How to Decide if It’s Worth Pitching a Client That Has a Revolving Door of AORs
Steve’s breakdown: My opinion on this is it depends on the amount of resources it will take to win the business. Plus accounts like this usually come with a lot of caché
& exposure. So as with most situations, I say go for it unless it’s a major up hill battle.
EVERYWHERE, USA: What do BBDO, The Martin Agency, mcgarrybowen, Deutsch and Droga5 have in common? Over a six-year period from 2009 to 2015, they all served as Pizza Hut’s creative agency of record.
There are certain clients who have a reputation for not sticking with an agency for more than a year. In the 2010s, perhaps the most notable to fit this bill was Pizza Hut, which finally settled down with GDS&M in 2018—and that relationship remains intact after years of upheaval for the account.
There are also the brands that create sizable rosters of agencies to compete for projects and campaign work, leaving shops wondering if this should be the clients’ last jump ball it competes for.
When faced with opportunities to win business with a client known for juggling too many agencies at once or has commitment issues with agencies of record, agencies must evaluate a series of factors to determine whether this is an account worth chasing. And it’s important for agencies to not delude themselves into thinking without a doubt that they will finally be the agency that will crack a client’s code and be the long-term partner the client is looking for.
“Serial pitchers are a good indication that an advertiser thinks a pitch is solving a problem,” said Tom Denford, the CEO of pitch consultancy ID Comms, adding that pitches don’t solve problems; they just distract from them. “When somebody has been divorced five times, isn’t there a point at which you just go, ‘Is it me?’”
Evaluating the client
Agencies must first evaluate the pool they’re about to dip their toes into. Is it under new management, as in, is there a new CMO or CEO in town? If so, does that CMO have a history of bringing their previous agency to their new gig? It’s also important for agencies to vet the CMO for their commitment to the brand. CMO tenures keep slipping in length, and so no agency wants to win a client and then have to fight to retain that client within the first 12 to 18 months if there’s a CMO regime change.
“To me, it’s a question of whether that CMO feels like they are in it for the long haul,” said Elaine Purcell, chief growth officer, DDB. “Has that CMO had a predictor of tenure with partners in the past?”
Purcell said DDB often declines opportunities to work with potential one-and-done clients, but would consider it “if we feel like we have the ear of the CMO and CEO with the level of dialogue that can sort of set the boundaries and set the the partnership up for success.”
Agencies shouldn’t find getting to the bottom of what’s going on with their clients difficult in most cases. As Alexandra Gardner, head of growth and development, Mother USA, puts it, “It’s a small industry, and so you’re pretty eyes wide open going into a pitch if a client has done that.” Mother doesn’t hesitate to call it early and exit the pitch if the team spots significant red flags, Gardner said.
And Gardner isn’t afraid to have that honest conversation with the client. “Sometimes it’s just because they haven’t found the right partner or the right match. I like to say new business is like dating. And it does take some trial and error.”
In some cases, she likes when a client is willing to work on a project basis first before signing up for an AOR scope. It allows clients and agencies to build something together, and then have a conversation about a longer relationship. “I think that’s fair, right? Nobody, well, almost nobody, gets married without dating first.”
Evaluating the opportunity
For agencies, dealing with clients who have a history of changing agencies can sometimes come down to the terms they’re willing to play on. Purcell said agencies should at least to try to seek longer two- or three-year contracts, which benefit the client as much as the agency. Sure, the shop gets better financial stability, but Purcell pointed out the client will receive better talent from the agency if there’s a long-term commitment made. Plus, agencies need time to really learn the client and work rarely happens immediately.
Getting the relationship right takes time, and short contracts force agencies to be constantly looking over their shoulder worrying if an account review is lurking. Few agencies will produce strong work under those circumstances.
Greg Paull, the co-founder of consultancy R3, has a simple checklist for agencies evaluating risky opportunities. “There’s the cliché about agencies looking for things that make them rich and famous and that does kind of still make sense.”
Paull said that “the two most important factors that determine whether [a client is] going to be a good fit” is if the agency can still profitably work on the business despite the potential of a shorter relationship and if it can help attract and retain top talent who would want to work on it.
Understanding the issues clients had with previous agencies is a must and a strong indicator of whether a pitching agency can meet what the client is really look for in the brief. Dentsu Creative chief growth officer Jennifer Hohman asks the client what struggles it’s had with a previous agency partner. “If they say, ‘listen, this agency only wanted to do stunts, and we wanted an enduring black brand platform, but we could never get an agency to do that kind of work for us,’ then we understand [their challenges.]”
Getting off to a good start
On-boarding a client effectively is important, but especially critical for clients who have a significant flight risk in the first year. And on-boarding clients is something Paull thinks agencies struggle with.
“Very few agencies have got a solid structure behind on-boarding. They’re more likely to just say, ‘Okay, give us your first brief and let’s get going,’” he said, adding that it’s critical to develop relationships with clients to understand how they think, and agencies need to invest the time to do that.
For agencies that don’t take the right steps to evaluate clients and on-board them correctly, they’ll likely meet the same fate as the agencies before them. Because, as multiple execs told Adweek:
Bad clients tend to stay bad clients.
And spoiler alert: your agency probably won’t be the one who can fix them.