In my occasional capacity as advisor to marketing services firms, I have witnessed a number of new business pitches in the Middle East and with few exceptions, they have been a joke. Putting aside for the moment the clear fact that, in these parts, most of these contests are decided before they have begun on the basis of family ties, vested interests or back-handers paid to decision-makers, the processes engaged, such that there are any, are utterly useless. Its no wonder clients change agencies with the regularity of a Dubai metro, but the agency merry-go-round is counter-productive for everyone concerned. Pitches cost everyone time and money and if the strategy changes every time the agency does then the client concerned is wending their way to brand disaster.

One of the problems is that clients here (and agencies have cooperated in this) have taken the traditional Western pitch process, which they have failed to understand and tried to replicate it, even though in the West it is considered now irrelevant and largely being abandoned. At the heart of of this confusion is the failure of clients (and many of the agencies) to understand what the job of an agency is. So, let me add a little perspective.

A company needs an advertising agency or marketing agency to tell it how to do things that it doesn’t have the skills or resources to do for itself. That makes this, in every sense of the word, a simple “partnership”. It is not the old-fashioned client/supplier relationship that the old commodities traders used to have with the desert-dwelling sheihks. There is no “boss” and “serf”. Those days are behind us and the old rules are totally irrelevant (If they were ever really appropriate). A contemporary client/agency relationship is based on mutual respect. After all, the agency should be guiding the client’s decisions and advising (if not dictating) strategy that, if they are correct, could be the difference between success and failure of the client’s business. The problem is that I wouldn’t trust half the agencies I see here to go to the grocery store with a list to do my weekly shop, so I’m hardly going to take their advice on strategy. Therefore, the pitch process is, at least in part, about finding the few real agencies among the plethora of pretenders. However, that’s not hard to do if you are organised.

There’s a clear and intuitive path to developing cohesive marketing/marketing communications and it starts with your strategy. Any business should have a clearly defined business strategy that defines their objectives and sets out the way that they have chosen to reach them. If you are operating a business without this fundamental document (and I’ve seen some that are) then you deserve to go out of business and undoubtedly will very soon. Current thinking says that a business plan and marketing plan are synonymous. Today successful companies have recognised that every business is a marketing business and have placed marketing at their centre. This means that the Marketing Director writes the strategy, usually in collaboration with the CEO. Of course, you have to have a marketing Director who is capable of doing this, but, again, if you don’t, given that you are a marketing business, you are in big trouble.

Once you have your strategy, you should use this as the basis for your pitch. A marketing services firm of any kind – and that includes an advertising agency – should be commercially astute enough to be able to demonstrate what they can do to help you realise your objectives. Finding a handful of agencies who can do this should be the first stage of your pitch process. Literally write an RFP that asks for a marketing communications strategy based on your business strategy, an explanation of the processes the agency will engage to make it happen and why you should believe that they are capable of delivering. Their response should be a written document, maybe with charts and graphs to illustrate points, but definitely not to include any creative proposals. It should include their credentials presentation and examples of work that hey have done for other clients and to prove that they actually can deliver, each case study should state the objectives they were set and the results they achieved. You absolutely don’t want anything more from them at this stage and any agency that responds with anything more or different to that should be struck from your list on the basis that they lack discipline. Agencies should expect you to call up the Marketing Directors responsible for the work contained in the case studies to get feedback and you definitely should do so.

You’ll use the submissions that you get from this first stage to establish who has the commercial nous, processes and practical capability to provide the support you need. Select three or four (no more) and issue them with a brief to turn their strategy into creative work and a media/activity plan with full costings for the coming year. Don’t make the mistake of expecting your agency to dictate your budget. That’s a figure that you should be giving them. You can do so at the first stage or the second, but make no mistake this is your job not theirs. I notice that a lot of businesses here use pitches to get opinions from marketing services providers on what their budget should be, but this is a cop-out and it’s a meaningless practice that fails on just about every level. You need to calculate your budget. Any Marketing Director worthy of the title will know how to do this, but as a guide, last year, a global survey established that businesses generally invested between 7% and 10% of their turnover in marketing, while start-ups and businesses that are trying to establish themselves or a new product, invest more – often as much as 20% in total – to get the job done. You can build into your brief an opportunity for the agency to submit proposals for a different budget or add-ons provided they build a case.

Neither the first nor second-stage briefs should be sent by e-mail. You should go to the agency’s office, meet with their teams and brief them on your project personally. The entire process is designed to find a partner that you can work with long term. Marketing is a collaborative process, you should expect to be involved at many points and this means that you have to be able to get on with your team. Chemistry is important and you’ll only be able to judge this by meeting the people and spending as much time with them as possible on their home turf.

You should expect a proposal from each agency in the form of a final presentation, divided into sections, probably as follows, but you should define the headings that you want them to work within.

  • Summary of business objectives and strategy
  • Outline of communications strategy
  • Explanation of overall creative strategy
  • Creative proposals
  • Demonstration of how creative applies to specific components of the communications.
  • Outline plan of activity for twelve months with budget breakdown.

From this you should be able to determine your ideal partner agency.

In my experience, most businesses in the Middle East are incapable of organising a proper pitch and that’s where consultants like me are useful in managing the process. There are few things more counter-productive than a badly run agency pitch, but many would-be clients set themselves up for failure at the starting line. I saw a brief from a major Gulf-based international business recently where someone had obviously tried to impose some level of professionalism. However, such is the chasm often seen between the capabilities of local businesses and international standards that it wasn’t much help. They started by inviting thirty agencies to “tender”. (It was a tender because the brief didn’t state a budget, which, as I have said is a major mistake for all kinds of reasons). Inviting thirty agencies to pitch is also ridiculous and among other things suggests the business and the person issuing the brief is both clueless and lazy. The most agencies you ever want on an initial pitch list are ten and you can and should arrive at this number by conducting your own research on-line and through contacts to determine which agencies you include.

The brief for this pitch looked promising at first glance. It was organised under sensible headlines and it asked for the agencies concerned to explain how they would measure the effectiveness of their proposals. Every agency worth employing would do this automatically, of course, but given the height of the bar locally this is a good pre-requisite to include in a pitch brief, except for one point. Measurements can only be applied against a stated objective and the objective stated in the brief in question was “To publicise the [name of client removed to protect their reputation] …” which is, of course, not an objective at all. More than one agency brought this brief to me asking me to advise them on what to do. My conclusion, and the conclusion of any proper agency would probably be not to tender because the client was demonstrably clue-less and unprofessional and no agency is ever going to be able to deliver decent results against these odds. I have no doubt that every agency that could, pitched though. Some because they were equally useless and didn’t spot the anomaly, while others adopted the “Take the money and run” approach, which you can understand in this part of the world, is often the case. It’s wholly counter-productive of course and that’s why businesses here tend to be pretty slow to develop. But then, clients usually get the agencies they deserve!

Phil Darby
August 10, 2014

Get in touch to start the conversation



Tell us what your challenges are and what you want to achieve and we’ll work with you to plan your success.

By submitting this form you are agreeing to
receive our newsletter.

Close X Pre-subscribe today and Save £50 on your first video series

Register your interest with no obligation by completing the pre-subscription form below and save £50 on the first series of our Brand-led Business Transformation course when you decide to subscribe on release.

Release date: End of November 2018.

By submitting this form you are agreeing to receive our newsletter