Nick Baughan of Maxus: seven questions smart clients should ask media agencies in the pitch process

unnamed-2Nick Baughan (left) is managing director of Maxus, the newest WPP media agency and the fastest-growing in the UK. Here he explains how clients can determine which media agency is good for their business in the longer terms as well as good at pitch ‘theatre.’


Love them or hate them, pitches are a fact of our industry. A Pitch Monitor survey by the IPA found that only 64 per cent of media agencies were satisfied with pitches they’d been involved in, suggesting vast room for improving the process. When run professionally, collaboratively and respectfully, the pitch should be an effective starting block for encouraging open dialogue between client and agency. In our experience, we find that certain questions help to elicit the clearest view of an agency’s capabilities:

1/ Will the agency senior management be a strong partner for the duration of the relationship?

As seasoned pitching veterans, an agency’s senior team know their way around pitch dynamics and can steer the process with a steady hand. They can also best convey the agency’s overall strategic positioning as distinct from the competition.

Reassuring as this is on the day, it’s important to know that the most senior people present won’t recede into the shadows once appointed. The MD and chief exec won’t realistically be able to attend every single meeting, but they should nevertheless be heavily involved throughout. Similarly, senior client involvement is highly valued throughout the pitch process and any ensuing relationship.

2/ What is your distinctive culture and ethos – and will it mesh with mine?

As important as evaluating the pitching team in front of you is to identify the agency’s wider culture and values.

Appointing an agency involves willingly buying into its culture. Use the intricacies of the pitch process to get an understanding of each shop’s unique ethos and approach. Is the tone formal or informal? Is the organisation driven by innovation or a more conservative approach? If you’re pitching on an international or local basis or both, is the agency fit for purpose?

Crucially, though, cultural fit boils down to a certain intangible X Factor and chemistry. Try asking what their current clients would say about them. Regardless of how good the account team is on the day, I’d say if it doesn’t feel right – don’t do it.

3/ What is your talent acquisition process?

Linked to number one, there are certain stars in the business aside from senior management that an agency knows will impress the client.

It’s probably a wise move to look beyond the pitching ‘A team’ to question the standard and aptitude of people across the company, as well as how quickly an agency can amass an all-star team if appointed.

One of your key questions as part of the pitch RFP should be about talent acquisition – which largely boils down to how good an agency is at attracting and retaining stellar talent. To establish how much people want to work for an agency, questions about its churn rate, training and core company values are a good starting point.

From our perspective, talent acquisition aligns closely to the Maxus core values which underpin everything we do (Passionate, Agile, Collaborative, Entrepreneurial). But Maxus is not right for everybody, and everybody isn’t right for Maxus – and this is something we aim to convey at pitch.

4/ Do I know everything the agency can do?

Some clients enter a pitch focussed solely on media planning and buying. If this is all they are interested in, then that’s well and good, but this should be established early on.

The media agency offering evolves so quickly that it’s unlikely all clients will be aware of the capabilities of the agency in question. Make it clear pre-pitch what you want to see from the agency and whether you know everything it can do. Spend time discussing each agency’s capabilities in full; expectations may well be exceeded.

5/ Do you really understand my business?

Agencies can be very good at talking about their own business. Yet if they are answering the brief purely in terms of media, they are probably missing the point.

The agency needs to demonstrate that it understands and genuinely cares about the client’s business. It will become clear during the process whether they have become fully immersed in your category and business goals.

Ultimately, the agency needs to understand the client’s objectives and demonstrate how they are the best positioned to deliver on them.

6/ Do you genuinely want it?

Try to avoid being bamboozled by irrelevant ‘pitch theatre’. Ask yourself whether it is just theatre for the sake of theatre, or actually relevant to the agency’s understanding of your business or context.

Aim to determine whether the whole agency (outside of the 5-10 people you’ll meet formally) is genuinely ‘behind’ it.

Following a pitch success, the feedback we often get is that clients felt we wanted it ‘more than the next guy’. At Maxus, we get the whole agency involved in the pitch even if they can’t be in the room on the day. Pitches aren’t won by five people closeted in a dark room for two months, they’re won by an agency getting behind something they’re really excited by. This is why we pitch for very few clients every year; we want the agency to be 100 per cent behind anything that we work towards, not groaning under the weight of ‘yet another pitch’.

7/ How will you add long-term value to my business?

Most pitch briefs are designed to demonstrate the mechanics behind how an agency works. One approach the client can take is to seek out the best answer to a question. Another, arguably more useful, angle is to spot the best demonstration of the thought process that arrives at the idea. The standout agency is, more often than not, the one displaying the rigour, insight and process that will take you to the right answer not only at pitch, but again and again.

The best pitches give clients and agencies a real opportunity to assess one another over multiple encounters. As with any new relationship, this simply can’t be achieved in a single two-hour meeting. It’s well worth putting the time in during the pitch process; getting it wrong can not only be painful for both parties, but will likely require investing more money going back to market in a year or two’s time.

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