar says – ‘why aren’t we in this’?”

5th Circle of Hell: Procurement purgatory – Procurement can be a very valuable partner throughout the pitch process. Providing a clear framework for assessing and comparing different agency submissions, being a cool, dispassionate stakeholder in the process, and a key point of contact to negotiate a commercial arrangement that works for all parties. And there are other times that the experience of working with procurement can make an eternity in the underworld feel like a weekend at Butlin’s. An example was shared by Hotwire’s UK MD, and soon to be European Head of B2B Matt Cross here:

“We want fresh ideas, a passionate partner that’s an extension of our team, real expertise… and procurement told us we have to go to market every two years”.

6th Circle of Hell: Decision limbo – Decisions, decisions. They can take substantially longer than originally intended and when they are arrived at they may make little rational sense. The seemingly bottomless pit of waiting for a decision was one experienced by a lot of people. Ketchum’s UK CEO Jo-ann Robertson shared her experience, which was not uncommon:

Nightmare! I pitched something May last year and still haven’t heard a word from the client… despite chasing for months… I’m still bitter.

And sometimes when the decision is finally reached, the rationale is punishing in itself. FinTech marketing and communications expert Liz Lumley contributed this example:

“That’s a great proposal. It’s exactly what [large, expensive PR firm] told us as well. Thanks for validating that for us. We’re going to go with them.”

7th Circle of Hell: The “Did Not Appoint” Abyss – A straw poll of business development and marketing professionals I know at PR agencies across the UK uncovered “Did Not Appoint” as the leading reason for failed opportunities in their CRM systems. Adam Clatworthy of SAP, who has previously been at an agency 3 Monkeys Zeno, had this to say:

“After the third round of pitches and radio silence for 4 weeks. “We loved your passion and ideas but unfortunately our PR budgets have been frozen for the foreseeable.”

8th Circle of PR Hell: The process place of torment – And even if you win the business, the implementation itself may be a place of endless torment for everyone involved. This example was shared by Missive’s Andrew Cocks who has been both in-house for O2 as well as agency side:

From all sides of the coin, I always enjoy observing a track-changes game of re-ordering press release bullet points 2 and 3, when we all know the branded bullet in question won’t ever see the light of pixel or print.

There’s hopefully a few laughs to be had at some of the experiences shared here, but there’s probably a few things to learn too. Client-side, I’d respectfully suggest the following:

Commit to the process, and ensure that the business is committed to the process – Pitching is a huge investment of time and effort for agencies. They are spending otherwise billable time on non-billable work. Please make sure that you and the entire business are committed to finding and appointing an agency at the end of the process

Be clear about what you want, and what the budget is – Have a clear idea of the scope and scale of the work that you’re looking for an agency partner to provide, and the level of investment that the business is willing to make in PR.

Make sure you’re comparing apples with apples – We’ve all been in pitches where the shortlist of agencies include range wildly from enormous network-owned agency behemoths to three people and a dog in a WeWork. This can lead to an enormous variability of quality of submissions, creativity, rates and commercial proposals. By looking at agencies that are more similar in terms of size, scale, ownership structure and status, you’ll make the process of deciding the final partner more easy on everyone involved.

On the agency side, there are always improvements to make, but the following definitely came through very strongly from the experiences shared:

Do your homework – There is nothing more annoying to prospective clients who have invested significant time and effort in pulling together a brief, writing a business case for investing in PR and getting the right people in the room to have to endure a pitch that was precipitately put together in the pub the night before, by people who haven’t even been bothered to do a LinkedIn search on the folk in the room. Proper preparation prevents pitch purgatory.

Don’t oversell and under-deliver – Creating realistic expectations in the prospective client’s mind is crucial to success. If there’s no chance that their new company logo is going to make the front page of the FT (spoiler alert: it isn’t) you need to tell them, and help them understand what can be achieved. The devil is not just in the detail, it’s in the unmanaged expectations of the prospective client.

No budget, no pitch – Taylor Herring Chief Creative Officer Peter Mountstevens has a simple maximum that they live by to avoid pitch hell: “Ah the ‘guess the budget’ game – one we never take part in. No budget = no pitch – no exceptions!”

At the end of the day, as I say very often at Hotwire, business development is God’s work. Whether you are in-house or at an agency, don’t let your pitch processes end up in PR Hell. And if you have any similar stories to share, tweet me @DarrylSparey and use the hashtag #PRHell.

Photo by James & Carol Lee on Unsplash


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